Because this pioneer creates a new generation of artists.
- As the head of Tunisia’s first licensed tattoo studio, Fawez Zahmoul breathes new life into the tattoo scene in the Arab world.
- It helps normalize an art form often associated with criminals.
- Zahmuol Tattoo School trains the next generation of artists.
In the alleys of the beautiful coastal town of La Marsa in northeastern Tunisia, the hum and hum of tattoo guns can seem out of place. No motive is diverted, whether it’s a flower in a cleavage or Red John’s bloody smiley face from The mentalist. The Wachem Tattoo Shop has been an exciting meeting place since 2016 when it became Tunisia’s first licensed tattoo studio run by Fawez Zahmoul, which breathes new life into the tattoo scene in the Arab world. âI made my dream come true,â he says, having also opened the region’s first tattoo school in January 2019 in Tunis.
âMy students are girls and boys, young mothers, who are all learning the trade,â he says.
Tattoos are nothing new to the Arab world, and certainly not to North Africa. For centuries, its indigenous Amazigh tribes – baptized Berbers by the French – have practiced this 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 are thriving everywhere, but destigmatizing the art of tattooing is Zahmoul’s main goal, and his efforts are paying off. âOf course, the studio and the school are very well known. â¦ In Tunisia, things are changing; there is more freedom of expression.
Born of a Moroccan mother and a Tunisian father, Zahmoul has always been interested in art. While he was a sound engineer in Morocco, he learned the art of tattooing, worked with an artist at home, sterilized equipment and got rid of stains.
He traveled extensively, learned new skills, graduated and collaborated with artists around the world, while plying his craft for over 15 years before establishing the studio – dedicated to needle and ink, not of henna tattoos here – as well as a union of tattooists to legitimize the profession in Tunisia.
âBefore, we only saw tattoo artists on television,â explains Oussama Hafsi, a 26-year-old computer scientist, who recently got a tattoo from Zahmoul. âEven though tattoos were a part of our history, they are associated with criminals, but a lot of honest people would love to have a tattoo. Fawez has definitely changed a lot of things.
But that doesn’t mean that Zahmoul, who is in his mid-thirties, has encountered no resistance.
“I encountered some difficulties, not at the social and political level but with Salafism, because it is a religious movement that opposes certain things, including the art of tattooing,” he says. “I got beaten up.” The incident happened just before the La Marsa studio opened. Zahmoul had received a number of warnings as the opening approached, but he still took the lead. 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 young people in Tunisia and the Arab world. Not only do they get tattoos, but young Tunisians are also enrolling in courses at the Tunisian National Tattoo School in Zahmoul. In a country plagued by high rates of youth unemployment, still reeling from the effects of the revolution and the challenges facing a new democracy, a tattoo academy presents new opportunities. Zahmoul also wishes to extend its activity to other regions of Tunisia.
âA lot of people in Tunisia practiced the art of tattooing discreetly, not in plain sight, and when things changed, artists lacked the basics,â he says. âI wanted to teach young tattoo artists how to become professionals in this field. “
Classes at the school last four to six months, and students learn the history of the art form, equipment, design, hygienic practices, tattoo care and even client psychology. “They first study the basics, which are transmitted through theoretical courses, then through practice,” explains Zahmoul. Prices go up to 4,850 Tunisian dinars (around $ 1,700).
âIn Fawez, I see someone who really dared,â says Samara Ferrari, colleague and now student. “He is the founder of this [tattoo] movement.”
Zahmoul’s love for art is manifested in his work, which is detailed, bold and intense, as if the skin is a canvas and the artist paints at will. There is power in her images and reviews of her work range from delighted to almost reverent. His favorites are surreal tattoos as well as “tattoos that hide a story, sad or happy”.
The coronavirus crisis has put his business on the back burner, so Zahmoul spends time drawing and playing games. âI don’t easily detach myself from my job,â he says. He attributes his success to parents who believed in his passion, in the same way he believes in Tunisian youth “who want to express themselves and realize their dreams as I did”.