The forbidden art that's booming in Jordan

Body art where tattoos are taboo
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Story highlights

  • A specialist in Arabic calligraphy, Huzz Ink has been a pioneer of tattoo art in the Middle East.
  • Photo-documentary Arab Ink celebrates Arabic calligraphy.
  • Tattoos are taboo in conservative areas of Jordan, and forbidden by Islamic law, under certain strict interpretations.

(CNN)One of 20-year-old Texana Mubaidin's defining features is her elaborate tattoo.

The hand-drawn goat, which symbolizes her zodiac sign, the Capricorn, stretches up her arm and across her shoulder, and accompanies her three other tattoos.
It's a bold statement, which a couple of decades ago would have been unthinkable.
But attitudes toward body art in the Middle East are changing, as illustrated by a new photo-documentary project by Jordanian photographer Bashar Alaeddin.
His series, Arab Ink, charts the relationship between Arabic calligraphy and tattoo art, and the role the latter plays in self-expression.
Alaeddin's project, which started in 2014, often features the work of the tattoo artists at Huzz Ink.
The tattoo parlor, where American-Jordanian Mubaidin is assistant manager, is part of this a wave of tattoo parlors in the region.
"In the Middle East and Jordan, tattoos have been considered taboo, or haram (forbidden or proscribed by Islamic law)," says Saif Hourani, manager of Huzz Ink.
"Now we see a lot of people -- like way more people -- getting tattoos, especially young people. They are Jordanian, Arabs.
"Sometimes people come from Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Libya."

A lasting impression

Huzz Ink's headquarters in the Jordanian capital of Amman feels like the home of a perfectionist -- meticulously clean and clinically organized.
Leather couches, an eclectic contemporary art collection, and a wall of carefully arranged photographs of inspirational tattoos lend the place some character.

Power.

A photo posted by Huzz (@huzzink) on

Owner and artist Hazim Naouri, who has four tattoos, studied for an international tattoo certification in the United States before returning to Jordan to open what he says was the country's first tattoo parlor in 2007.
Naouri's father, who had a small tattoo himself, taught his son how to use a needle and ink when he was just 13 years old.
Now aged 30, the artist has opened Huzz Ink and expanded across the Middle East.
Naouri says the business "promotes itself" through word of mouth, and on social media platform such as Facebook and Instagram, where he posts videos and pictures of new creations each month.
"I consider myself the ambassador of ink in the Arab world," says Naouri. "I would have loved for (my dad) to see that his child did this."

Ink in the Middle East

The Middle East has a long tradition of human body art. The practice was popular in Egypt and Persia (modern-day Iran) in ancient times, and nomadic Bedouin tribal clans and Orthodox Coptic Christians today still embrace the tradition.
But the practice is uncommon in mainstream society in the Middle East due to the rise of Islam and accompanying religious doctrines.
"Usually, when they see anybody who has a tattoo, guy or female, (people in Jordan) would think that he's part of a gang or just a dangerous person," Mubaidin tells CNN.
In Jordan, as in much of the Middle East, tattoo parlors are forbidden under Shariah religious law -- or the code that governs members of the Islamic faith.
"Religious views in general, (in) Islam or Christianity ... (among the) Jews. Everybody is against tattoos," says Naouri. "Why? Because you have to respect your body and you don't have to modify it to be respectable to the community."
While there are no legal consequences, conservative Islamic groups believe that tattoos scar the flesh and are therefore an insult to Allah, the Arabic word for God.
"(In Jordan), it's not fully legal, it's not fully illegal. But there are so many people doing it," explains Naouri.

Spreading the word

As the the first Jordanian tattoo parlor entrepreneur, Naouri feels a responsibility to push attitudes forward in the region.
"The Arab world had not taken any part in any international tattoo business or piercing (conferences)," he says. "I've been the first one to do that. 
"And so Huzz Ink is not just a parlor or a shop. We're not just tattooing people, we're giving knowledge. We're promoting art."
That promotion is a two-way street: as well as educating his countrymen about body art, he has invited international tattoo artist to visit his outlets, and at conventions "in Vegas, in China, in Thailand" -- where little is known about the Middle East's body art scene -- Naouri has become a spokesperson for the nascent tattoo scene at home.
"They are astonished," he says. 

The ultimate self expression

While there's a growing acceptance of cosmetic tattoos in the Middle East -- such as eyebrow tattoos -- Naouri says his mission is deeper.
"My goal is to give the chance to people to express themselves on their skin."
"Every single day there's an interesting story," he says. "People come to me, approach me about something very personal."

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A photo posted by Huzz (@huzzink) on

The majority of customers are looking for something featuring Arabic calligraphy or art, and deep, personal meaning, such as the name of a family member or a poignant word.
Reem Al Fattal, a customer at Huzz Ink, sought out Naouri's help to immortalize her father, who was murdered when she was a teenager.
"I have the word 'abi' on me forever as a tattoo," says Al Fattal. "It literally means 'daddy.' So I can have my dad around me or with me all the time."
Naouri says he serves as many female customers as he does male.
From a family of artists, musicians and craftsman, Naouri says working with his hands comes naturally.
"It's like a painting," he says. "At the end of the day, needles are like brushes."