Activists in Lebanon Are Using Religious Tattoos as Protest Symbols

Even though many are not particularly religious, tattoos have become a way of showing solidarity.

by VICE Staff; photos by Hassan Ammar
17 April 2019, 10:33am

Tayseer, 30, covers his face as he shows us a tattoo of Hassan Nasrallah. All photos: Hassan Ammar / Culture Institute of Islam, Paris

This article originally appeared on VICE France

After leaving Lebanon in 2003, photographer Hassan Ammar returned in 2015 – at a time when anti-corruption demonstrators were out blocking the roads of the capital Beirut in protest at the government. It was at one of these demonstrations that Ammar realised just how much the culture had changed since he was last there. "I started noticing that a lot of people had religious tattoos," he tells me. "When I left town in 2003, nobody had any."

While travelling through south Beirut, Ammar photographed lots of young people with tattoos of Shia Islamic imagery, as well as tributes to the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah. Many of these people were not particularly religious, but were inspired by the ongoing political movements.

"In one tattoo parlour, I met someone who wasn't a strict Muslim getting a tattoo of the face of Imam Ali because a number of sacred Islamic buildings had been targeted during the conflict." Imam Ali was Prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, and believed by many Shia Muslims to be his successor.

Ammar would watch as Hezbollah fighters and civilians walked into the same tattoo parlours and asked for the same tattoos. Aside from portraits of Imam Ali, many requested the number "313" – a reference to the 313 Shia fighters that some Muslims say will one day accompany a future prophet known as Imam Mahdi on his mission to save the world from oppression.

Even though Lebanon's religious authorities hate the tattoos, Hasan believes that people will continue getting inked because it's become an important way for people to publicly show support for their communities, and also to build relationships. "One policeman with a portrait of Imam Ali on his chest once told me that women love it," Ammar laughs.

Hassan Ammar’s full series, "In Beirut", will be on exhibition at the Cultural Institute of Islam in Paris until the 28th of July. Scroll down to see more photos from the series.

Ali, 22, poses with a tattoo of Imam Ali.
Ali Hussein Nasreddine, 50, with a tattoo of Imam Abbas, the son of Imam Ali.
Alodi Issa, 22, gets a tattoo in a parlour in south Beirut.
Zulfiqar, 30.
Ali Hussein Nasreddine, 50.