Monday 16 May 2016

The Tradition of Bosnian Catholic Tattoos

There was a spell in the not so distant past where I did a module on exhibiting the body as part of my MA in History of Art. It was one of the more challenging subjects because of the sheer newness of the subject to me; basically I was pinging around like an over enthusiastic firework because every lecture we had presented a new idea which I wanted to pursue. Did I want to stay in the renaissance where the body was emerging as a machine, or head into enlightenment with wax modelling, Victorian health and death, or be in the present with bodies and taboos? This also coincided with some interesting events at London's RAI, where I wrote up a film about bodily suspension. Body modification and using the body as a canvas still really intrigues me, which is why a talk given by one of my fellow students in the Croatian Civilisation and Culture class today made me dash here and blog about it. The research is all hers but where I was unsure, I've added, clarified, and interjected because I'm annoying like that.

Anna Dopler's talk was about the tradition of Croatian and Bosnian Catholic tattoos. She was inspired by a magazine article, which said:

That little girl in the middle there is Tea Turalija. She grew up in Bosnia and Herzegovina surrounded by tattooed women. Every day she would plant kisses on her great grandmother's hands, thinking nothing of the etchings on her arms. When she got older, Tea discovered that all the inked-up old folk around her were from the final generation of a secret Catholic cult that developed while Bosnia was occupied by the Ottoman Empire. The cult members identified each other by tattooing their hands and arms using a compound ink that was made up, in part, of human breast milk. The cult died out when communist Yugoslavia decided religion shouldn't exist shortly after World War II

Among Catholics mostly in Bosnia and Herzegovina there was a widespread tradition of tattoos on hands, arms, and on the chest until the mid of the 20th century. Ethnographers suggest that the origin of this specific custom cannot be Catholic, nor Slavic traditions, but comes instead from prehistoric Balkan tribes.

This got Anna thinking about the history of the tattoo, and she described some of the diverse cultures over the past 5000 years who have utilised tattoos. Tattoos are created by inserting coloured materials beneath the skins surface. The first tattoos probably were created by accident. We can imagine that someone had a small wound, and rubbed it with a hand that was dirty with soot and ashes from the fire. Once the wound had healed, they saw that a mark stayed permanently. The word tattoo is said to have 2 major derivations- from the polynesian word ‘ta’ which means striking something and the tahitian word ‘tatau’ which means ‘to mark something’.

Relevant to this region is the Greek and Roman knowledge of tattoos. In ancient Greece, there is documentary evidence to make it safe to assume they were familiar with tattooing practices of Scythian and related Eurasian tribes, eg the inked Amazons. Their traditional marks include dots (coded love messages), moons (for happiness and luck), and bird-tracks (thought to make a girl a fast runner). Tattooing traditions among women persist in many locales associated with ancient Amazons, both mythic and historical. The most powerful proof is frozen in time, where there are marks inscribed on the skin of mummified bodies recovered from icy graves in the Altai.

The Romans adopted some tattooing from the Greeks. Roman writers such as Virgil, Seneca, and Galenus reported that many slaves and criminals were tattooed. A legal inscription from Ephesus indicates that during the early roman empire all slaves exported to Asia were tattooed with the words ‘tax paid’. Greeks and Romans also used tattooing as a punishment. Early in the fourth century, when Constantine became Roman emperor and rescinded the prohibition on Christianity, he banned facial tattoos, which was common for convicts, soldiers, and gladiators. He believed that the human face was a representation of the image of god and should not be disfigured or defiled.

The Celts were a tribal people who moved across western Europe in times around 1200 and 700 B.C.  Celtic culture was full of body art. Permanent body painting was done with woad, which left a blue design on the skin. Spirals were common, and knot-work is probably the most recognised symbol of  Celtic art. Therefore tattoos from the earliest time were intimately connected with spiritual and religious life. But a passage in Leviticus reads ‘ye shall not make any cuttings on your flesh for the dead nor print any marks upon you’. (19:28)  making it clear that the Church didn't approve of such pagan behaviour, however, M.W.Thomson suggests that Moses favoured tattoos. Moses introduced tattoos as a way to commemorate the deliverance of the Jews from slavery in Egypt.

Tattooing equipment was recently excavated in 2013, next to a skeleton dressed in a richly decorated tunic and trousers, buried with lavish grave goods in a Sarmatian-Scythian kurgan on the steppes between the Ural Mountains and the Caspian Sea. The tattoo kit consisted of pigments and spoons for mixing them on two stone palettes, gilded iron needles, and other tools. Many Scythian burials contain similar items, which had been mistaken for women’s cosmetics by earlier archaeologists.

As we have learned in class, Dalmatia was an ancient Roman province. It encompassed much of present-day Albania, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia and Kosovo; an area significantly larger than the current region of Dalmatia. This region, and especially Bosnia, has always been is a veritable melting-pot of religions. Between Byzantium and Rome; Catholicism to the West; Orthodox to the East; and in the centre Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was passed from the Turks to the Habsburgs resulting in a  mixture of Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is full of very interesting, mysterious tombstone monuments called 'Stecak'. These monolitihic stone grave monuments are very impressive, some of them weighing 30 tons, the earliest of them dating from the 11th century. Although they have been subject to controversy, it is generally accepted that they are the product of adherents of the Orthodox, Catholic and Islamic faith alike, perhaps suggestive of an earlier tradition. Some of the inscriptions are profound; 'And I pray you, do not tread on me. I was as you are; you shall be as I am'. Some of the symbols and shapes on these tombs are immediately familiar when compared with the tattoo patterns.

This is where it becomes difficult to disentangle religion, tradition, ritual, rites of passage, and a clash of Catholic and Muslim populations through conquest. On the one hand, symbols of the cross are everywhere in these tattoos, and it is true that the cross is a charm, to be found everywhere. But the cross isn't the only motif and it is the only Catholic symbol found in the designs. Sometimes the whole hand is decorated with circles (kolo) and geometric patterns, and bracelets (narukvica). 'Pagan' motifs include the sun 'Sunce', the moon 'Mjesec', the morning star 'prehodnica' and the simple star 'zvijezda'. None of the motives but the cross are specifically Christian and generally all peoples with tattoo-traditions use crosses as basic ornaments.

These people are Catholic but maintain many traditions which have their roots in pagan beliefs, for instance, they put a coin in the mouth of a corpse previous to burial - clearly a remnant of the payment to Charon, the ferryman. So it is suggested that the tattooing is also an ancient custom. It is apparently never practised by the Orthodox or Muslims. The ritual is tied up with the Spring which is also symbolic, in my view. The holy week before Easter was said to be the ideal time and often happened on the day before spring’s solstice, the day of St. Joseph. The procedure was painful because the methods, like the tattoo motifs, are unchanged over millennia. With the ink the ornament is painted on the skin and then poked with countless stiches of the needle underneath the epidermis until the patient can’t take the pain anymore.

A cloth was wrapped around the wound and not removed until the wound is healed. The ink is a paste out of charcoal, grime, honey and breast milk from a woman who had born a male child. This ink was also variously mixed with other substances, such as tallow, honey, wild berry juice or indigo (for a blue colour). The people who practised the ceremonies believed that the tattoos were not erasable and even if someone bad cut them out they will appear again.

So apart from ancient tradition, another reason for this marking of the skin is the conquest of Bosnia by the Ottomans in 1463. With the tattoos consisting of Christian symbols and stecak ornaments, perhaps the people wanted to prevent themselves from a forced conversion to Islam. I am uncertain as to whether it was solely a female phenomenon because all the images are of women, but given that it seems to be primarily a female decoration, perhaps the signs were designed to protect women and girls from invaders? They were tattooed before their 10th birthday which confirmed indelibly their identity and their religion and horrifically, I'm thinking of other forms of female mutilation.

Interestingly there is an immediate reminder of the embroidery and lace which you see on the national dress here, especially in the geometric patterns and circles. Perhaps it became a less painful way to transmit protective motifs to future generations and the tradition has never been lost, despite the prohibition of religion in the later state of Yugoslavia. Certainly with the increase in nostalgia and the collections on Pinterest, it is clear it is undergoing a revival.

SOURCES (as provided by Anna)
Edit Durham, High Albania
Ciro Truhelka, Volksleben (Aus dem Buch: Die oesterreichisch-ungarische Monarchie in Wort und Bild, Bosnien und Hercegovina, Wien, k.k. Hof- und Statsdrueckerei, Alfred von Hoelder, 1901, Band 22)


  1. Wow great information. Any idea on the specific meaning of these tattoos? I see quite a few symbols and was hoping to understand which ones have which meanings

  2. This is informative, Thanks for sharing! Those tattoo designs are so stunning and cool. Just like my catholic religious sleeve tattoos. Check out: