Doris Melkonian, P.h.D. Candidate

Doris Melkonian

Tattooed: Boundaries of Inclusion and Exclusion

Cultural boundaries, indicating one’s inclusion/exclusion within a specific community, have existed among ethnic groups for centuries, demarcated through language, customs, religion, and appearance. In addition to these markers, an ancient means of indicating group membership employed tattoos, creating boundaries based on inscriptions on the body. During the Armenian Genocide, Armenian women and children were often “branded” for life. As commodities of Arabs/Kurds/Turks, many were tattooed by their “owners” with tribal markings on their once unblemished faces and hands. With each new owner, new symbols were tattooed, creating a kaleidoscope of patterns and designs. This proprietary action, marking the body to control it, was commonly used to mark slaves. For many Armenians, the tattoos delineated the boundary from free Armenian to abducted slave.

Imprisoned within their tattooed skins, the fate of many Armenian children was sealed. After the Genocide, the tattoos served as a boundary. Because of symbols inscribed on their bodies, suvrivors were reluctant to cross this cultural boundary to rejoin the Armenian community. Many who attempted to reunite with their compatriots encountered discrimination.

Using Armenian Genocide survivor testimonies, this paper will analyze the practice of tattooing and its aftermath of creating a cultural boundary for Armenian children. This study draws from eyewitness testimonies to examine how the visible markings of tattoos created boundaries, serving to exclude individuals from the Armenian community. Through the viewpoint of survivors, this study addresses the following questions: How did Armenian children respond to carrying indelible tattoos on their faces and bodies? How were they treated once they returned to the Armenian community? How did the tattoo serve as an enduring identity marker etching the boundaries of possibility for their lives? How did these new boundaries fade away when tattoos were removed?