You've never seen tattoos like Sarah's before. They're bright and beautiful and are all based on badass female video game characters. That's right, badass female video game characters. Sarah has lived in different countries and recently moved back to Sudan, where she is planning to become a tattoo artist herself.
All tattoos by Did Moraes
What’s it like to have tattoos now that you’ve moved to Sudan?
I never wanted my tattoos to be a rebellious thing because my mom is still a practicing Muslim. I feel like that theme was over emphasised by myself or others - that I kind of just do what I want, that I’m anti-religion, anti whatever. Then, going to Sudan, I realised I can be Sudanese. You can have blue hair, you can have tattoos and people treat you just as well. I found that acceptance to be very liberating. Whereas I get the feeling that, despite things being more open-minded in the West, or perceived to be so, as a tattooed woman you are seen in a certain way, you know? People kind of tick boxes with you. It’s like, ‘oh you are a tattooed woman’, instantly you’re a feminist, you’re this, you’re that.
And you didn’t experience that in Sudan?
People obviously treat you differently sometimes, but I was surprised by how much people liked my tattoos. I was afraid of the backlash of it being prohibited in Islam, but most people didn’t care. Most people were just fascinated because they’ve never seen coloured tattoos. It was encouraging for them because it’s not like it’s on a foreigner, it’s on a Sudanese woman. I think this was what fascinated the women the most. It was like, ‘if she can do this, I can do loads of other things.’ Because a lot of women, for example, can’t work because their families don’t want them to go out and be outside the home. You constantly have to be overprotected, you can’t talk to anyone in the street. Some households are like this and for some women to see that you’re doing what you like, it’s almost like a sign of hope. I don’t want to say this about myself as if I’ve done something, but the tattoos start to symbolise much more than just personal taste or my own beliefs.
So maybe those things are taken for granted here?
Yes, yes. Definitely!
How have men or women reacted to your tattoos when you’ve been dating?
Most people are fascinated. Some men would ask me before they even see my tattoos “why did you destroy your body with tattoos?” Here [in the UK] I found that some men take you as some kind of ‘loose’ woman because they think “Oh, you are liberated, you’re probably a feminist, you’re probably this, you’re probably that, so therefore you’re probably easy to sleep with.” So you are stereotyped as having a certain kind of sexuality because you have tattoos.
Tell me about when you first got your tattoos and where you were in your life.
I was still studying at university at the time. I was doing a degree I didn’t like. I wasn’t happy. I left drawing when I went to university. You have this expectation that, OK, I have to go to uni, I have to do this kind of job, and you end up trying to conform more than when you were a kid. And I think the tattooing was almost like me trying to be myself. I wasn’t happy because there were a lot of family problems that were unresolved. I was going through a period of time where I stopped practicing Islam for about three-four years and dealing with family was tense. The tattoos were a massive problem with my mum.
What did she say when you came in with a tattoo?
She called it self-mutilation. When I got more, she was pushing me to go to counselling and to seek psychotherapy. She thought this was like a mental illness.
Did that kind of help you accept your own choices more because someone was pushing against them?
Oh my God, no! It did the opposite thing where I was struggling with my identity. I didn’t accept that I was who I was. As a human being you are a social animal, you want to be part of a group, you want to feel like there’s family, there’s home, you want to feel love. And I was not getting love from home. But then things got better. I met an illustrator who was the first professional illustrator to see my drawings and she told me that if you continue this, you can go somewhere with it. I was surprised. I used to hide my drawings. I immediately gained confidence. I got more tattoos. There was a comfort when I got them done because I felt like my actual self was shining through.
Are there any social expectations your tattoos have posed a challenge to?
My mum’s family in Sudan is traditional and the women are all housewives. The question that was on their mind was: “What if the guy you want to get married to doesn’t accept your tattoos?” Because according to them no one is going to see my arms and I’m not going to have sexual relationships before marriage. For me it was such a no brainer. I said to them “If he doesn’t, he’s going to reject all of this? All of me? Regardless of what I have to offer emotionally, physically, mentally, because I have drawings on my skin? If this is the deal breaker, I don’t fucking want it.” They were trying to tell me that this goes against the [Islamic] teachings.
What do your tattoos show? What role do they play in your identity?
They represent my taste. I would say my taste in what I like in terms of colours. I love colours. These characters on my arm are not known, but they are kickass women. Everything tattooed on my arms is taken from the art of Yoshitaka Amano and five of them are video game characters from the Final Fantasy series.
Sarah's drawings (she's planning to become a tattoo artist in Sudan)
Are they all female?
They are all female. As a kid in Saudi Arabia there is a lot of censorship. My father didn’t allow us to watch television. He allowed us one hour of Playstation or cartoons per day. In Saudi Arabia women aren’t really on TV, so these were good female characters, they were not side characters. They didn’t need to depend on any male characters at all. It was something that I could relate to as a tomboy even though I was in Saudi Arabia and you literally live in a flat and you can’t go outside on your own at all. But in the video games I played, women were going on adventures and using weapons and fighting side by side with men. They were still not masculine, they still were very feminine in how they were represented but they were kickass, they were themselves, and as a child I liked that very much, I related to it. There was some kind of comfort in them.
The more I go back to being myself as I was when I was five, the happier I am. Because that was my authentic personality before upbringing and society comes and changes you. It was almost like I was subconsciously telling myself: remember when you were kickass when you were a kid? Yeah, be like these characters.
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