Hamid from Iran has been in Greece for two and a half years. He has a knife tattooed on his chest and two flames on his arms. The flames are symbols of Zoroastrianism.
The appointment had been arranged several days ago, but Mohsen still harbored doubts. He borrowed a calling card to phone his mother, intending to tell her the truth about where he was and what he planned to do. In the end, he just muttered that he missed her and hung up. Six hours later, in cell number 67, Mohsen had his first tattoo—a picture of a boy with his face between his hands and his feet in shackles. Underneath, a Persian poem: “A smart bird will not be caught in the trap. If caught, however, it must endure it.”
Mohsen endured seven years in Greek prison and two years in detention, getting a new tattoo each year: the picture of a woman—his first love, whom he left behind in his native Iran; the word omerta (the code of silence); and, on his right arm, the word mother.
“In prison, it’s either them or you," he said. "You have to stay strong and struggle to survive on a daily basis. Some fight with their fists, others with their minds. I struggled daily to remain human. For this reason I carved two stars on my chest—a reminder that I wouldn’t put my hands up, that I wouldn’t surrender even if it meant my life would be in danger. Deep in my soul there are some thoughts and images, some secrets, that words cannot express. I turned these secrets into poems and drawings and had them engraved on my body.”
Mohsen, like most Muslims, believes that permanent tattoos are haram, or forbidden. According to Islamic law, the human body is sacred and perfect exactly as God made it, so any intervention is seen as a form of mutilation. Today, in most Muslim countries, tattoos are considered makrouh—that is, they aren’t illegal per se, but it’s generally best to avoid them. In Iran, the government dubs anyone with a tattoo a criminal, and the punishment for getting one can be up to six months in prison and a hundred lashings.
Phaim remembers the day he left prison well. The first thing he did once outside was head to the nearest gas station. His only thought that day was to wipe out the marks on his body. He had heard that he could do this by mixing gasoline and battery acid, which he tried several times in vain.
“It was August of 2007 when I was transferred to the prison in [the Greek coastal town] Nafplio," he said. "I tried for several days to get through to my family in Afghanistan, when I was told that they had all been killed. I didn’t have time to learn how and why. I returned to my cell, found a sharp object and began to carve my hands. Five cuts on each hand. One for each member of my family. The next day I gave someone six packs of cigarettes to get my first tattoo—a lion and a scorpion.
"A while later, in exchange for two packs of cigarettes, I had my mother’s name inscribed on my left hand. This is the only tattoo I don’t regret. Before coming to Greece and being imprisoned, I didn’t even know what a tattoo was. I feel ashamed, but now it's too late. It is a sin. I was born with an unsoiled body, and I will die dirty—marked by tattoos and stab-wounds."
Morandi feels just as “dirty,” but not for the same reasons. It has now been almost two years since he left prison, but the sound of the iron door closing behind him, the filthy cells and the fear of being deported will haunt him for a long time to come. In a badly lit room, he hesitantly shows me his tattoo. A tiger is drawn across his entire right leg, above a poem is written in Arabic: “I had everything in life, but I was not content. I wanted more, I wanted to do better. When I came here, I saw that there was only worse.” On his left leg is a spider web and the line, "This is it; this is as far as it goes."
“Do you see this web?" he asked me. "Every ring of the web represents a year I spent in jail. I had every one of my tattoos done while I was inside, and it was there that I first tried drugs. My mother is begging me to go back to Algeria, but after everything I’ve done how could I ever face her?"
All you need to make an impromptu tattoo gun is an electric motor, a toothbrush, a pen, two or three needles, and a switch.
“You can get this stuff easily in prison," said Hamza. "Everybody knows who makes the best tattoos and they'll direct you to him. All you need is a little money or a few packs of cigarettes."
Hamza came to Greece in the spring of 2009 and has been in and out of prisons and detention centers ever since. “How can I pray or fast now? I got all of my tattoos in prison," he said. One tattoo reads: "M.A.T." ("Mama Avant Tout" in French, which translates to "Mother Before All"). Another is the letters LTPS (Tout Passé).
"This means that everything passes, even the most difficult things," Hamza explained. "Only evil remains— the evil that I have done to myself and the others who are trapped in Greece.”
Amin, from Iraqi Kurdistan, has been in Greece since 2002. He’s spent three and a half years in and out of detention because his status as a political refugee isn't recognized. “That’s the reason you can only make out the back of the dragon I have tattooed on my shoulder – it only seems fierce in the front," he said. "I am calm and composed, like this dragon. I will only go crazy if someone provokes or hurts me. Most people will stab you in the back. I had all those tattoos done in Greece so I would never forget what I saw here.”
“Today’s culture is integrationist and requires a certain kind of behavior,” said Zissis Papadimitriou, emeritus professor of law at the Aristotle University of Thessalonica, an expert on racism and social exclusion.
“Muslims from countries like Iran are fleeing oppressive regimes—all this is new for them," he explains. "Their host country offers an unprecedented kind of freedom they’ve never experienced before. People have a strong desire to express and mimic a fashion that may have been forbidden in the past. In this case, tattoos. The need becomes even greater when it comes to individuals who are oppressed and have no hope of escaping this oppression, as with those who are in rehabilitation centers and prisons.”
In the back of a building in the middle of Athens, Hamza suddenly stopped talking, looked upwards,and silently raised his hands in the air in a gesture of prayer. Hamza's praying hands reminded me of those engraved on his friend Nasser's left shoulder.
And then I found myself thinking of Nasser's second tattoo: It's a drawing of the fence he looked out on from his window in prison. Once night began to fall and the sun sank into the horizon, Nasser would be able to make out the lights of an amusement park flickering in the distance behind the fence. “I watched their colors and in a way it felt like I was there too—as if I had stepped out of my cell for a brief moment. It felt like my life was normal again. I would tell myself that everything I was going through was a dream, and that one day I would get myself to that amusement park and on that roller coaster. But maybe I won't.”