BBC 2024-02-27 04:32:05

‘Who will call me Dad?’ Tears of Gaza father who lost 103 relatives

Ahmad al-Ghuferi missed the bomb that obliterated his family.  

When 103 relatives were killed in a strike on their family home in Gaza City, he was stuck 50 miles (80km) away, in the occupied West Bank town of Jericho.

Ahmad had been working on a Tel Aviv construction site when Hamas attacked Israel on 7 October – unable to return to his wife and three young daughters because of the war that followed, and Israel’s military blockade. 

He spoke to them at the same time every day, when the phone connections allowed, and was on the phone to his wife, Shireen, as the attack happened on the evening of 8 December.

“She knew she would die,” he said. “She told me to forgive her for anything bad she might ever have done to me. I told her there was no need to say that. And that was the last call between us.”

A large bomb attack on his uncle’s house that evening killed his wife and his three young daughters – Tala, Lana and Najla. 

It also killed Ahmad’s mother, four of his brothers and their families, as well as dozens of his aunts, uncles and cousins. More than 100 dead in all. Over two months on, some of their bodies are still trapped under the rubble.

Last week, he marked his youngest daughter’s birthday. Najla would have turned two. Ahmad is still trying to grasp the loss.

Unable to hold his children’s bodies or be at their hurried burials, he still speaks of them in the present tense, his face motionless beneath the rolling tears.

“My daughters are little birds to me,” he said. “I feel like I’m in a dream. I still can’t believe what’s happened to us.”

He has removed pictures of the girls from his phone and laptop screens, so as not to be ambushed by them.

He has been left to piece together the story of what happened from the accounts of a few surviving relatives and neighbours.

They told him that a missile had first struck the entrance to his family’s house. 

“They hurried out and went to my uncle’s house nearby,” he said. “Fifteen minutes later, a fighter jet hit that house.”

The four-storey building where the family was killed sat around the corner from the Sahaba Medical Centre in Gaza City’s Zeitoun neighbourhood.

It is now a mound of splintered concrete, the rubble shot through with bright dots of colour: a green plastic cup, shreds of dusty clothing.

The crumpled frame of a silver car, its windscreen twisted into a grimace, sits nearby under overhanging concrete rocks.

One of Ahmad’s surviving relatives, Hamid al-Ghuferi, told the BBC that when the strikes began, those who ran away up the hill survived, and those who sheltered in the house were killed. 

“It was a fire-belt,” he said. “There were strikes on the four houses next to ours. They were hitting a house every 10 minutes.”

“110 people from the Ghuferi family were there – our children and relatives,” he said. “All but a handful of them were killed.”

Survivors say the eldest victim was a 98-year-old grandmother; the youngest a baby boy born just nine days earlier.

  • Why are Israel and Hamas fighting in Gaza?
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Another relative, a cousin who is also called Ahmad, described two big explosions from an air strike.

“There was no advance warning,” he said. “If [some] people hadn’t already left this area, I think hundreds would have been killed. The area looks totally different now. There was a car park, a place to store water, and three houses plus one big house. The blast obliterated a whole residential area.”

Hamid said the survivors had worked until the early hours of the morning to retrieve the bodies from the rubble.

“Airplanes were hovering in the sky, and quadcopters were firing at us as we were trying to pull them out,” the cousin Ahmad said.

“We were sitting in the house and we found ourselves under the rubble,” Umm Ahmad al-Ghuferi told the BBC. “I was thrown from one side to the other. I don’t know how they got me out. We saw death in front of our eyes.”

Two and a half months on, they’re still trying to reach some of the bodies buried beneath the rubble. The family have collected money to hire a small digger, to chip away at the debris.

“We retrieved four bodies [today],” Ahmad told the BBC, “including my brother’s wife and my nephew Mohammed, who was pulled out in pieces. They had been under the rubble for 75 days.”

Their temporary graves lie in a piece of empty land nearby, marked by sticks and plastic sheeting.

Ahmad, stuck in Jericho, has not visited them.

“What did I do to be deprived of my mum, my wife, my children and my brothers?” he asked. “They were all civilians.”

We asked the Israeli army about the family’s allegations that it was targeted by air strikes. In response, the army said it was not aware of the strike in question, and that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) took “feasible precautions to mitigate civilian harm” in its war with Hamas.

There was intense fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas gunmen in the area of Shejaiyya, a few blocks south of the al-Ghuferi house, in the days immediately before and after Ahmad’s family were killed.

In a daily update on 9 December, the army said that it had “identified a number of terrorists armed with anti-tank missiles” approaching troops in Shejaiyya, and called in a helicopter strike on them.

It also said fighter jets had been striking terror targets in the Gaza Strip, as ground operations continued.

The area of Zeitoun, where the family house once stood, is now the focus of fresh operations by the IDF.

In Jericho, Ahmad still sometimes calls his surviving relatives in Gaza. But after months of being trapped outside his beloved home and desperate to return, he is no longer sure if he will ever go back.

“My dream was shattered in Gaza,” he said. “Who should I go back for? Who will call me Dad? Who will call me darling? My wife used to tell me I was all her life. Who will tell me that now?”

Israel Gaza: Biden hopes for ceasefire by next week

US President Joe Biden has said he hopes to have a ceasefire “by next Monday” in the Israel-Gaza war.

His comments come amid reports of some progress reached in ongoing negotiations involving Israel and Hamas representatives in Qatar.

“My national security advisor tells me that we’re close,” Mr Biden said.

Israel launched a large-scale air and ground campaign in Gaza after Hamas gunmen killed about 1,200 people in southern Israel on 7 October.

The attackers also took 253 people hostage, a number of whom have since been released.

The Hamas-run health ministry in the Gaza Strip says at least 29,782 people have been killed in the territory since then, including 90 on Sunday alone.

  • Netanyahu lays out plan for Gaza after the war
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President Biden, whose country is Israel’s main ally, was speaking to reporters in New York City about the possible ceasefire.

“We’re close,” he said on Monday. “We’re not done yet. My hope is by next Monday we’ll have a ceasefire.”

A spokesman for the US State Department said earlier that “progress” had been made in negotiations to release the Israeli hostages in the last several days, but that it remained unclear whether Hamas would accept the latest proposed deal.

“We’ve had progress with the conversations we’ve had between Egypt, Israel, the United States and Qatar,” said spokesman Matthew Miller.

Last week the US was widely criticised for vetoing a UN Security Council resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. Instead, it proposed its own temporary ceasefire resolution, which also warned Israel not to invade the southern Gazan city of Rafah.

Israel’s government says it has received plans from its military for evacuating civilians from parts of the Gaza Strip ahead of new ground operations.

Israel has been under mounting international pressure not to launch such an offensive in the city, home to many Palestinian refugees who have fled from other parts of Gaza.

In a separate development, Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh resigned along with his government, which runs parts of the occupied West Bank.

President Mahmoud Abbas accepted his decision, which could pave the way for a technocratic government.

Mr Abbas is under pressure from the US to reform the PA so it can govern Gaza after the Israel-Hamas war ends.

Last week, Mr Netanyahu presented a vision for the territory that made no mention of any role for the PA.

The young refusing to become Myanmar’s ‘human shields’

A deadly stampede outside a passport office that took two lives and unending lines outside embassies – these are just some examples of what has been happening in Myanmar since the announcement of mandatory conscription into the military.

Myanmar’s military government is facing increasingly effective opposition to its rule and has lost large areas of the country to armed resistance groups.

On 1 February 2021, the military seized power in a coup, jailing elected leaders and plunging much of the country into a bloody civil war that continues today.

Thousands have been killed and the UN estimates that around 2.6 million people been displaced.Young Burmese, many of whom have played a leading role protesting and resisting the junta, are now told they will have to fight for the regime.

Many believe that this is a result of the setbacks suffered by the military in recent months, with anti-government groups uniting to defeat them in some key areas.

“It is nonsense to have to serve in the military at this time, because we are not fighting foreign invaders. We are fighting each other. If we serve in the military, we will be contributing to their atrocities,” Robert, a 24-year-old activist, told the BBC.

Many of them are seeking to leave the country instead.

“I arrived at 03:30 [20:30 GMT] and there were already about 40 people queuing for the tokens to apply for their visa,” recalled a teenage girl who was part of a massive crowd outside the Thai embassy in Yangon earlier in February. Within an hour, the crowd in front of the embassy expanded to more than 300 people, she claims.

“I was scared that if I waited any longer, the embassy would suspend the processing of visas amid the chaos,” she told the BBC, adding that some people had to wait for three days before even getting a queue number.

In Mandalay, where the two deaths occurred outside the passport office, the BBC was told that there were also serious injuries – one person broke their leg after falling into a drain while another broke their teeth. Six others reported breathing difficulties.

Justine Chambers, a Myanmar researcher at the Danish Institute of International Studies, says mandatory conscription is a way of removing young civilians leading the revolution.

“We can analyse how the conscription law is a sign of the Myanmar military’s weakness, but it is ultimately aimed at destroying lives… Some will manage to escape, but many will become human shields against their compatriots,” she said.

Myanmar’s conscription law was first introduced in 2010 but had not been enforced until on 10 February the junta said it would mandate at least two years of military service for all men aged 18 to 35 and women aged 18 to 27.

Maj-Gen Zaw Min Tun, the spokesperson for the military government, said in a statement that about a quarter of the country’s 56 million population were eligible for military service under the law.

The regime later said it did not plan to include women in the conscript pool “at present” but did not specify what that meant.

The government spokesperson told BBC Burmese that call-ups would start after the Thingyan festival marking the Burmese New Year in mid-April, with an initial batch of 5,000 recruits.

The regime’s announcement has dealt yet another blow to Myanmar’s young people.

Many had their education disrupted by the coup, which came on top of school closures at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In 2021, the junta suspended 145,000 teachers and university staff over their support for the opposition, according to the Myanmar Teachers’ Federation, and some schools in opposition-held areas have been destroyed by the fighting or by air strikes.

Then there are those who have fled across borders seeking refuge, among them young people looking for jobs to support their families.

  • Young Burmese confront dashed dreams in exile
  • Why India wants to fence its troubled Myanmar border

In response to the conscription law, some have said on social media that they would enter the monkhood or get married early to dodge military service.

The junta says permanent exemptions will be given to members of religious orders, married women, people with disabilities, those assessed to be unfit for military service and “those who are exempted by the conscription board”. For everyone else, evading conscription is punishable by three to five years in prison and a fine.

But Mr Min doubts the regime will honour these exemptions. “The junta can arrest and abduct anyone they want. There is no rule of law and they do not have to be accountable to anyone,” he said.

Wealthier families are considering moving their families abroad – Thailand and Singapore being popular options, but some are even looking as far afield as Iceland – with the hope that their children would get permanent residency or citizenship there by the time they are of conscription age.

Others have instead joined the resistance forces, said Aung Sett, from the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, which has a long history of fighting military rule.

“When I heard the news that I would have to serve in the military, I felt really disappointed and at the same time devastated for the people, especially for those who are young like me. Many young people have now registered themselves to fight against the junta,” the 23-year-old told the BBC from exile.

Some observers say the enforcement of the law now reveals the junta’s diminishing grip on the country.

Last October, the regime suffered its most serious setback since the coup. An alliance of ethnic insurgents overran dozens of military outposts along the border with India and China. It has also lost large areas of territory to insurgents along the Bangladesh and Indian borders.

According to the National Unity Government, which calls itself Myanmar’s government in exile, more than 60% of Myanmar’s territory is now under the control of resistance forces.

“By initiating forced conscription following a series of devastating and humiliating defeats to ethnic armed organisations, the military is publicly demonstrating just how desperate it has become,” said Jason Tower, country director for the Burma programme at the United States’ Institute of Peace.

  • A turning point in Myanmar as army suffers big losses
  • Who are the rulers who executed Myanmar activists?

Mr Tower expects the move to fail because of growing resentment against the junta.

“Many youth dodging conscription will have no choice but to escape into neighbouring countries, intensifying regional humanitarian and refugee crises. This could result in frustration growing in Thailand, India, China and Bangladesh, all of which could tilt away from what remains of their support for the junta,” he said.

Even if the military does manage to increase troop numbers by force, this will do little to address collapsing morale in the ranks. It will also take months to train up the new troops, he said.

The junta had a long history of “forced recruitment” even before the law was enacted, said Ye Myo Hein, a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

“So the law may merely serve as a facade for forcibly conscripting new recruits into the military. With a severe shortage of manpower, there is no time to wait for the lengthy and gradual process of recruiting new soldiers, prompting [officials] to exploit the law to swiftly coerce people into service,” he said.

Even for those who will manage to escape, many will carry injuries and emotional pain for the rest of their lives.

“It has been really difficult for young people in Myanmar, both physically and mentally. We’ve lost our dreams, our hopes and our youth. It just can’t be the same like before,” said Aung Sett, the student leader.

“These three years have gone away like nothing. We’ve lost our friends and colleagues during the fight against the junta and many families have lost their loved ones. It has been a nightmare for this country. We are witnessing the atrocities committed by the junta on a daily basis. I just can’t express it in words.”

Additional reporting by BBC Burmese

China will send pandas to zoos in San Diego and Spain – what it means

With the latest panda additions to the San Diego Zoo, ‘panda diplomacy’ is back in the vernacular. Here’s what it means and why it’s so important.

Just two months after US President Richard Nixon made his historic journey to China in 1972, ending more than two decades of tension between the two countries, an 18-month-old pair of pandas arrived in the United States as a gift. Sent by Premier Zhou Enlai, the pandas represented China’s latest use of “panda diplomacy”.

A practice that dates back as far as the Tang Dynasty, which ruled from 618 through 907 CE, panda diplomacy – or sending pandas as diplomatic gifts – appears to be in play once again in 2024. Last week, the China Wildlife Conservation Association announced that it has finalised agreements to loan some of China’s beloved giant pandas to zoos in Spain and the United States, according to Xinhua News Agency, China’s official news organization.

“Relevant Chinese institutions have signed agreements with the Madrid Zoo in Spain and the San Diego Zoo in the United States on a new round of international cooperation in the protection of giant pandas,” Mao Ning, spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry, said during a press briefing, according to Reuters.The news follows China’s 2023 recall of three giant pandas that had been living at the National Zoo in Washington D.C. and one living at the Memphis Zoo in Tennessee – moves that left only four pandas in the United States (all at the zoo in Atlanta, Georgia). Similarly, in the UK, two giant pandas that had lived at the Edinburgh Zoo since 2011 were recalled in 2023.

Those decisions arrived at a time when relations between Beijing and the West were on rocky ground. China and the US, for example, were navigating some particularly tense security, humanitarian and economic challenges, according to an article about animal diplomacy from Georgetown University’s Barbara K. Bodine, a distinguished professor of diplomacy and director of Georgetown’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy.

The renewed flurry of panda diplomacy may be part of China’s pursuit of “soft power,” explains Susan Brownell, a professor from the history department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and a member of the National Committee on US-China Relations, which works to promote understanding and cooperation between the two countries. With contract ink drying and panda diplomats packing their bags, a new chapter of cuddly diplomacy may be beginning.

The story behind China’s “softest and sweetest elements of public diplomacy”

The history of panda diplomacy

While the 1972 arrival of Hsing-Hsin and Ling-Ling to the United States during the Nixon administration is among the most well-known examples of panda diplomacy, it’s certainly not the first.

In 1941, two pandas were sent to the United States just before the country entered World War Two – they were widely viewed as a “thank you” gift from China. During a ceremony announcing the gift, Mme. Chiang Kai-shek said the pandas were a way of thanking “China’s American friends for alleviating the suffering of our people and binding our wounds.”

Later, during the 1950s, Chairman Mao was known to send pandas as gifts to the country’s communist allies, which included North Korea and the Soviet Union.

More recently, after the March 2014 disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 strained relations between China and Malaysia, the arrival of two of China’s beloved pandas that same year in Malaysia was seen as a peace offering.

As for what the pandas may be promising today, Brownell suggests an effort on China’s part to emulate what sets the United States apart on the world stage. “They know very well that their growing economic and military strength is viewed as a threat, particularly by the political leadership of the US,” explained Brownell. “They also understand that a big factor [of US] influence in the world comes from the appeal of its cultural products, whether it’s Hollywood movies or NBA stars.”

“Their use of the lovable pandas, as well as the state promotion of Olympic sports, is part of their effort to develop that kind of appeal and influence in the world,” Brownell added.

People visit Zoo Atlanta to see Giant Pandas. (Credit: Getty Images)

San Diego prepares for new pandas

Political and diplomatic implications aside, the San Diego Zoo is eagerly preparing for the arrival of a new set of giant pandas. The habitat that housed its last panda inhabitants, who were returned to China in 2019 after more than 20 years at the zoo, is being readied and refreshed for the big arrival.

“We’re doubling the size of the original habitat and we’re renovating another habitat nearby and they will connect together,” Greg Vicino, vice president of wildlife care at the San Diego Zoo, said.

The last time the zoo hosted pandas from China it was an incredibly successful program – both in terms of the conservation efforts for pandas and the relationships that were built with Chinese colleagues.

The zoo was home to giant pandas from 1996 until their departure in 2019 and during that time a total of six pandas were born. Bai Yun and Shi Shi gave birth to the first panda cub to survive in captivity in the United States, and later Bi Yung and Gao Gao gave birth to five more cubs. There was also a substantial body of research published and a genuine connection built between conservationists in San Diego and China.

“There was a steady flow back and forth [between San Diego and China] of researchers, scientists and graduate students coming here and going there,” Vicino said. “That collaboration – when you look at the list of publications that came out of that – is overwhelming. It was a big win for conservation.”

And ultimately, says Vicino, conservation boils down to relationships. “I can tell you from my own experience, having worked in this field for over 20 years now, that I naively thought conservation was about saving habitats and saving species. But I immediately found out it is about forming relationships.” Joking that diplomacy is something he’ll “leave to the pros”, Vicino adds: “This is really about one-on-one contact between true conservationists from different countries.”

Though it remains unclear when exactly the new pandas will arrive in San Diego, there’s talk that the zoo may get descendants of its previous residents Bi Yung and Gao Gao. If that turns out to be the case, Vicino says it would be a fitting way for San Diego to continue its conservation efforts with the bears.

“It would be really great for us to be able to come full circle on that legacy,” said Vicino.

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9 extraordinary tattoos from around the world

Body art has come a long way in the past two decades, from Māori symbolism to the “warm hug” tattoo. Here are nine works by a new generation of tattoo artists who are bringing innovation and diversity to this ancient art.

Tattoos have become the ultimate fashion statement. Barely a week goes by without an actor, pop star, sport star or model making headlines with new body art. Ink always starts a conversation, whether it’s British TV and radio presenter Maya Jama’s tiny new ankle tattoo, a spontaneous decision made in the fog of a hangover; or US rapper Chrisean Rock’s widely criticised face tattoo of her ex-boyfriend Blueface to protest against his incarceration.

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Choosing a tattoo today is radically different from 20 years ago, with tattoo tourists now flocking to talented artists with huge online followings and celebrity endorsements. “The binders of flash sheets [drawings of tattoo designs] that were once discovered only by word-of-mouth recommendations in the waiting rooms of tattoo shops have found a new home on Instagram to be consumed by anyone around the world,” writes Alice Snape, editor of Things & Ink magazine, in a new book Tattoo You – A New Generation of Artists, published by Phaidon.

The book brings together 75 of the world’s most innovative tattoo artists, and launches just before the UK’s Brighton Tattoo Convention (24-25 February), a mecca for international tattoo talent. The book describes itself as “a celebration and a snapshot of a new generation of tattooing, showcasing diverse artists, styles and bodies”, and reveals a world where tattooing functions much like clothes, helping people “to feel at home in their own bodies”.

Today, designs are more varied, and often more detailed, as tools and tastes have evolved; and women, trans and non-binary artists of a range of cultures now take up space in what was once a predominantly white male profession. From reclaiming flesh scarred by surgery, to promoting the culture of marginalised groups, the tattoo artist of today responds to society’s evolving needs. As Snape writes in the book: “Tattooing is a way to hold power in a world that often feels like it is spiralling out of control.” Here are nine extraordinary changemakers:

Singapore-based artist Ian Damien features traditional Japanese imagery in his work (Credit: Courtesy of artist)

1. Ian Damien

A tattoo should feel like “a warm hug”, says Singapore-based artist Ian Damien, who sees tattoo art as playing an important role in body positivity. His eye-popping work flits between complex geometric designs and traditional Japanese imagery, and seeks, he says, to “preserve history”, as well as “create new, contemporary visual material”. Damien, whose aesthetic is influenced by the ornate Buddhist temples that his Chinese parents took him to, is just six years into his career, but his eye-popping work and empathetic approach have set him apart. “Tattooing can help a customer build a better relationship with their body,” he says in the book. “It can help make someone feel better and leave this world a better place… one clean line at a time.” 

Argentinian body artist Yanina Alexandra is inspired by 80s imagery (Credit: Courtesy of artist)

2. Yanina Alexandra

“Getting a tattoo is a very intimate moment, where, historically, power dynamics have been abused by some male artists,” Argentinian Yanina “Yane” Alexandra tells BBC Culture. She estimates that only a fifth of Argentina’s tattoo artists are women, and believes that they play an important role in making the industry safer and more inclusive. Her designs, she says, are influenced by album covers, 80s leather culture, film and fashion, and move away from “the patriarchal mindset” that depicts women as “submissive and hypersexualised”. The women in Alexandra’s designs are “voluptuous with great hair”, she says, representing “power and abundance”. She adds: “I try to draw women that are strong, defiant, with agency over their own lives and actions”.

Auckland designer Moko Smith is strongly influenced by his Māori heritage (Credit: Courtesy of artist/ Vanessa Green)

3. Moko Smith

“Growing up I wanted to give back and help in my own way with the revival and strengthening of our people,” says Auckland-based artist Moko Smith, whose Māori heritage is central to his work. “And for me, the way I can do that is through this art form.” Smith works in a simple studio fashioned from two shipping containers and uses a bone comb and tapping stick to create traditional designs based on the sacred Māori practice of tā moko, the ritual receiving of body art as a rite of passage, as well as original concepts influenced by Māori crafts such as weaving and woodcarving.

LA-based artist Gangi Bang brings Japanese mythological figures into his tattoos (Credit: Courtesy of artist)

4. Ganji Bang

By contrast, the tattoo art of Ganji Bang is about overturning traditions. Bringing his Japanese heritage to his workplace in Los Angeles, Bang confronts and subverts Japanese folklore by doing the unthinkable, and inking his clients with yōkai, ghastly supernatural monsters feared to inhabit the body if tattooed on to the skin. Mokumokuren, all-seeing eyes and portents of a yōkai infestation, are a repeated motif, staring out – often in multiples – from fearsome creatures, or stacked up in layers as part of a complex pattern. Bang’s customers include the US rapper Post Malone, who commissioned a Japanese wave design for his left temple in 2018.

Food is the subject of the quirky designs by Barcelona artist Rion (Credit: Courtesy of artist)

5. Rion

Food is the surprising subject of many of the designs of Barcelona-based artist Rion. As a child growing up just outside Paris, she was an avid collector of Manga comic books, and the influence can be seen in her colourful tattoo work, which is cartoonish and cute but often has a sinister underbelly: chicken drumsticks sweat it out in a striped bucket, a dachshund is wedged into a hot dog bun, and dim sum peep over the edges of a bamboo steamer awaiting their fate. “My inspiration mainly comes from creepy vintage ceramics, vintage advertising illustrations, naïve store signs, vintage toys [and] a lot of music,” Rion tells BBC Culture. “My weird brain does the rest of the job.”

Paris-based designer Blum makes intricate, lace-like body art, including full bodysuits (Credit: Courtesy of artist)

6. Blum

Blum describes her delicate, lace-like body art as “permanent skin ornaments” that can “change bodies and their aspects”. Flowers, frescoes and ornamental architecture all feed her imagination, which converts the beauty of both the natural and built environment into intricate black designs that begin digitally on Procreate and result in a unique creation for each client. Blum also works as a model and has built up a following of more than 300k on Instagram, where flashes of her latest work sit alongside fashion photos of Blum with her tattooed full bodysuit.

Jade F Clark creates designs that celebrate diversity and difference (Credit: Courtesy of artist)

7. Jade F Clark

“My tattoo practice aims to include all people,” Jade F Clark, originally from London, tells BBC Culture. “This is extremely important to me as a black female tattoo artist who doesn’t fit the norms of the tattoo world, and wants people to feel represented through my work.” Clark deliberately creates diverse designs that move away from the standard white male, able-bodied mainstream, which she describes as the “dominant culture in the Western world”. Colourful works such as cat lady reclaim stereotypes about women, while a Freddie Mercury tattoo inserts a gay icon in the place of a religious one.

Janini Nathan of Chicago, Illinois is influenced by Indian folk art (Credit: Courtesy of artist/ T J Walker)

8. Janani Nathan

One way to make tattooing more inclusive is to invite under-represented groups to receive a tattoo for free. That is what non-binary Chicago artist Janani Nathan did in 2021 in order to attract more South Asian clients and in so doing build a community of people with a common heritage. Nathan’s delicate designs draw on Indian folk art and are mostly produced with the traditional hand-poking technique, which they feel creates a more intimate bond between client and artist. Nathan learnt much of their trade at Chicago’s My Place Tattoo and Art Studio, described in the book as “a trauma-informed space for queer people of colour to tattoo and get tattooed”. Creating welcoming spaces for marginalised sectors of society has been central to how Nathan is helping to reshape the tattoo industry.

Tanya Buxton specialises in cosmetic work, such as the embellishment of scars (Credit: Courtesy of artist)

9. Tanya Buxton

Sometimes tattoos are about fitting in rather than standing out. British artist Tanya Buxton specialises in cosmetic work, embellishing scars and creating realistic nipple tattoos for people who have had mastectomies or top surgery. For these clients, being tattooed has a huge impact both physically and mentally, she tells BBC Culture. “You’re taking control again, you’re reclaiming yourself. For a lot of people, it is a celebration of life, it’s marking a new chapter in their journey now, a way of moving forward.” Tanya’s work is helping to dispel stereotypes about tattooing and who it is for. “I think everyone should know what tattooing is capable of and how it’s evolved,” she says. “It can be a really life-changing, powerful thing.”

Tattoo You – A New Generation of Artists is published by Phaidon.

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