Getting Tattooed in an Underground Shop in Cairo
Getting a proper tattoo in Cairo is near impossible. I know, because I just got one. From my personal experience, the only tattoos I ever saw in Egypt were the crosses Coptic Christians proudly wore on their hands as tradition, or the homemade, stick-and-poke tattoos young kids give each other. Anything beyond that isn’t accepted—or exactly legal. Neon-lit tattoo parlors don’t exist in Egypt.
I’ve been traveling to Cairo at least once a year since I was a child, but when I visited in 2007, I noticed a new trend: more and more young Egyptians had tattoos. They were detailed and well crafted, tattoos with the quality I could get in New York City. I was laying on the beach in Sharm el-Sheik, a vacation city in southern Sinai, when some of my friends exposed their skin and surprised me with their great tattoos. I asked a few of them where they got them, and every single one told me the same thing: an Irishman living in Cairo named Al Hurley had opened a tattoo shop.
Tattooing has always been a part of Egyptian culture. Some of the earliest documentation of tattooing comes from the ancient Egyptians. The women used to get fertility symbols and other intricately detailed tattoos across their abdomens. As these patterns expanded during pregnancy, they would form even more symbolically interesting and beautiful patterns. Bedouin women still tattoo their faces until current day. The Coptic Christians started tattooing their wrist with a cross as a symbol of their identity, a tribute to their community, and to use as protection from evil. In a predominately Muslim country, a tattooed cross is still a symbol of pride. Beyond that, graphic tattoos with detailed designed, the kind that showcase “individuality” are still uncommon in Egypt. The majority of Egyptians will still preach that tattoos are (forbidden in the Muslim religion) or only for thugs and goons, but that’s all changing, according to Al. Egyptians are getting brave, with bigger and more exposed tattoos.
To get to Al’s tattoo shop, you have to know someone. He doesn’t exactly take walk-ins and you won’t even get a response if someone doesn’t vouch for you. After a customer of his introduced us, Al agreed to speak with me via email first. After a few exchanges, he gave me his address and I took a cab to a modest apartment building in Maadi, a southwestern neighborhood in Cairo. Once there, the doorman immediately asked me in Arabic if I was I was looking for Al. I suppose I looked the type.
The tattoo shop sits on top of the building, overlooking Maadi’s prison—one of the largest and most famous in Cairo. Al’s got a buzzed haircut and bright blue eyes. In expected tattoo-artist fashion, the majority of his body is covered in ink. He’s a brilliant guy with many opinions about Egyptian politics but he won’t share them. He says it’s not his country and that he has no real right to meddle into Egyptian affairs. He’s an Irishman who was living in England, and when his father died, he took a trip to Cairo where his mother lived. He only stayed because more people kept getting tattoos. In his nine years, he’s seen a lot of interesting things: An American businessman in Cairo once requested a collapsing image of the Twin Towers as a sleeve, because he believed 9/11 was a conspiracy.
When I sat down in his shop to get maktub, the Arabic word for “written” tattooed on my shoulder, Al told me even stranger stories that, at his request, I had to keep out, but maybe he’ll tell you himself if you’re ever in Cairo. I was just psyched Al even agreed to speak to me. This was the first interview he’s ever allowed since he’s been in Egypt.
VICE: When was your first tattoo?
Al Hurley: I did my first tattoo when I was probably around 14 years old. Small hand pokes, little homemade tattoos. I always had an interest in art, was always drawing. My first professional tattoo I got done when I was 18, and ever since then I’ve been hooked on it.
When did you start tattooing people?
I started in 2000. I got into it totally by mistake. A friend of mine was getting tattooed and I was asking a bunch of questions, and the tattoo artist, Michele Prezioso, offered to train me. He said if I was able to get money in the next two days, he said he’d get me the equipment and get me started. So I got he idea in my head and borrowed the money. I ended up getting the money together and picked up the equipment on Friday.