Traditional tattoos begin to fade in Dagestan

The art of tattooing has been around for centuries in Russia's southern republic of Dagestan. For locals, it is an indelible mark of status, religious devotion, true love, and the means of warding off bad luck.

Women in Dagestan have tattoos primarily for aesthetic reasons, with the designs giving hints about the status or intentions of the wearer, as well as being symbols for wishes to come true.

“What does the dot stand for? First, it is just another way to draw attention.  One means ‘me’, two dots – ‘me and you’, three – ‘I love you’. Or, another example: if an unmarried girl puts a dot on each finger that would mean: ”I am a rich girl, poor men – stay away," says Khabib Ismailov, an ethnographer.

Khabib Ismailov studied the traditional tattoos of local women for 15 years. Most of the designs are individual and extremely unusual.  He says in this Russian republic, where Muslims are in the majority, the female tattoo emerged long before Islam spread in the region. However, local customs are so strong here that even religion didn’t manage to eradicate tattoos.

In the old days the tattoos were applied by two or three sewing needles bound together. Colouring for the designs was obtained from soot mixed with water, or wild berries, called ‘cat’s pears’ by the locals. The berries gave the ink that gave a durable blue-black colour.

It is not surprising though, that in Dagestan it was a women’s prerogative to wear tattoos. Traditionally, they are the keepers of local customs and rites. And, also, women here are believed to be more superstitious and tend to believe in different supernatural forces.

“This hen’s foot is for me to run quickly, the elders told me. And this is the Moon – it is to bring good luck and happiness. That has come true – I am happy in my family,” shares Khadizhat Gamzatova, a Gapshima resident.

However, this unusual custom is gradually losing its popularity.

“In perspective this tradition may vanish very soon. The mass-media are doing their best.  No one believes in the evil spirits any more, the modern idol is Britney Spears. They are the last of the Mohicans. And, during the next ten years all the bearers of the traditional tattoo here will disappear,” argues Khabib Ismailov.

Despite this, the sacred designs continue to survive in different ways. For example, the symbol of crossed arms can be found anywhere in Gapshima village – on walls, carpets and even on female shoulders. The locals believe it helps to protect them from evil spirits.