Tunisian tattoo artist revives Berber designs for new generation

KAIROUAN, Tunisia, September 29 (Reuters) – Tunisian tattoo artist Manel Mahdouani is reviving traditional Berber designs, long considered old-fashioned but gaining popularity with a hip new generation.

Few Tunisians now speak the Berber languages ​​more commonly found in Algeria and Morocco, and trappings of Berber cultural identity are often relegated to patterns found on mass-produced crafts for tourists.

Among Tunisians, they were seen as symbols of an impoverished past, but some young people are now turning to their Berber roots and looking to Mahdouani, 35, to connect them with tattoos.

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“Every symbol and every tattoo has a meaning,” said Loula, who had a series of dark blue dots tattooed on her upper chest. She said she enjoyed how each mark signified a part of a woman’s tribal or family identity.

“It means a woman’s story is written on her. It’s like a Facebook wall and it’s my wall,” she said, asking not to give her last name.

As tattoos have taken off around the world, some young Tunisians have embraced the trend, but without reverting to their own body art tradition.

Mahdouani said many Tunisians have learned to view Berber tattoos as low class or disreputable. “People used to say it was backwards,” she said.

“I wanted to change that idea. Just as there are Maori and tribal tattoos known around the world, we should also be proud of a tradition that dates back 6,000 years in Tunisia,” she said.

Mahdouani studied the traditional “tekaz” tradition of Berber tattoos, collecting designs and learning the custom of using body art to ward off illness or bad luck through particular symbols on different parts of the body.

In a village outside the central city of Kairouan, Mahdouani interviewed Seiada Issaoui, an elderly woman with ink marks on her forehead, cheeks, nose and chin, about the prevalence of tattoos when she was young.

“Everyone was tattooed. On their legs, arms and chest as well,” Issaoui said.

Later, Mahdouani carefully copied Issaoui’s designs.

“My goal is to let young people know that it’s part of their civilization, their country and their history and even if they don’t want it themselves, they will at least know what it means when they see it on a woman on the street,” she said.

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Reporting by Jihed Abidellaoui; written by Angus McDowall; edited by Philippa Fletcher

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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