Tattoos and other forms of body art are a type of cultural expression shared by many communities across the world, but many of these unique cultural traditions are in danger of being lost to time and cultural hegemony. Across the Middle East and North African regions there is a rich tapestry of tattoo traditions, dating back thousands of years: Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs and nomadic tribes living in Eastern Anatolia wear them, as do Arab and Amazigh women living in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. “Deq” is the art of Kurdish tattooing.
One Woman Takes Up the Ancient Art
Elu is a tattoo artist and a Zaza Alevi Kurdish diaspora woman from Dersim, in northern Kurdistan, eastern Turkey. She is one of the very few tattoo artists committed to keeping the art of traditional Kurdish tattooing, known as deq or xal, alive for another generation. Deq is the Kurdish word for “tattoo,” but the word has come to refer specifically to tattoos in the Kurdish style. I had the pleasure of interviewing Elu to learn more about this centuries-old tradition.
Elu entered the tattoo world by doing machine tattoos, but while traveling in Thailand she learned about Sak Yant, a sacred form of hand-poked tattooing done by Buddhists in southeast Asia. Inspired, she started hand-poking tattoos herself. “As I was researching traditional skin markings around the world, I wondered if Kurdish people had any tattoo traditions, as I didn’t grow up seeing them in the diaspora (awaretî, derbiderî or sirgûn). Through an online search I came across deq and immediately found myself mirrored in it,” she says. “Later I found out my great-grandmother, whom I never got to meet but thank my path for, also had deq on her face.”
An Artistic Heritage of Women
There are many factors that make deq different from other forms of tattooing. First of all, the ink for deq is traditionally prepared with a mixture of soot and breast milk from a woman (jin) who has given birth to a girl (keç). It can also be made from a mixture of herbs and animal intestines. The tattoo itself is created by piercing the skin with a needle (derzî) that has been covered with the ink. Secondly, deq is traditionally done on women by women, on various areas of their body, such as the hands, breasts or even the face. Tattoos on men used to be rare, but this has changed: the younger generation is interested in keeping the deq tradition alive regardless of gender.
Tattooing is often done at a young age. Usually mothers or other women in the community tattoo their children (mindal or zarok), but sometimes kids try to tattoo themselves, mimicking the designs of their elders. As a result, traditional tattoo art endures across successive generations, evolving into a valued cultural heritage (kelepûr).
The symbols and patterns people choose to tattoo on their bodies are deeply inspired by nature and daily life. Common symbols include: the sun (roj), moon (heyv), and stars (stêrin); animals (ajel or lawir) like gazelle (xezal), birds and snakes (marin); plants (rewik); and daily life objects such as scissors (meqes or cawbirr), spindles and dolls (bûkoke). Lines and crosses are also common motifs and they can also be used to combine multiple drawings. And each symbol can have multiple meanings depending on the region, cultural background and individual desire.
People mark their bodies with deq for different reasons: some women believe their deq is a sign of beauty; others believe that deq has healing powers (tattooing dots on the side of the forehead can help against headaches, for instance); while others get tattoos for protection — for example, women may get them to ensure a safe pregnancy. They can also be an expression of nobility, pride, faith or belonging to a specific lineage — or simply of being in an exceptionally good physical state. Overall, deq is deeply rooted in spirituality, but it’s also a symbol of heritage and cultural pride.
From One Generation to the Next
When asked what deq means for Kurdish people, Elu says: “Nowadays, deq has become a cultural tool to build bridges between generations and over geographic distances. Some people mark the same deq as their mother (dê or dayik), grandmother (pîrik) or great-grandparents have, and others do it to create a bond with their culture and identity. While there are many personal reasons why Kurdish people practice deq, there is a collective desire to reclaim this almost-vanished tradition as a form of self-identification.”
Elu mentions that the placement of the tattoo is also important. “The placement can also determine the meaning, which can be determined collectively or by the individual. A dot, for instance, can have a personal meaning for every individual.” She showed me an example of a Yazidi family without a gap between the generations practicing deq. All the children have received the same dot as their mother.
Unfortunately, deq remains an endangered tradition (kevneşopî). Over the years, fewer and fewer people have been practicing deq. It has even become frowned upon, and women may be averse to showing their tattoos or to talking about them. Religion (ol) could be one of the possible reasons: Islam, the dominant religion of the region, often forbids body modifications that are not done for medical reasons, and belief in any kind of spirituality apart from God is forbidden. Another reason could be the desire, or sometimes the necessity, for Kurds to assimilate into a mostly non-Kurdish society.
Elu, however, remains optimistic. When I asked her what could be done to prevent this art form from dying out, she replied: “The continuation is the biggest factor in saving this tradition from disappearing. I am sure we are currently experiencing and witnessing the renaissance of this tradition, especially through the Kurdish diaspora community (civaka derbiderî ya Kurd). Many more tattoo artists are beginning to mark deq again.”
However, she is also quick to add: “The tradition needs active practice as well as preservation in order not to be watered down into remains of what it once was. Therefore, a lot more research, documentation and archival work is needed. I truly hope to contribute to this with my work, as I truly believe in the power of ink, on skin as well as on paper.”
To look at and support Elu’s work, please visit her Instagram page.