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Arts and culture




Henna and tattoos



SKIN decoration in the Arab world is practised mostly by women and takes the form of designs on hands and feet using henna, which fades away after a few weeks.

The complex patterns seen throughout the Middle East are normally achieved using stencils which can be bought cheaply in the souqs (markets).

Increasingly, street artists in resorts such as Marrakesh and Sharm al-Sheikh provide henna decoration of varying quality for visiting tourists of both sexes.


The Henna Page 
A comprehensive website about henna - including how to do it yourself.


ALTHOUGH tattoos can be seen in many Arab countries, tattooing is not a particularly Arab tradition and strict Muslims disapprove of it (click here for an explanation). 

Tattooing is nevertheless common among the Berbers of north Africa, where small designs with symbolic meaning are used (mainly by women). Egyptian Christians often have a cross tattooed on their hand or wrist. These designs are very simple - often crudely done - and we are not aware of any Arab equivalent to the elaborate tattoos used, for example, by the Maoris and Pacific islanders.

We are often asked to provide names or phrases in Arabic to be used as tattoos, but it is not practical to do this by email. The best solution, if you don't know the Arabic script, is to find someone locally who does.

Most non-Arabic names can be easily adapted to the Arabic script, but there may be more than one possible spelling. It is therefore advisable to consult several Arabic speakers to see which they think is best.

Although there are plenty of tattoo artists that do Japanese word-symbols, we have been unable to find any on the internet that specialise in Arabic tattooing (if there are any, please let us know). This means you will probably have to get your own artwork and then find a tattooist to transfer the design to your skin.

For a simple basic design, possible sources of artwork would be:

  • A laser print from a computer that is set up for Arabic word-processing
  • A proof from a typesetter who specialises in Arabic printing
  • Traditional hand-lettering done with a calligraphic pen

Note that Arabic has several distinctive type styles that can be used (see the Calligraphy page). 

The options described above will not look as good as a specially-designed piece of Arabic calligraphy. Our Calligraphy page has links to various examples. 

For religious reasons some calligraphers (e.g. Mamoun Sakkal) refuse to design tattoos, but one company that is happy to provide custom-made designs - such as names - for tattoo purposes is Hobok. Prices are reasonable and they send the finished work by email. 

Tattoo design by Hobok. Click  for more examples

We would strongly advise you not to try to make tattoos out of any existing works of Arabic calligraphy that happen to take your fancy. Not only is this unfair to the artists, but the designs usually contain religious quotations and their use as tattoos, especially by non-Muslims, could be considered offensive.


Skin, flesh and art ­ making the human canvas your own 
Daily Star (Lebanon), 2 December 2003 

Art and fraud: Tattooing culture rides popular wave 
Daily Star (Lebanon), 3 December 2003 

Hygiene: a life and death issue in the studio 
Daily Star (Lebanon), 4 December 2003 

Tattooing: a new women's fashion rage? 
Daily Star (Lebanon), 5 December 2003 

Beyond the pale? Perhaps, but body piercing has arrived and is gaining ground 
Daily Star (Lebanon), 6 December 2003 


In the henna and tattoos section


In the arts and culture section


Books from Amazon

Mehndi: The Art of Henna Body Painting
Carine Fabius, Michele M. Garcia. Purchase from amazon.com or amazon.co.uk

Traditional Mehndi Designs: A Treasury of Henna Body Art
Dorine Van Den Beukel. Purchase from amazon.com or amazon.co.uk.

The Henna Body Art Kit
Aileen Marron, et al. Purchase from amazon.com.

The Mehndi Kit: Learn the Traditional Art of Henna Body Decoration
Zaynab Mirza. Purchase from amazon.com.

The Tattoo History Source Book
Steve Gilbert. Purchase from amazon.com or amazon.co.uk.

The Art of Mehndi  
Jane Glicksman. Purchase from amazon.co.uk.

Henna from Head to Toe!  
Norma Pasekoff Weinberg. Purchase from amazon.co.uk.

Henna's Secret History 
Marie Anakee Miczak. Purchase from amazon.co.uk.


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Last revised on 05 August, 2015