In a workshop in Cairo's upscale neighborhood of Maadi, Egyptian tattoo artist Shenouda Abdel Malak conceals people's psychological distress by drawing tattoos over their scars and burns free of charge.
Abdel Malak, a middle-aged man with a portly figure, round face and soft manner, calls his initiative “Love Yourself.” With his needle and deft fingers, a scar from a fire is hidden under a flower or a butterfly.
“I am moved — and horrified — by how people who come to me for a tattoo to cover up a wound or a burn are more scarred emotionally than physically. Their scars have made them victims of mockery, constant bullying or rejection by a loved one,” he told Al-Monitor.
"It is free. I just aim to give hope to hundreds of people who are suffering from burns and skin abnormalities, which also cause psychological problems," Abdel Malak said.
He said that each of his customers he has helped as part of this initiative had a different story. "One woman's husband had divorced her because of the burns on one of her legs following an accident. Others came to me because they were mocked for their scars, so they wanted to hide them underneath a tattoo," he added.
The most compelling story that Abdel Malak encountered was a woman whose body was burned completely in a house fire. "It took me nearly four months to draw tattoos all over her body," he said.
The majority of his customers who have burns and scars ask for flower-shaped tattoos. “I think it is psychological,” Abdel Malek said. “They want to replace what they see as a destroyed part of themselves with something that would bloom. The flowers symbolize beauty and they want to replace their burns and scars with beauty.”
He underlined that he chooses his materials carefully as not to damage the skin further. "I am careful about hygiene and make sure that neither the ink nor the needle have passed the expiry date,” he said, adding that he always works with top-quality products.
Abdel Malak noted that he takes his time to make sure that his customers are happy with the tattoo in the long run, too. “The tattoo remains on their body for a lifetime … the drawings will replace their scars and burns for good. That's why I never choose the shape or the image for them. They always make that choice and live with it," he said.
One of Abdel Malak’s customers, who asked not to be identified, said that the tattoo she got has made her for the first time love the burns on her neck.
“After he tattooed this flower on my neck, I sent him a message thanking him for making me love the burns that had initially caused me a lot of psychological pain. In the past many people [including my ex-husband] ridiculed or made fun of me,” she told Al-Monitor. She said that the tattoo has made her love her body more, adding, “It is a life-changing experience.”
Islamic scholars mostly frown upon tattoo art, but it has been part of the culture since the Pharaonic era. Several tattooed mummies of women were found at Deir el-Bahari, a complex of mortuary temples and tombs located on the west bank of the Nile River, across from the city of Luxor.
Coptic Christians, who make up about 10% of the country's population, have long been practicing this art. At Christian festivals, it is common to see tattoo artists inscribing crosses on the wrists of babies or images of saints on the arms of young men.
Dar al-Ifta, Egypt’s top religious authority, said that tattoos are forbidden in Islam and that those with tattoos are cursed by God. However, scholars make an allowance for women, saying it is permissible for a married woman to have microblading tattoos provided the husband gives his consent.
However, Abdel Malak said that tattoo art is rapidly becoming more popular in Egypt, with many artists taking up this art form. “People see others with tattoos, so they decide to have them too. Only a handful of people come to my workshop and ask for a tattoo because of an experience they had,” Abdel Malak said.
Many of Egypt's popular artists, singers and soccer players, such as pop icon Amr Diab and actor Ahmed el-Feshawi, sport tattoos.
Tattoo artists expect that the popularity of tattoos will increase significantly in Egypt and that there will be special schools for this art form. “There will even be specializations. Some artists will be specialized in eyebrow tattooing, others will be specialized in microblading,” Abdel Malak concluded.