Behind Algeria's Tattoos: A Portrait Series

At 73, Roqaya recalls that at age 12 she very much wanted tattoos, but after the pain of the first, the tattoo on her forehead remains her only one. Her desire for tattoos was linked to the belief that tattoos were considered markers of beauty. Image by Yasmin Bendaas. Algeria, 2012.

The name and significance of Yamina’s tattoo remains unknown to her. With a series of dots arching over her eyebrows, the tattoo is unique in Chemora and the surrounding villages. It is possible that her tattoo is rare because the adasiya (the nomadic woman who customarily gave tattoos for payment) was from a different region. Yamina believes her adasiya came from the Sahara while several other tattooed women say their adasiya traveled from Tunisia. Image by Yasmin Bendaas. Algeria, 2012.

At age 83, Nana Fatima has only one tattoo on her forehead, and it is strikingly different because it remains unfinished. Although she was possibly only five years old when tattooed and does not remember the event, it was her brother who refused to let the tattoo be completed due to its prohibition by Islam. Image by Yasmin Bendaas. Algeria, 2012.

One cheek remains blank on Nua’s face where there is often a sun, or shams (Arabic for “sun”), tattooed traditionally. Another woman from the same village, Boumia, demonstrated this absence of a tattoo also. Drawing from this, it is possible that the two women were given tattoos by the same adasiya. Image by Yasmin Bendaas. Algeria, 2012.

A diamond-shaped tattoo is found on Gaima’s cheek. The tattoo is extremely common in Chemora and surrounding areas; however, not so usual is the replication of the tattoo found on her temples. The shape, called ain hijla, represents a partridge that has this shape around its face. Image by Yasmin Bendaas. Algeria, 2012.

The tattoos remain surprisingly vivid and dark on 90-year-old Arjona’s face. Arjona, who takes pride in the tattoos as well as the culture surrounding them, is also wearing a traditional shash around her head. A poet and singer, even in old age Arjona still knows the songs sung during the tattooing process. Image by Yasmin Bendaas. Algeria, 2012.

At 77, Rabaiya recalls that she received her tattoos at separate times in her life. Her first tattoo, called burnus and found on the forehead, was given to her at the age of seven. When she had her first son, she tattooed her chin. Later, at the age of 30, she received a tattoo above the ankle. Her love of the tattoos throughout her life was something that her sister Louasna also shared – so much so that Louasna even tattooed herself without an adasiya. Image by Yasmin Bendaas. Algeria, 2012.

Although she is Arab, 85-year-old Touta shares the same tattoos that are extremely common among the Chaouia -- demonstrating how Arabs and the Chaouia have traditionally shared their cultures in the Aurés mountain region. Image by Yasmin Bendaas. Algeria, 2012.

Yamina’s children have her blue eyes, but they do not also have tattoos. The tattooing tradition has been nonexistent for the most recent generations. Click here to read about Islam’s influence on the tradition’s disappearance). Image by Yasmin Bendaas. Algeria, 2012.

Duloola has a particularly strong memory of the Algerian war against France due to her brother’s death. Her brother was declared a war hero in Chemora. Duloola also denied one myth – that women tattooed themselves as protection against French soldiers, who supposedly did not like women with tattoos. In fact, the tattooing tradition began long before French colonization of Algeria. Instead, to escape the eyes of French soldiers Algerian women sometimes covered their faces and arms with soot. Image by Yasmin Bendaas. Algeria, 2012.

Jameela, 73, recalls how many tattoos her mother had, but she never cared for them herself. Like some women, Jameela received her tattoo not of her own will. It was the decision of close family members who believed “a woman without tattoos is not a woman.” Image by Yasmin Bendaas. Algeria, 2012.

A generation of women in the Aurés Mountains of Algeria are marked by tattoos on their faces. Some shapes are alike; others are completely unique to the woman or to the place where she was raised. Drawing from surroundings, from clans, from the wandering and tattoo-giving adasiya, the markings tell the story of who a woman is.

These women, many of them over 70, have witnessed French colonization, World War II, and the Algerian war of independence. They lived their youths in a struggling country but held fast to their own traditions. The tattoos have survived because the women themselves have survived, with their faces to tell their tales.