Hellenic has bequeathed the world many cultural treasures. Some of the many are the stories of the gods and heroes from greek mythology. These stories have penetrated all corners of commerce, film, and art for millennia, firing the imagination of writers, poets and filmmakers. But now, enter the 21st century and the meteoric rise of tattoo art. The proud symbols of the Greek pantheon have now made their way onto the living canvas of skin sported on many a Greek and Non Greek alike. So, what accounts for the popularity of Greek deities as well as Greek script on so many fine bods?
According to Dimitris Drakopoulos, founder of Hellenic Tattoos, a 12.5K Facebook community, the answer is partly due to popularity and partly due to pride. Dragopoulos started the group six years ago after disppointment at his own attempts to track down Greek inspired tatoos on the Internet. After a year of amassing his own inventory of Greek tatts, Drakopoulos, launched the site to encourage his Greek pride despite being in his words “computer illiterate.” He definitely noticed a rise in membership to the site after the blockbuster film 300, that featured the famous Spartan band, itself tatted. But for him, “tatters,” as is the term in Australia, are a matter of pride. “Tatts don’t make you more Greek, he explains in a thick Melbournian accent, “Hellenism is what you express through the tattoos. Hellenic is a way of life.” The way he sees it tatts are a form of expression, a way of bringing the intangible inside, to the visible outside.
“Personally I do it because it’s a way of life; it’s a form of expression about my culture and maybe do you still see some artwork of my body ask questions I can explain as much as I can and keep the Hellenic flame alive,” he says.
Some of the gods descend on human flesh; in this case, the legs of Hellenic Tattoos community founder Dimitrios Drakopoulos.
What about the history of tatting in Greek culture? According to some scholars, Greeks had a tradition of tatting slaves, criminals, and captives as a way of branding in case they escaped, a practice they probably learned from the Persians. An anecdote from Herodutus’ histories illustrates how the Greeks actually used tattoos as a weapon of war, specifically a way to send secret code. As explained by Adrienne Mayor, a classical folklorist, in “People Illustrated” an academic paper, the Ionian tyrant Histiaeus of Miletus imprisoned by the Persian king Darius in 500 B.C., wanted to inspire his son-in-law Aristogoras to revolt. To get the message out to him, he took the head of his most trusted slave, tattoed the message “incite Ionia to revolt!” on his scalp and waited until hair grew around the message and then sent him on his way. When the slave reached his destination, he shaved and viola! there was the message. Aristogoras read the instructions and started a revolt that ended in the Persian invasion of Athens. (Mayor, “People Illustrated,” www.academia.edu).
Indeed, it was common for rivaling city-states to conquer and tattoo their prisoners with the symbols of their polis. Athenians tattooed the foreheads of prisoners with an owl; when Samos defeated Athens, they reversed the image by tattooing the image of a Samian warship. Tattoos were even given as forms of punishment. Such is the punishment called for by Bitinna, the protagonist in The Jealous Woman, a play by the ancient Greek playwright Herodas. She called for the professional tattooer to punish her unfaithful slave-lover.
But, not all Greek peoples were averse to tattooing themselves. “In Thrace, according to Herodotus, plain skin signaled a lack of identity, and men and women with tattoos were much admired” (Mayor, “People Illustrated”).
In fact, according to the modern-day tattoo anthropologist, Lars Krutak, there is a remnant tribe called “Vlachs” in northern Greece that still keep the tradition of tattooing, even on their old women. He stumbled upon an old woman who had crosses tattooed against her forehead.
Giannoula, born in Albania, is one of a handful of tattooed Aromanian Vlachs living today. The origins of the Vlachs are obscure and most historians agree that they are the last remnants of a Latin-speaking population that existed in the Balkans since the Roman Empire.
Today the Vlachs are a minority population in an overwhelmingly Greek state. But they retain their traditional dress, language, and customs, including tattoo. Although increasingly rare, traditional tattoo exists on a handful of elder Vlach women. According to Giannoula, these marks not only reaffirmed her Orthodox Christian belief, but also affected powerful charms against the Evil Eye and other misfortunes. Furthermore, they protected her from the harems of the ruling Turks, because they despised “mutilated” women with forehead and body tattoos. The only other information I could learn about Vlach tattooing is that carbon was utilized as the pigment and at Vlach funerals lumps of charcoal were thrown to repel the spirit of the recently deceased. Old Vlach women were the tattoo artists. (http://www.vanishingtattoo.com/tattoos_in_Greece.htm)
While tatts might exist for some giagoules called Giannoula in obscure border villages, for the older conservative generation in the cities, they get a bad rep. Rena, a university student in Athens, has had a few disagreeable runs in with more conservative members in Athens. “I went into a church and some of the older women surrounded me and told me I was possessed,” she shared. “They ran to get the priest to perform an exorcism.”
Drakopoulos finds a similar pattern, but for other reasons. “In Greece I am very careful where I go because my tatts can be political,” he cautions. “I find I have more problems showing off my tatts in the big cities such as Thessaloniki and Athens rather than the South or in Australia.” He recounts an incident while walking through Syntagna Square one summer while on holiday. A group of 20 or 30 Anarchists surrounded him asking about the meandros symbol and other “fascist” signs on his body. He nearly escaped getting assaulted by explaining that he was a Greek-Australian who was proud of his roots and that all his tatts were Hellenic symbols. While it seems ironic that a a Diaspora Greek can get beaten up for sporting the very nationalistic symbols of his culture in the capital of the modern Greek state, Drakopoulos cautions that this phenomenon happens because of the right wing vs left wing politics that are begrudging Greece at the moment. Anarchists are against the hyper nationalism touted by the extremist Golden Dawn faction, and sometimes symbols, especially the meandros, even when they are inked into skin, can get confused for political ideology. “You can be a patriot without being ultra-nationalustic, you know what I mean,” Drakopoulos explains. With that being said, he does try to steer away from the Exarchia and other neighborhoods with a strong Anarchist presence to avoid further misunderstanding.
Will this deter him from tatting more Hellenic-themed symbols on his body? Probably not. What started with one tattoo when he was 17 has now sprawled to all areas of his body. At 38, he might be running out of skin. He is currently finishing his masterpiece, a scene depicting the Greek War of Independence, on his back.
All the craze in Greek inspired tattoos proves that the immortal gods have descended onto the living flesh of mortals and will never die.
“Without my Hellenism,” Drakopoulos cites, “I’ve got no wealth.”
Check out these awesome sites to see how mortals and immortals unite through skin and blood: