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Turkish politics embraces body art

By Barry Neild for CNN
  • Body artists in Turkey say more people are requesting tattoos of Ataturk
  • Some say the demand is a reaction to political situation
  • Ataturk was secularist founder of modern Turkey

(CNN) -- Politics may go more than skin deep in Turkey, where an increasing number of people are choosing to permanently ink allegiances into their flesh.

According to tattoo artists, there has been a rise in the number of people demanding visible body art to show support for modern Turkey's founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

And, as the country readies for a constitutional shake-up that some fear will see the secular state set up by Ataturk give way to Islamist rule, the tattoos are considered by some as a way of registering protest.

Emrah Cakin, who runs Istanbul's RedCat tattoo studio, says he has seen a "day-by-day" rise in demand for Ataturk tattoos, with more people seeking the former leader's signature or image inked on their arms.

"In the past people had their Ataturk tattoos on their chest but nowadays people have their Ataturk artwork on their arms -- which are more visible," he told CNN. "This might be seen as a reaction to the government."

Turkish people this month voted in a referendum that gave the go-ahead to constitutional changes put forward by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The reforms, carried by a 58 percent vote, will amend Turkey's judicial system to strip prosecution immunity from leaders of a 1980 military coup that gave way to the existing constitution.

Other measures including promoting gender equality and new protection for children, the elderly and the disabled are intended to bring Turkey in line with the European Union it seeks to join.

Ataturk was the founder of modern Turkey so people show their respect and love with having tattoos of Ataturk -- and this is increasing
--Emrah Cakin

But opponents have accused AKP of using the reforms to break the power of the constitutional court, seen as one of the last bastions of the secular state that was Ataturk's dream. Some fear it is a precursor to imposing Islamic laws.

"In Turkey the public is divided into three sections, the fundamentalists, separatist Kurds and those who think Turkey should remain as a secular republic," says Kivanc Kusdul, who works in Crazy Needle tattoo studio in the southern port of Antalya.

Kusdul says there has been a marked recent upsurge in demand for Ataturk tattoos, with at least five per week being requested at Crazy Needle.

"It is a reaction to the fundamentalists, or separatist Kurds. Some people want to keep supporting the way Ataturk showed, that's why they are getting the tattoos," he said.

Credited with hauling his country towards Western-style modernity -- promoting a new alphabet, European dress codes and secular principles -- former independence fighter Ataturk remains a hero to many Turks.

With distinctive swept-back hair and piercing eyes, Ataturk's likeness is a familiar sight in Turkey, decorating walls and appearing on banknotes. His signature is also widely recognized.

The day of his death -- November 10, 1938, is enshrined as a day of remembrance, upon which one tattoo parlor in Istanbul has been known to offer customers free Ataturk signature tattoos.

"Ataturk was the founder of modern Turkey so people show their respect and love with having tattoos of Ataturk -- and this is increasing," said Cakin, who claims to have tattooed 913 signatures and 190 portraits of Ataturk in the past year.

Ali Ustaoglu, an 18-year-old who visited Cakin's studio to get an Ataturk tattoo said he wanted the former president's likeness to demonstrate his loyalty to the late statesman's ideals.

He said that he "wanted to show that we are still following the footsteps of our leader Ataturk, and we will be following whatever has happened or will happen in our country."

But whether down to political or nationalist allegiances -- or simply pure adulation -- Cakin says the tattoos follow a long Turkish tradition of embracing body art dating back more than 25 centuries.

He cites the example of Scythians, a people who lived in an area that partly covered what is now Turkey who were known to have used tribal tattoos.