INSET: The elder statesmen of Albanian tattooists, Besnik Çela.
Article © 2009 Lars Krutak
TIRANA is the capital city of Albania and was founded in 1614 by the Muslim Sulejman Pasha who installed a Turkish bath, mosque, and bakery that eventually grew into a metropolis that boasts over one million inhabitants today.
The capital and country itself survived a turbulent 20th century that began first with the heavy influence of Mussolini’s Fascist Italy in the late 1920s. After Italian occupation ended after WWII, communist partisans led by future president Enver Hoxha overcame their rivals and for the next forty years the country endured one of the most repressive dictatorships leading the country into isolation and autarky. Under Hoxha, for example, private vehicles were illegal and everyone walked or rode bicycles. There were few social freedoms, and this was especially true for women. During the 1967 Cultural Revolution religion was brutally stamped out and all mosques and churches were taken over by the communist state. The 1976 constitution banned “fascist, religious, warmongerish, antisocialist propaganda and activity,” and by 1990 only 5% of Albania’s religious buildings were left intact. However, following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of communism across Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, and Hoxha’s death in 1985, the country finally began to mend and “open-up” to the rest of Europe and the West.
From a religious standpoint, Albania is the “largest” Islamic country in Europe today. Recent statistics note that about 70% of Albanians are Muslim, 20% Orthodox Christian and 10% Catholic, but realistically it is believed that up to 75% of the population is “nonreligious” or non-denominational.
Compared to the more culturally and religiously conservative Sunni Muslims of Kosovo who are of Albanian descent, Albania itself is much more relaxed because of its relationship with the Bektashi sect of Islam. For example, this faith allows the consumption of alcohol, women are less segregated even in rural areas, and rarely do they wear head-scarves as in Kosovo. When I worked and lived in Kosovo (2000-2002), Kosovo Albanian women in rural areas rarely frequented restaurants or cafes by themselves or even with their girlfriends. They certainly never partied at bars or even visited them, and even the men generally refrained from drinking beer, preferring hot tea instead. But then again, these circumstances in rural Kosovo could simply have been the result of the local economy (lack of jobs for women) or men were cautious of their girlfriends being in public places and fathers were just being protective of their daughters.
Nevertheless, the apparently subdued attitude towards religious faith in Albania also has much to do with the fact that after the fall of communism, many people moved abroad (Germany, Italy, Canada, and the United States) and began to marry outside of their religious faith. They also became influenced by the Western ideals of democracy, capitalism, and individual freedoms of expression including tattooing. And when they returned home, they transmitted these beliefs and practices into the social landscape. So now the distinction between different religious origins has become blurred through their blending.
Today, there are perhaps over a million Albanians living abroad. But many are returning home now because the economy is recovering due to international investment and there are more employment possibilities. Case in point, there are more Mercedes-Benz’s in Albania than any other European country (well, many of them are old taxis from Germany!). But I just couldn’t believe how many young people were driving Porsche Cayenne SUVs, BMW X5s (and the new X6s), as well as newer Audi SUVs. Of course, a popular custom nowadays is for a young person to go abroad and come back home and invest all of their money into an expensive car and cruise Tirana’s streets on the weekends, or just about any night for that matter. (Don’t forget that the parents of many of these young professionals were not allowed to own vehicles in their youth!) So the place is always off-the-chain especially the main entertainment district called Blloku near Tirana University where the “beautiful people” hang-out in trendy clubs, bars, restaurants, and discos. One middle aged man who lived in the United States for over ten years told me: “Before Hoxha, Albania had no future. But now we have one and it is extremely bright!”
THE TATTOO SCENE IN TIRANA
There are about a half-dozen tattooists working in Tirana today, but only four have their own shops. Some are just getting their start in the business, while others are old hands.
At first, it is difficult to find them. There is nothing on the internet about them and although there is a Yellow Pages directory, “Tattoo Shops” are not listed even though they must be licensed and taxed by the government. The best plan of attack is to stop a young person on the street (or better yet someone with tattoos) to get directions or ask your local bartender, because you’ll probably strike out, as I did initially, with taxi cab drivers.
Most young people also speak some English, or at least Italian which is like a second language to them. So if you are not proficient in Albanian, which is one of the hardest languages in the world to speak because it’s not related to any other, you better heed my advice!
Although my stay was brief in the city, I managed to track down three of the finest artists around, including the oldest, the most talented and famous, and the only female sinking ink in the country today. Everyone was extremely pleased to hear that an international tattoo reporter was, for the first time in history, interested in Albanian tattoo culture! With that said, what follows is my brief report.
BESNIK (RR. DURRËSIT NO. 59)
When Besnik is not tattooing in his dimly-lit Rruga Durrësit studio (rruga means “street”), he’s drumming in a rock band, lifting weights, or playing music with his son (keyboards) and daughter (violin) who are both professional musicians in their own right.
The elder statesman of tattoo artists operating in Tirana, Besnik is a classically trained painter and self-described Democrat. He attended the Academy of Fine Arts at Tirana University in the 1970s and excels in portraiture. This is quite obvious because the walls of his one-roomed studio are covered with canvases including a massive painting (completed in 1978) of Albania’s national hero, the warrior king Skanderbeg (1405-1468), whose armies successfully repelled Turkish invaders for over two decades.
Besnik lived abroad for over ten years and worked as a painter before he applied his artistic talents to become a tattooist: an art form which he learned in Germany in the early 1990s. Like most tattooists in Albania, he gets his needles, inks, and machines from Italy, and started tattooing himself as a way to build confidence before taking on his first paying client.
Interested in the evolution of popular tattoo culture in Albania, I asked Besnik about his impressions on the subject since he has a keen interest in the history of classical and modern art. “Twenty years ago, only convicts, gangsters, and military men had tattoos,” reported Besnik. “If you walked down the street in plain view with arm sleeves, you’d be ostracized and you might even get thrown into jail. And when I came back from Germany over ten years ago with all of these tattoos people still thought I was crazy!,” he said.
“As you may know, under Hoxha we were isolated and people were very narrow-minded and didn’t understand the motivation behind tattooing. There was tattooing around, but it was not expressive and artists were not very creative. Of course, this was due, in part, to a lack of proper tattoo machinery. But after Hoxha died and people began to return home, they brought with them many new ideas and it was liberating as far as tattooing here was concerned. People wanted to assert their individuality through tattooing, but also their ties to Albania and their nationalism through symbols like Skanderbeg and our national flag which is comprised of the double-headed eagle which was his coat of arms.”
“With tattooing, Albanians could express their values, experiences, and inner souls through a creative and artistic medium. Tattooing brings out emotional values and commitments that fellow Albanians share with others, and that is why it is a unique art form and become so popular here as it has in the rest of the world.”
And as I came to the end of our conversation, I asked Besnik about the future of tattooing in Albania and where it was headed.
“Today, it is the younger generation that is getting the most tattoos, and they are bringing Albanian culture to a whole new level through their interest in tattooing. At the same time, they are bringing us closer to Europe. As I said before, we were isolated for so long, and only now are we just beginning to catch-up in many ways with everyone else around the world.”
MANDI (RR. SULEJMAN DELVINA, NEAR FOOTBALL STADIUM “DINAMO”)
Perhaps the most famous international celebrity of Albanian descent to sport a double-headed eagle tattoo is the American actress Eliza Dushku. In 2005, she visited her father’s family in Albania and also the most celebrated of tattooists working in Tirana today Mandi.
Like Besnik, Mandi studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts at Tirana University and used this platform to move into tattooing. He’s been slinging ink for thirteen years and his wife Gena, who applies temporary tattoos, is also a painter and her canvasses cover nearly every inch of wall space in his bright basement studio “Mandi and Gena Tattoo” on the outskirts of the trendy Blloku district.
When I walked through the door he was working on a cover-up for an old military man who had some years before burned off some unwanted ink from his skin. Mandi was adeptly blending the man’s scar tissue and tattoo remnants into the epidermis with some flesh colored ink.
As I waited for him to finish, I took a look around and immediately noticed a signed and dated photo of Ms. Dushku embracing Mandi and thanking him for her “Albanian Eagle.” This was a revelation to me because there was no record on the internet of who her tattooist was and only now did I know who “gave her wings.”
I spied several sheets of flash, some pattern books, and an assortment of tattered tattoo magazines including a beat-up and taped-up copy of the September 2001 issue of Skin and Ink – the only American mag to have made the cut!
After the cover-up was completed, a young couple dropped-in and selected two designs, their first tattoos, to commemorate their 3rd year of marriage. Both spoke excellent English, and I conversed with Fabio (husband) about living in the States (Philly to be exact) for several years while watching his wife (Erilanda) wince over a butterfly tattoo inscribed with Fabio’s initials. As we talked about his modified, barely-legal 69′ Nova street racer and chasing girls in New Jersey, Mandi took a quick break, left the shop and reappeared as quickly as he left with a four-spot of Tuborg tall boys (his shop is next to a small grocery). Now that’s customer satisfaction and hospitality at its best! Fabio and I then quickly proceeded to down our first bottle while Mandi lit up a Lucky Strike and drew a big drag before returning to Erilanda’s new tat.
Ten minutes and 6,000 Albania Lek ($65 US) later, the happy couple was on their way and Mandi and I began chatting over another cold brew. I commented on how much business he seemed to be generating because he never failed to have a client come through his door, either to make an appointment or to ask about designs, while I was there.
He replied: “Yes, I work everyday except Sunday and my appointment book is full for the next two months. Part of the reason for this is that I get a lot of recommendations from satisfied customers, and also because of the summer season. Everyone is headed to the beaches at Durrës and they want to show off their new tattoos. But I get pretty tired towards the end of the summer so I take September off.”
“I typically tattoo more women than men, and they prefer smaller designs. Tribal tattoos are very popular among women, but Skanderbeg and Albanian eagle designs are the most popular overall.”
“I don’t do as many large pieces in the summer, because people usually come in on a whim for small designs. During the winter is when I get commissions for larger pieces. On a good day, I average about 200 Euros ($280 US) although right now I am eclipsing that because it is the tattoo season.
I was impressed with that monetary figure because the average annual income for most Albanians is roughly $5000 a year, compared to neighboring Kosovo which is far worse at $1800. In fact, half of the population in Kosovo lives on less than $5 a day. And it is no small wonder that Mandi told me that if his young daughter desired to pursue tattooing as a profession when she grew up that he would support and encourage her decision.
ENI TATTOO (BLLOKU DISTRICT, RR. BRIGADA VIII)
Just a few blocks north of Mandi’s shop in the heart of Blloku is the tattooing sister tag-team of Enilda and Dea Dervishi. Eni, or the “short lady” as she is lovingly called, has the distinction of being the only female tattooist in Albania and like everyone else sinking ink in the city is an alum(na) of Tirana University’s Academy of Fine Arts. Her younger sister Dea applies temporary tattoos, a popular art form for youth and people heading to parties, and is learning to tattoo from her older sister. Eni expects her apprenticeship to last until this fall when Dea will start working on her own.
Artistry appears to run in the family as both she and her sister are painters and their mother illustrates children’s books. Eni has been tattooing for almost ten years now and she began her career with a homemade machine at the age of 17. Her progression to a modern machine took time because tattoo equipment is expensive by local standards and for Eni it was “heavy” in the beginning because she has small hands.
Their basement shop is very new and they have only been established in the neighborhood for about two months. Their one-roomed studio is bright, cheery, and the walls are decorated with canvasses proclaiming the artistic prowess of these charismatic ladies. Because they are just getting up to speed on the new business location, they are still working on flash sheets and photo catalogues to display in the shop. At the time of my visit, I relied on their computer to get a sampling of their work which covers all genres, especially tribal and religiously-themed tattoos.
When I asked Eni about the relative lack of female artists in her country she offered that “there are other women who make temporary tattoos and many that have the artistic ability to become tattooists. But many Albanian women are raising children and working at home and are not able to juggle family and a profession like tattooing, especially if they have a studio to look after. Plus, it’s expensive to rent a small studio in the Blloku (about $500 USD a month), and it’s a big gamble. Luckily, we are not heavily taxed like restaurants and bars because we are offering a ‘public service.’ But I’d love to see more women do what I am doing and make beautiful art for their clients, and I am sure more will in the future.”
Luckily a family friend and tattoo patron of the sisters was visiting the shop when I dropped in. Klodi, a member of Albania’s military, has a dagger tattoo inked by Besnik and also sports a couple of Solomon’s Seals on his back that Eni has been working on. Klodi will eventually receive five more Hebrew “Pentacles of the Sun” which are related to his zodiac sign and are believed to hold magical properties. When completed they will take the shape of a cross.
Surprisingly, many of the tattoos I saw on Besnik’s, Mandi’s, and Eni’s clients were Christian, or in Klodi’s case Hebrew, in origin. Massive crucifix backpieces, crosses intertwined with the Albanian eagle or Skanderbeg (or both), and tribally-inspired cruciforms were common themes. Obviously this trend has to do with religious preference, but I would also like to think that this has something to do with the fact that Skanderbeg was a Roman-Catholic, as was the vast majority of Albanians before the Turkish invasions. Interestingly, Christian, crypto-Catholic, and Hebrew symbolism has survived in Albania for over fifteen hundred years. Not only in the crucifix tattoos worn by elderly Orthodox Vlach women from the south and Muslim women in the mountainous north to repel the Evil Eye (see my February 2006 and July 2003 articles in Skin and Ink), but also in the apotropaic amulets excavated from ancient Byzantine cities in Albania like Butrint on the southern coast. Here, 5th century A.D. mosaics with large eyes surrounded by crosses, lead pendants inscribed with crosses within circling bands (e.g., the halo of light associated with the second coming of Christ), and rings with cruciform anchors (e.g., the anchor is an ancient apotropaic symbol of hope) have been found and were believed to keep evil at bay. Chi-Rho monograms and six-pointed stars adorn window grilles that would have protected inhabitants and guests from demons that slipped into the household on a breath of wind or a shaft of light. Even a double-sided bronze amulet with a Hebrew association was found at Butrint portraying a horseman with haloed head lancing a prone figure, while a lion bounds along below. A Latin inscription reads “One god who conquers evil,” and refers to the holy rider Solomon, the master of demons, who was empowered to control and bind all evil spirits. The image on the other side depicts the Evil Eye assailed by spears and a trident, and surrounded by aggressive creatures: a lion, serpents and a scorpion. At the top is inscribed “Lao/Jawe, Lord of Hosts, Michael, help,” calling on a popular trinity of protective powers of Jewish association.
I should also note here that the Christian Motorcyclists Association (CMA) has a chapter in Albania, and they sometimes meet just around the corner from Eni’s tattoo shop at “Steelwings” (rr. Vaso Pasha), the only biker bar in the country. Steelwings was founded just two years ago and they are also on Facebook (so is the CMAA). After photographing the storefront and a Triumph Legend on the street, I headed inside on a weekday summer morning and slammed a liter of locally brewed Tirana Beer while observing several heavily tattooed leather-clad folks sipping macchiatos and cappuccinos after a late night of partying in Blloku. Metallica was blasting on the sound system followed by Bon Jovi and Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” – after all, it was just days after the King of Pop died and he has lots of fans in Albania. Jack Daniel’s and Harley Davidson banners adorned the darkly paneled walls along with American flags. The vibe was seriously “bikeresque” in a chic kind of Euro-Albanian way.
Following the global trend, the owner of Steelwings recently co-sponsored the 1st annual Chopper Convention and rally in May of this year. The event held in Tirana included a “Best Motorcycle Design” contest, live rock bands, and local tattooists. It was heavily attended, and so popular that another is scheduled for September.
All in all I had an incredible time in Tirana, and I would highly recommend a visit to anyone traveling in Eastern Europe! Compared to the rest of the Continent, it’s relatively inexpensive because Albania has not yet converted their currency to the Euro and it is still opening-up to the rest of the world. Tourism is certainly on the rise and the country is incredibly diverse with majestic mountains, timeworn villages, pristine beaches, World Heritage sites, amazing ethnic food, local brews and wines. People are friendly and international, and they’ll show you a great time no matter what you are after. And if you seek a tattooed souvenir to permanently mark your time and experiences in the “Land of Eagles,” Tirana is definitely the place to be. As Besnik told me, “We are all artists at the end of the day, so if you come and visit us here I am certain you will receive a wonderful tattoo that you will be pleased to share with others.” I couldn’t have said it any better.
Krutak, L. (2006). “Greece’s Oldest: Jimmy’s Tattoo Studio.” Skin and Ink Magazine, p. 14-16. February.
(2003). “Landmines and Tough Times: Tattoo Art in Kosovo.” Skin and Ink Magazine, p. 61-67. July.