Grim Tattoo Subculture Growing as Iraqis Want Own Remains Easily ID’ed by Family
Tattoos are becoming increasingly common in Iraq as people seek ways in which their bodies might be identified if they are killed and disfigured.
BAGHDAD–“My age is the same as the olive tree,” reads the blue tattoo on Qaisar Tariq al-Essawi’s left shoulder.
“I selected this wording because only my family and close friends know about our olive tree which was planted by my father when I was born,” al-Essawi, a father of two boys, told IRIN in Baghdad.
One response to sudden and violent death which has become commonplace in Iraq’s turmoil, is the emergence of a new subculture – the etching of tattoo identities on people who fear becoming an unclaimed body in a packed morgue.
It is more than just another grim footnote in a nation brimming with sad stories. It points to how deeply war and sectarian bloodshed have transformed the way Iraqis live today and confront the constant possibility of death.
Violence-related deaths have markedly increased since sectarian violence intensified after the February 2006 bombing of a prized Shia shrine in Samarra, about 95km north of Baghdad.
The unidentified bodies of victims – handcuffed, showing signs of torture and with execution-style gunshot wounds – are routinely found in deserted areas, on rubbish dumps or floating in the River Tigris.
Estimates of civilian deaths since the 2003 US-led invasion vary widely – from 62,000 by the private Iraq Body Count group, to as many as 600,000 in a study published last year by the respected British medical journal, The Lancet. But the figures alone cannot fully explain how Iraqis have learned to cope with death.
One Baghdad tattoo artist said he had marked nearly 100 men aged 20-50 over the past three months.
“There are about 10 of us in Baghdad and about a dozen in other provinces,” said a Fine Arts graduate who refused to be named for security reasons.
“We are working in our houses and people learn about us through word of mouth,” he added.
Even mourners are prone to attack. Suicide bombers have targeted the funeral tents traditionally used by families to receive relatives, friends and neighbours.
That same fear keeps relatives from going to cemeteries to bury their dead or, in some cases, even publicising the victim’s name.
Phone calls from the dead
Some relatives of the dead receive calls from the mobile phones of loved ones who were missing, with callers claiming to hold them hostage and demanding ransom. When the money is delivered, the families are told their relatives are dead.
Salaheddin Enad al-Jabouri, a 55-year-old taxi driver in Baghdad, spent 10 days talking with unknown persons on the phone to win the release of his daughter whom they said they had kidnapped.
“I sold my car, my wife’s gold and some of our furniture to raise the US$10,000 ransom they asked for, and we gave it to them,” said al-Jabouri, a father of six.
“Next day, one of them called and said ‘you idiot your daughter is in the morgue as she was killed in a car bomb explosion 10 days ago’,” he said.
A police officer who requested anonymity called such groups ‘human vultures’: “They attend the scenes of bomb blasts to steal mobile phones, money and watches from the dead and badly hurt,” he said.
He blamed organised criminal gangs “who recruit policemen sometimes” to carry out such things, and they prefer maimed bodies that are very hard to identify.
“This is normal in such circumstances,” said Abdul-Jabar Mohammed Amin, a Baghdad-based social researcher at the al-Mustansiriyah university.
“With all the daily suffering – what with poor services, explosions, bloody scenes everywhere you go and criminal acts – Iraqi society is almost finished,” Abdul-Jabar said.
“Everyone has an excuse for what he did. They say they have families to feed and will do anything for them. And with this excuse, they go to any lengths to get money,” he said.
“In such a society, dominated by the culture of blood and death, rehabilitation is almost impossible in the near future as at least one generation has become part of this culture ,” he added.