Turkey's Tattoo Politics


Every year on November 10, at exactly 9:05 a.m., Europe's biggest city comes to a halt. Air raid sirens begin to blare. Pedestrians freeze in their tracks. Schools, factories, and government offices suspend work to observe two minutes of silence. On Istanbul's massive thoroughfares, cars, buses and trucks screech to a stop, their drivers and passengers spilling out onto the street, many of them teary eyed, to stand to attention.

Only a handful of world leaders are said to be able to stop traffic while in town. The founder of the modern Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk--for it is his memory that Turks honor each November--continues to do so more than 70 years after his death.

With a résumé like his, small wonder. It was Ataturk who stopped the Western powers from carving the Ottoman Empire into pieces after the end of the First World War. Triumphant, endowed with near absolute power, and convinced that Turkey would have to adapt or die, it was also he who engineered its transformation from a crumbling Islamic empire to a secular republic. In the process, Ataturk did away with the 1,292-year-old caliphate, traded the Arabic alphabet for the Latin one, and ensured that Turkish women would earn the right to vote well before many of their counterparts in the West. Conservative Turks might privately resent Ataturk's imposition of a system that relegated religion exclusively to the private sphere and made it not separate from but subservient to the state--a brand of secularism even harsher than France's--but they still worship him as their country's hero and savior.

For Emre Aribulan, an employee at Shadows--a tattoo parlor near Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul's main pedestrian drag--Ataturk has begun to translate into a business opportunity. Young Turks are flooding shops like his to have Ataturk's likeness--or his signature--permanently inked onto their chests, shoulders, or forearms. Emre, himself a self-avowed Kemalist (as Ataturk's devotees call themselves), is delighted. "Just last week I had four people come in for an Ataturk tattoo," he says.

"I had mine done when I lived in Berlin," says Gurcan, age 23. "I wanted my friends in Germany to ask me why I got it, what it means, to ask me about Ataturk. I could talk to them about it for hours." Gurcan waxes lyrical about his hero. "For Turks, Ataturk opened the way to modernity. There has never been a man like him, and there probably never will be."


The growing popularity of tattoos like the one that adorns Gurcan's forearm is only one sign of Ataturk's reemergence as a weapon in Turkey's increasingly vicious culture wars. Many Turks perceive a "creeping Islamization" under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and as the backlash grows, Ataturk's image has become omnipresent at anti-government demonstrations. The threat posed to his legacy by Prime Minister Taiypp Erdogan and the religiously conservative AKP has become one of the secular opposition's main rallying cries. The Ataturk cult has sometimes evolved in unexpected ways. At a lingerie shop in Nisantasi, Istanbul's pricey shopping district, the owner has hung a picture of Ataturk--captioned with a quote of his that reads, "Know that the Turkish republic cannot be a country of sheiks, dervishes, and disciples"--directly above a set of push-up bras.

"We love Ataturk," says Ayse, her left forearm bearing Ataturk's trademark signature, "but the tattoo is also a symbol and a protest against Erdogan and his ilk, the Islamists."

"These people want to want to divide Turkey," adds one of her friends. "That's because they're Jewish agents."

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Piotr Zalewski is an Istanbul-based freelance writer for Time, Foreign Policy, and Polityka.

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