Tattoos and other taboos

Author: Serine Gabrielyan , Aram Kirakosyan

Text by Serine Gabrielyan 

Photos by Aram Kirakosyan

Sona Hakobyan was 14 when she got her first tattoo, a tiny heart on her hand. For years she added one after another, dreading the winter months when she would have to cover them up.

Sona was 14 years old when she got her first tattoo –a heart. She says that when she has to cover her tattoos with clothes in the winter, she feels like a part of herself is missing.

But recently Sona, now 24, has stopped getting new tattoos. She has even stopped making tattoos for other people. While her parents have always supported her love of tattoo art – her mother gave her a tattoo needle as a present –the rest of Armenian society has not been so supportive.

For decades, tattoos were the exclusive purview of Armenian men, largely limited to those who had served time in prison. Known as ''varavskoy nakolka'' – criminal tattoo – Armenian society has been slow to accept tattoos as a form of art, especially on women.

Sona says that when she started to make tattoos 10 years ago, she hoped that stereotypes about women’s tattoos would change over time. A decade later, she realizes that not very much has changed.

Sona has stopped getting tattoos and making tattoos for others. She says that now she has trouble avoiding arguments with people who are disgusted by her tattoos or think that she is immoral due to her tattoos.

Tattoos have become wildly popular in Western Europe and the United States. But while more people are getting tattoos in Russia, other former Soviet republics, like Armenia, still lag behind. Armenian psychologists note that women are often judged on their appearances, and predetermined ideas about what a woman should – and should not – look like are deeply rooted. 

As Sona got older, it became harder to be a tattoo artist. She noted she would often get rude stares when she was out in public, even in the capital, Yerevan. Boyfriends would say they personally liked her tattoos but would ask her to cover them when the two of them were out with friends. 

Once, Sona overheard one of her clients wondering aloud “A girl with tattoos can’t be normal one, huh?” while in line to get one of her tattoos.

"They think a 'normal,' moral girl can't have tattoos. There are also husbands who come with their wives for a tattoo, but ask for a tattoo on the part of the woman's body that is usually covered by clothing," she says.

Eventually, Sona decided to channel her creativity to traditional art forms and save her tattoo designs for later -- or if she ever moves abroad. 

Ani Yengibaryan, a psychologist at the Hope and help NGO, says that in Armenia, when people think of a woman, they expect her to fit a very specific image: traditional and modest.  “It has always been considered that an Armenian woman should be humble and focused on raising her children. Today while we can see Armenian woman with tattoos, with non-standard hairstyles, many simply do not accept it. ”

Armenian women are not only facing stereotypes about tattoos. Ani Dolmazyan, 30,  faced a similar backlash from her family and friends when she decided to shave off her hair on New Year.

In 2019 Ani decided to shave her head. She says that she had always wanted to have this kind of haircut but something had always stopped her from doing it in the past. That changed on New Year's Eve, after she returned to Yerevan after living in Lithuania for several months.

While it took them months to get used to her new look, Ani says it has set her free.

“When I shaved my head, I realized that hair was redundant, it was just a standard feminine image. Now that I don't have it, I realise that my hair is not what makes me female. My femininity should be expressed differently," she says.

So she started to write poems, picked up sewing again and even started to teach sewing. Ani also established an innovative theater in Yerevan and plans to publish books and shoot films.

While being bald has emboldened Ani to embrace her creativity, it has also opened her to public scorn. Some women look at her with hatred, Ani says, while others seem to view her with pity, thinking her bald head is a sign of sickness.

Ani's life has changed since she shaved her head. She returned to sewing and started to teach her craft. In addition, she started to act and shoot films.

"Her tattoo reads '...first of all you need to understand'"

Psychologist Irina Tsaturyan says that the Armenian society thinks in terms of stereotypes, without realizing that how one dresses, what one has on his or her body, or what she or he is involved in, only concerns that person. “The point is that, for example, if a person has tattoos, it's his personal business. No one else has the right to interpret it as a matter of morality: you have to be tolerant,” she says.

But that can be difficult in conservative societies like Armenia, especially for people who grew up in the Soviet Union. Tsaturyan notes that while there are many traditional societies that are open to new ideas, Armenian culture struggles to accept "strange" appearances after decades of standardized fashion and haircuts.

Armenian stereotypes also extend to professions. F have come up against prejudices and discrimination because people do not think women should be doing metal work.

Narine, one of the founders of Protest Business, says that it was difficult to start as metalsmiths seven years ago.

"Few realize that there are customs outside of Armenia, that the attitudes adopted in Armenia are backward. Adults, just being Soviet-minded, do not want to fight against stereotypes or change anything," says Narine.

The Ombudsman’s Office has noted the impact of these stereotypes on women’s access to the labor market. For instance, deeply held views on “suitable” jobs for women have resulted in women being discriminated against in certain professions. It also means women get paid 35.9 percent less than their male counterparts across all sectors in the economy.

Part of the problem is how society views women’s roles. For example, in small towns and rural communities, it is widely believed that men should work while women should care for children and do housework, according to the Yerevan State University’s Center for Gender Studies and Leadership’s "Gender Barometer of Armenia".

Narine,Tina and Ani are trying to counter these stereotypes through the metal jewelry studio, Protest Business. They say they have been told that women should work with beads, not weld metal. But that has not stopped them.

Narine, Tina and Ani are trying to counter these stereotypes through the metal jewelry studio, Protest Business.


“They think that if a hammer and fire are needed, a woman cannot do it," Narine says. "If I cut my finger, or break a nail or if we get hurt often, it is not the end of the world."

Many men and women were surprised to know that women use a hammer and other "men's" tools to make jewelry.

Ani notes that when people see her clothes and tattoos, they often think she is a foreigner and start speaking to her in English. At times they even express doubt when she says she is Armenian, noting that it is impossible for an Armenian to have "such a bright" appearance.

The jewelry produced by Protest Business is becoming more popular, notes Tina, even though "there are still people who don’t believe that a woman could make it and they ask why I work with a hammer. I just smile.”.

Tsaturyan says that there are signs that society is changing, however. For instance, she recalls that 20 years ago, women were told not to drive cars. Now female drivers are common.

Fashion blogger Marianna Kababyan notes that for years she was afraid of being labelled as different due to her clothes and her style. But then she realized that she needed to focus on what made her feel good, not what society thought she should wear.

“It is not society that should necessarily praise you for being true to yourself,” she says.

“You should choose your style, your outward appearance and move forward. Armenian society, with all its elements, still needs to make changes in consciousness and self-determination. This is a process.”


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