Old ladies with tattooed hands. A brief study

by Laura Vlasa

During the Ottoman occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina (1463–1878), home-made tattoos became widespread among the suppressed Catholic population, especially women and children. After the Second World War, the Communist administration banned religion and the practice had since been forgotten.

The tattoos represented allegiance to a secret Catholic cult in a time when people were forced to convert to Islamism by the oppressing troops and, if the conversion took place, a mark of the actual faith in people’s hearts. It was an age of terror for the Bosnia-Herzegovina population, an age marked by murder, rape, kidnapping and slavery. The women tattooed themselves and their children on their hands, chest, elbows or foreheads with the belief that they represented a spiritual and physical protective shield.

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The process of tattooing had a deep spiritual meaning as well. The ink was made of charcoal or gunpowder, grime, honey and breast milk taken only from women who had given birth to a male child. It was at first applied with the blunt side of a crude needle, after which the pattern was pierced until completed. The hands where then covered with beeswax or silk paper. In an interview for vice.com, a tattooed woman said “milk was taken from the woman who feeds a male child and it was mixed with the soot from the lamp. Then she took the needle, dipped it and tattooed a cross on my hands until the blood ran. My hand was numb so I didn’t feel anything. She wrapped it and I held it like that for one day without washing.”

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Children were often tattooed at a very young age to be shielded from kidnapping. Some of them had their initials tattooed on their foreheads to never lose their identity. With some small exceptions, the practice belongs entirely to the Catholic population of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The motifs used are Christian as well as pre-Christian, from simple crosses decorated with dots and circular lines, to the symbol called “fence”, which was tattooed to represent its literal meaning: a fence of protection between the oppressors and the bearer.

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The oppression might be all gone, but the Bosnian women hold the memory alive on the hands that work the field, bake a bread or pour a glass of milk. It is a strong statement of cultural and religious identity even in the face of ill-willed people that tried to meddle with it.

Pictures courtesy to flick.com and deviantart.com (obviously searched on Google images) and smarts from vice.com, folklored.com and wikipedia (all hail)

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