Inside the Natural History Museum's new exhibit “Tattoo,” ink on flesh takes myriad forms. A touring exhibition that originated at Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in Paris, “Tattoo” explores millennia of markings, from the ancient tribal patterns that adorned the skin of indigenous people to the colorful sailor-style tattoos still popular in modern day L.A. There are examples of tattoos that are symbols self-expression, group identity and punishment. And then there's the 1919 photo of a woman in Aleppo. Tattoos run down her face and onto her chest, which is exposed by her partially open shirt.

The woman is not named, but the caption accompanying the photo gives a piece of her story. She was Armenian and had been able to escape a brothel thanks to the YWCA. The placard notes that during the course of the Armenian Genocide, women who had been captured and made slaves or prostitutes had been tattooed as a means of identification. It's a profoundly disturbing image and snippet of a story that points to an obscure facet of a genocide committed within the Ottoman Empire that is, to this day, denied by Turkey.

Even when your heritage is Armenian, when you are a descendant of genocide survivors, the sight of the tattoos can come as a shock. You grew up hearing about death marches and other atrocities. But the tattoos aren't included in many of these narratives. In 2011, filmmaker Suzanne Khardalian covered the subject in Grandma's Tattoos, a documentary that later aired as part of Al-Jazeera's Witness series. That film, though, was a personal story that delved more into the impact of trauma brought about by the Genocide. The question of why women were tattooed remained unanswered. That, perhaps, is because there isn't one clear-cut reason.

“Every woman's story is different,” says Elyse Semerdjian by phone. Semerdjian is a historian who studies the Ottoman Empire and is a professor at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. She's currently working on a book about the Armenian Genocide and gender-related issues. Part of her research for the book includes a look into the history of Armenian women who were tattooed during the Genocide. 

A page from the Sept. 5, 1920 issue of the Washington Times; Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A page from the Sept. 5, 1920 issue of the Washington Times; Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Semerdjian explains that the tattoos were used by multiple ethnic groups in rural parts of the Ottoman Empire, particularly Kurds and Arabs. She adds that, while some women may have been taken into a household as a slave, others were adopted by families. “They were traditional forms of tattooing that were worn by women in those communities,” she says. “They were marks of inclusion in a tribe in many cases. It meant that those women had the same tattoos as other women in those communities. The Armenian women were not the only ones to receive those tattoos.”

That's where deciphering the stories behind the tattooed Armenian women gets difficult. There's a gut reaction to look at them as a means of punishment. There's a long history of that in various parts of the world, according to Lars Krutak, an anthropologist and photographer who studies tattoos and was a consultant on “Tattoo: An Exhibition,” citing examples from ancient Chinese and European history. For modern folks, though, the closest comparison might be the numbers tattooed on Jewish people's forearms during the Holocaust.

There's a problem with that kind of comparison, however. At Auschwitz, the tattoos were applied by SS authorities to mark prisoners at the concentration camp. During the Genocide, tattoos don't appear to have been a tool used by the Ottoman Turks, who orchestrated the campaign against Armenians, Semerdjian notes. In some instances, those tattoos may have actually helped women escape death. Semerdjian has found instances of that in her research.

Tattoos have long been used to identify people as being part of a specific ethnic group. Answering generally on the use of tattoos in this regard, Krutak notes, “Tattoo designs spoke about a collective identity because everyone wore ancestral patterns that were handed down from generation to generation. And once you carried the ancestral mark on your body, you were expected to be a responsible family and community member.”

In that respect, the tattoos that Armenian women received would mark them as members of a group that was not being persecuted, but they also covered the women's true identities.

“For me, the interesting thing is that the tattoos are working on different levels,” says Semerdjian. “It tells us that being tattooed could in some cases camouflage you in a period in which Armenians were supposed to be exterminated and not survive.”

She adds, “It does give you a strong sense that the tattoos are about identity at [their] core. I think it produces a strong emotional reaction for Armenians because it's about the erasure of the Armenian identity and this new identity that's being placed on the face.”

When World War I ended and some of the Armenian women were able to reconnect with their communities, their tattoos remained. Semerdjian notes that some women tried to hide these permanent reminders of life during the Genocide by using makeup or undergoing procedures to try and remove the tattoos. “They weren't excluded from society,” says Semerdjian. “They may have felt stigmatized and ostracized because they were wearing those marks, but they had families and there was no separating them from other Armenians. Yet, psychologically, it does a kind of work that was difficult to undo.”

Semerdjian has been poring over archives, including those of the League of Nations at the United Nations, to find photographic documentation of the tattoos, and there isn't much to find. Overall, she says, tattooing Armenian women wasn't an extremely common practice during the Genocide, but the images and stories that do exist illustrate one of the tragedies associated with genocide. “It's a minority of women who ended up rescued during World War I who actually bore the tattoos,” she says. “But, the ones who were tattooed, they capture our imagination because it's come to mean so much about that forced assimilation, that moment of forced assimilation.”

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