These Photographs Are Preserving the Vanishing Tradition of Female Facial Tattoos
Written by: Alexxa Gotthardt
Photographs: Yumna Al-Arashi
In the West, facial tattoos often have severe associations-a teardrop etched next to the eye, for instance, can signify a long prison sentence or desire for revenge. But in other areas of the world, tattooing the face is a part of a long tradition equated with beautification, spirituality, and female empowerment.
Photographer Yumna Al-Arashi would know. At a young age, she saw her great grandmother’s tattoos for the first time: a constellation of delicate markings that filled the space under her bottom lip. At first, Al-Arashi didn’t think twice about the tattoos-the faces of many of the older women in her great grandmother’s native Yemen bore similar designs. But as Al-Arashi grew older, and more interested in the role of women in the Muslim world, she began to wonder: What was the origin of these tattoos? What did they symbolize? And why was the age-old tradition disappearing?
This past winter, Al-Arashi-who is Muslim, and grew up in Washington, D.C.-spent three months trekking across North Africa, from Morocco to Tunisia to Algeria, to get to the bottom of these questions. She came back with intimate portraits of women whose aging faces and bodies are spangled with intricate black markings. She also returned with their stories, which begin to shed light on the origins of the tattooing practice-and why it is in the process of vanishing.