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Bedouin Tattoos in Jordan

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Tattooing has long been a custom for both Bedouin men and women. Today, the old style can still be seen over the hands and faces of older men and women, and it is very common for young men to still get tattooed with modern designs on their upper and lower arms.

The tradition of hand poked tattooing that once dotted the faces and hands of the women seems to be dying away, as only the older generation still carry the designs. I have not noticed traditional style tattoos on any women who appeared to be under 40 years of age.

I was also told by various sources that most of the tattoos on men in Jordan were done in prison. It is my impression that this could be a true statement for a certain style of tattooing – the hand poked designs on the hands and lower arms – but I have strong impressions that the modern machine constructed tattoos that are etched on the skin of many young men were done in professional studios, like most other places in the world.

I confirmed this suspicion at Petra as I questioned the Bedouin donkey and camel riders about where they received their tattoos. Many said Cairo, some said Amman. The tattooing was done clearly done in tattoo parlors. But when I asked about the prices they paid, they just shrugged their shoulders.

I befriended an older women in Petra as I was looking through her display of camel bone jewelry. I thought that these necklaces could make for good gifts further down the road and picked up a few. In the process of making our exchange, the woman noticed the tattoos that extend down my hands and fingers, just as I concurrently caught sight of the hand poked tattoo lines and dots that adorned her hands and face.

She grabbed my hand and rolled up my sleeve. She smiled her surprise at what she found: an arm full of tattoos. She moved on to the other arm, and found the same. Still smiling she showed rolled up her own sleeve and showed off her tattoos. It was now my turn to be impressed.


Bedouin tattoos in Petra.


This is the little girl of the lady that I was comparing tattoos with. She wanted to get in on the act and rolled up her sleeves to show me her tattoos, just like her mother. I looked down curiously, but, needless to say, she was not yet tattooed.


Traditional tattoos on the face of a Bedouin woman. (photo widely circulated around internet)


Potential prison style tattoos in Jordan. It is common for prison tattoos to be hand poked with a needle and made on the hands and fingers. I did not confirm if these tattoos were done while their wearers were incarcerated.


Tattoo that appears to have been done with a home made machine. This tattoo could have been done in a Jordan prison, though it is just as likely that it was done in the living room of a friend’s house. I now kick myself in the ass for not seeking confirmation from the man who allowed me to take this photograph.

Many people in Jordan seem to believe that tattooing is solely done in the prisons – “there are no tattoo stores here” I was told – but I believe that this only a half-truth at best. Many cultures like to clean off their own arses by claiming that tattooing is a criminal practice. There is usually an element of truth to this – prison tattoos are common all throughout the world – but this truth is never all-inclusive, as boys with needles and ink will invariable tattoo themselves regardless of circumstance.

People like to decorate and show off what they have. If someone has nothing, they will decorate and show off their own bodies. Prisoners have nothing, young men usually do not have too much, travelers have very little. So we tattoo ourselves and show it off.

Nearly all of the young, long haired and bearded Bedouin donkey and camel guides in Petra were decorated in modern – western style – tattoos. They were obviously done in studios or places designated for public tattooing, and not in prisons. It is interesting to me when old tradition is met at an intersection by modern fashion (or, in a very real sense, modern tradition). The philosophical meaning behind the tattoos of the Bedouin guides is different than that of their grandparents and ancient forebearers – the tattooing was not done to mark tribal affiliation or as religious talismans – but I believe that the deep intention is the same:

Tattoos are cool. I believe that people make up other meanings for them so as not to to embarrass themselves with sounding superficial. The impetus behind tattooing, both traditional and modern, is not only to mark rites of passage, tribal membership, practice spiritual worship, or as protective talismans, but also to look and feel attractive.

I must say that the Bedouins of Petra look real cool.

It is interesting to me when the Modern breathes life into the Ancient and rebirths a new form of an ancient art in the context of another age.

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Filed under: Art and Music, Craftsmanship, Culture and Society, Disappearing Traditions, Jordan, Middle East, Tattoo

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3048 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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