Can He Break Down Tunisia's Hostile Tattoo Culture? - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Fawez Zahmoul is a pioneer in the Arab world's tattoo scene, and he's training a fleet of followers.
SourceAlvaro Tapia Hidalgo for OZY

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because this pioneer is spawning a new generation of artists.

By Tania Bhattacharya

  • As the head of Tunisia’s first licensed tattoo studio, Fawez Zahmoul is breathing new life into the Arab world’s tattoo scene.
  • He’s helping normalize an art form often associated with criminals.
  • Zahmuol’s tattoo school is training the next generation of artists.

In the alleys of the stunning coastal town of La Marsa in northeast Tunisia, the hum and buzz of tattoo guns may seem out of place. No motif is turned away, be it a flower down a cleavage or Red John’s bloody smiley face from The Mentalist. The Wachem Tattoo Shop has been an exciting fixture since 2016, when it became Tunisia’s first licensed tattoo studio operated by Fawez Zahmoul, who is breathing new life into the Arab world’s tattoo scene. “I realized my dream,” he says, having also opened the region’s first tattoo school in January 2019 in Tunis.

“My students include daughters and boys, young mothers, who are all learning the trade,” he says.

Tattoos are not new to the Arab world, and certainly not to North Africa. For centuries, its indigenous Amazigh tribes — christened Berbers by the French — practiced the art, an inherent part of their cultural identity. However, with colonization and Islamization, tattoos became a source of shame and were ultimately deemed illegal. Today, underground salons thrive everywhere, but destigmatizing tattoo art is Zahmoul’s main aim, and his efforts are paying off. “Certainly, the studio and the school are very well-known. … In Tunisia things are changing; there is more freedom of expression.”

I got beaten up.

Fawez Zahmoul

Born to a Moroccan mother and Tunisian father, Zahmoul was always interested in art. While sound engineering in Morocco, he was introduced to the art of tattooing, working with an artist in his home, sterilizing equipment and getting rid of stains.

He traveled extensively, learning new skills, earning diplomas and collaborating with artists around the world as well as plying his trade for more than 15 years before setting up the studio — dedicated to needle-and-ink, no henna tattoos here — as well as a tattoo workers’ union to legitimize the profession in Tunisia.

“We used to see tattoo artists only on television,” says 26-year-old IT professional Oussama Hafsi, who recently got inked by Zahmoul. “Even though tattoos were part of our history, it is associated with criminals, but a lot of decent people would love to have a tattoo. Fawez definitely did change a lot of things.”

But that’s not to say Zahmoul, who’s in his mid-30s, didn’t face any resistance.

“I encountered some difficulty, not at the social and political level but with Salafism, because it is a religious movement which is against certain things, including the art of tattooing,” he says. “I got beaten up.” The incident occurred right before the La Marsa studio was to be opened. Zahmoul had received a number of warnings in the run-up to the opening, but he went ahead anyway. Another reason listed in official reports is his apparent use of a Freemason logo for his shop, as the order is considered anti-Islam.

But those days are long gone, with tattoos and body art becoming popular among the youth in Tunisia and the Arab world. Not only are they getting inked, but young Tunisians are also signing up for classes at Zahmoul’s Ecole Nationale Tunisienne de Tatouage. In a country affected by high rates of youth unemployment, still reeling from the effects of the revolution and challenges faced by a new democracy, a tattoo academy presents new opportunities. Zahmoul also wants to expand his business to other areas of Tunisia.

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“A lot of people in Tunisia practiced the art of tattooing discreetly, not in plain sight, and when things changed, the artists lacked basics,” he says. “I wanted to teach young tattoo artists how to become professionals in this field.”

Courses at the school last four to six months, and students are taught the history of the art form, equipment, design, hygiene practices, tattoo care and even the psychology of clients. “They study the basics first, which is transmitted through theoretical courses, and then through practice,” says Zahmoul. Prices go up to 4,850 Tunisian dinar (about $1,700).

“In Fawez, I see someone who really dared,” says Samara Ferrari, a colleague and now student. “He is the founder of this [tattoo] movement.”

Zahmoul’s love for art shows in his work, which is detailed, bold and intense, as if the skin were canvas and the artist is painting at will. There is power to his imagery, and reviews of his work range from delighted to near-reverent. His favorites are surrealist tattoos as well as “tattoos that hide a story, sad or happy.”

The coronavirus crisis has put his business on hold, so Zahmoul is spending time drawing and playing games. “I don’t detach from my work easily,” he says. He attributes his success to parents who believed in his passion, in the same way that he believes in Tunisia’s youth “who want to express themselves and achieve their dreams like I did.”

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