The influence of folk culture on 20th-century graphic designers is undeniable. This influence stemmed from a rising urgency to resist the Euro-American definition of modernity and a US imperial cultural hegemony project that was creeping up on Egyptian society and the region during the 20th century. In response, many Arab designers and artists of the second half of the 20th century strived for modernist aesthetic authenticity through an anticolonial approach characterized by Arab nationalist and socialist populist ideology (Maasri 2020). Pursuing this form of authenticity led people down numerous avenues of examining traditions and what constitutes modern, local, and authentic, including folk culture.

In this essay, I focus on a particularity of Egyptian folk culture and its direct influence on one of the most prominent Arab graphic designers in recent history: Mohieddine Ellabbad (1940–2010). I aim to scrutinize one manifestation of what belongs to the broader Egyptian folk culture: al-Washm (tattoo) illustrations that are captured on wooden paravents (tattoo boards) with illustrations drawn on glass panels (reverse glass painting).

The thesis of this piece will unfold across two dimensions. The first dimension will give a not-so-brief history of al-Washm, the history of the medium, and their relation to the broader Arab folk culture;1 along the way, it will unpack some of the symbolism that many of these tattoo illustrations are imbued with. The second dimension will explore how these illustrations charmed Ellabbad throughout his life, especially in his final phase of life: a moment which I believe encapsulated the pinnacle of his preoccupation with an authentic, balanced, modernist graphic design practice within his pursuit to decolonize his own practice.

Before I delve further into these dimensions, I would like to make explicit the position of Ellabbad on the authenticity and modernity debate, because it was one of the core motives for his active inquiry into local Arab cultures. His latest articulation appears in “Nazar 04”, 2005. Here, he makes a clear distinction between authenticity and modernity (Ellabbad 2005, 04:35), framing them as “the rich local inheritance and the gained foreign imports” respectively. He adds that it is the continuous struggle to balance the two that is crucial, satisfying, and even healthy. Ellabbad, of course, is an artful manifestation of striking that balance. On the one hand, he encouraged critical engagement with the world (not just the West) and, on the other, was conscious of the pervasiveness of the rising US cultural hegemony. His balanced approach was a continuous commitment to the process of learning and unlearning.

Nbyn zayn (reveal gracefully)

A not-so-brief recent history of al-Washm in Egypt

Understanding the object behind the man in (Figure 3) hinges on insight into many scholarly fields, histories, and practices. However, in this inquiry, I will restrict myself to not dive too deeply into that history (despite the fact that I really want to); rather, I aim to construct (if only in part) a contextual synthesis of that history that would aid the understanding of my main thesis.

I will start with the recent history of al-Washm,2 which is often touched upon in broad anthropological studies that deal with traditions and costumes, such as Edward William Lane’s An Account for the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptian, (1836). In this book, Lane provides a moderate number of illustrations from his observations of these marks and their locations on the body (see Figure 4-left). Within his broad study, we find the roots of an observation that will prove true in all preceding studies concerning the primary groups associated with tattooing people in Egypt at the time, al-Ghagar (gypsies).

We also come across al-Washm studies in more focused ethnographic pursuits. One such study is by Daniel Fouquet (1898), who studied tattoos used for medical purposes, meaning those used with either prophylactic or curative intentions. The marks he documented were believed by the people to treat various body ailments, including migraines, diseases of joints and bones, eyesight, and other body conditions. Fouquet also attributes the act of tattooing to a female ghagaria, stating: “These are women who, in almost universality of cases, engage in the practice of tattooing, and most of them belong to a nomadic and wandering race called Ghagar. These women are also called Halab, (from Aleppo). They circumcise young girls and tattoo men and women alike. They roam the streets calling: (we tattoo and circumcise ندق ونطاهر). They also claim to know the future and shout: nibaïn zen (we demonstrate very well - نبين زين).” (Fouquet 1898, 3–4)

Another study from 1901-1902 by Charles S. Myers adds to the inventory of documented washm illustrations. He focused on the tattoos found on the bodies of Egyptian army forces, while also underlining that the tattooists were almost always from al-Ghagars.3

I will return to al-Ghagar in a moment. For now, I will widen my lens to include studies on al-Washm that are focused on the Mediterranean region. In this area comes Bertholon, with a study that attempted to trace the Amazigh civilization in North Africa (1904). In his study, he presents a drawing from the tomb of “Seti I” in Naqada (a town in modern-day Qena, Upper Egypt) of four individuals, each with drawings on different parts of their bodies. He concludes that one of the tattoos resembled the symbol of the Egyptian goddess (Neith). He then connects the shape to the North African shapes through the same goddess that Libyans in Carthage (modern-day Tunisia) called “Ta-Neit.” He states: "The Tunisian tattoo represents, in one of its parts, the figuration of the quadrilateral symbol of Neit, to which the artist's fantasy sometimes gives an anthropomorphic form." (Bertholon 1904, 29-31)

As part of this study, Bertholon commissioned an imprisoned Tunisian tattooist4 to draw the tattoos exhibited by other prisoners at the time, to connect ancient shapes with modern manifestations of the practice. 

In 1922, Mégalos Caloyanni conducted another focused ethnographic study on criminal tattoos in Egypt, surveying over 3,000 detainees. The collection he gathered is the most expansive and closest collection of illustrations to what we find on al-Washm boards available to us today. He reveals a cryptographic function of these tattoos amongst criminals: they were utilized as a profession ranking hierarchy mark. The symbol and placement of the tattoo indicated the ranking, dexterity, and intelligence in, let us say, the theft profession hierarchy. (Caloyanni 1922)

Caloyanni also notes that some illustrations contain European stylistic influence traced to European sailors and foreigners visiting Egypt during that time. These might be the figurine-related tattoos, as they were never recorded in any of the studies pre-Caloyanni. In these illustrations, we also start to see elements from Arabic epic literature, like Antar (the knight on the horse), al-Zeir Salim (the knight on the lion), and some religious elements such as al-Mahmal al-Sharif (the camel), the mosque, and the Coptic cross.

The same study records a few quadrilateral shapes with ancient qualities resembling the “Neit” goddess symbol I highlighted earlier (see figure 10 - left), as well as similar geometrical curative symbols similar to the ones recorded by Fouquet (see figure 10 - right).

In her broad anthropological study of the fellahin (peasants) in upper Egypt, Winifred Susan Blackman makes similar observations about the abstracted geometrical tattoos for curative purposes; she also points to a bird tattoo on the temple to prevent headaches. As far as I know, Blackman is one of the first to speak of the tattoo board as an artefact. She states: “Samples of the various designs, which are very numerous, are often framed and propped up against the tree.” (Winifred Susan Blackman and Salima Ikram 2000, 51–52)

In 1948, Louis Keimer attempted to combine early evidence of tattooing found on both human remains and figurines, and compared it with modern practices of tattooing in Egypt referenced in ethnographic accounts. (Austin and Arnette 2022).

This attempt to map a rough history through scholarly texts produced in the 19th and the first half of the 20th century is not meant to be conclusive, but rather (as I mentioned above) to give some contextual understanding of the object of the tattoo board.

al-Ghagar community seems to play an important part in that history, especially modern history. Their importance can be summarized in two points. One has to do with their origin (which is still the subject of uncertainty). Nonetheless, one story delineates them to the Arabian Peninsula, where they assert they are the descendants of Al-Zeir Salim’s tribe, a pre-Islamic poet and warrior known as “al-Muhalhil,” who led the Banu Taghlib tribe in the famous 40-year-long war of al-Basus. Al-Zeir Salim, usually illustrated in visual folk culture riding a lion as a symbol of power and fearlessness and, similar to other folk heroes, in the collective conscience, was considered a fighter who stood for and represented the struggle of the people.

The second reason why al-Ghagar are important is that, aside from being the main tattooists of these Arabian folk symbols (amongst other symbols as I have illustrated above), they are also praised by historians for their musical and folk ballad recitation practices such as al-Rāwī (the storyteller(, which was a key factor in the oral preservation of these folk tales. Those two reasons combined imply a connection, not only because of their professions that helped these folk stories survive but also because in a sense these stories are their story. Whether they are Arabs or Egyptian or neither, their role in the survival of Arab epic literature is undeniable, and for that, we could safely say they were the folk fighters of their own time, in their own way.

Figure 13. A storyteller teacher from the Romany Trail, 1981, (Source: YouTube.)

Many scholars present al-Ghagar as the outlaws of society, and therefore, most (but not all of them) are perceived as such. Their defiance against social norms and their rebellious attitude towards the societies they live in, alongside their nomadic lifestyle, made them take on specific occupations unique to them: from tattooists to snake charmers, wild animal tamers, fortune tellers, musicians, thieves, dancers, and those engaged in divination and geomancy practices.

Figure 14. Alqrdāty (The Cynocephal), Egypt, 1903. (Courtesy of Films by the Year.)<br>

We can find more evidence about the link between al-Washm and al-Ghagar communities in Egyptian cinema. The film Tamr Henna (Fawzi 1957), follows the life of a ghagaria (female gypsy) dancer, played by Naima Akif, who loves Hassan, a carnival strongman played by Rushdi Abaza. The story provides us with a lens into al-Ghagar community: their professions, clothing, social struggles, traditions, and how tattooing was ingrained in their lives. In the scenes where the tattooist appears, we see the boards of al-Washm samples shown in great numbers. However, by that time, the shape of the paravent was abandoned and replaced by a different structure composed of smaller frames built together or hung on the walls. 

Through the looking glass

A brief history of the medium

Having explored the history of al-Washm, and how it is possible to discern an intertwined relationship with the history of folk culture, it is now time to examine the medium upon which it was situated, namely, reverse glass painting. To pave the way to understanding the influence of the broader folk culture on Ellabbad, I will mention a few key artists who worked with this medium and were particularly important in Ellabbad’s graphic repertoire of collectables.

According to Akram Qānṣū, reverse glass painting originated in mediaeval Europe, where it was used for religious reasons and gained much popularity. Its influence spread to the Middle East, where it became particularly popular in Tunisia, Syria, and Egypt, especially in relation to depicting Arab folk epics and legends. As suggested by the name, reverse glass painting involves painting everything in reverse, including the orientation and the order of layering the paint.

El Masmoudi (Masmoudi 1981) speculates that the reverse glass painting medium must have moved to the Middle East at the time of the Ottoman Empire expansion via the immigration flows. According to El Masmoudi, the earliest example of this medium dates to 1888. Sadly, glass is quite a fragile medium, and when coupled with poor preservation practices in the region and possibly many having been moved to European museums before colonial powers left the region, we are left with far less work than was likely produced. Nevertheless, from what is available, we have great examples, some of which were particularly attractive to Mohieddine Ellabbad.

Ellabbad describes the countries of the Arab world as our nephews, which implies a certain level of intimacy and connection (Labbad, 2005). He was keen not only to expose himself to what was happening in those countries but also to absorb learnings from them. One person that appeared to intrigue Ellabbad was Khelifa Jelassi (1946 -?), a self-taught artist from Tunisia. Jelassi learned the art of painting from Zoubeir Turki (Wikipedia 2023) at a special school for orphans in Bir Mtir. During this time, Jelassi learned to paint on paper, wood, and pottery. He then left for Tunis, where he came into contact with the tradition of reverse glass painting (Masmoudi 1981). For his paintings on glass, Jelassi used special glass paint that he mixed himself, like most practitioners of this medium at the time (Qānṣū 1995). His paintings are often copies of classic representations from the Tunisian-Ottoman tradition of painting behind glass from the 19th century, to which he adds his own unique stylistic elements. Jelassi's paintings depict stories from the history of Tunisia, and well-known Arab legends and epics, as well as calligraphy and ornamentation work. Ellabbad owned a few pieces of Jelassi’s work and used them in several design pieces, as shown in figure 19. 5

Another artist that Ellabbad was fond of was the Syrian Mohamed Harb, known as Abu Subhi Al Tinawi (1888–1973). Al Tinawi was one of the most recognisable Syrian folk artists of his time, and arguably to this day. His work explored epics and legends, historical events and religious themes. Over the decades, Al Tinawi’s depictions made him a spectacular visual storyteller who could express the emotions of his community through popular concepts. 6

Al Tinawi’s son Youssef Harb provides us with an insight into his father’s world, in an interview conducted by Akram Qānṣū in 1995. He states: “He used an ink pen to draw the outline on thin glass sheets and draw in reverse. He then would fill in the colours using a brush. Once finished, he will cover the back with either cardboard or gold or silver leaves.” (Qānṣū 1995, 203:34–35.)

Ellabbad greatly admired Al Tinawi’s work, and aside from owning a few pieces by him, he referenced his work numerous times. For me (and perhaps Ellabbad thought the same), what is particularly interesting about Al Tinawi’s work, is that, on a deep level, he represented an Arab artist who was seemingly untouched by Western modernity, and yet (despite not caring for it) penetrated the Western sphere only by the excellence of his craft. Watching Al Tinawi's work has a meditative effect, as people can see in this rare film titled Al Tinawi. The film shows insight into the work and life of Al Tinawi. In his own way, Al Tinawi championed the art of the people, and he also was considered a “folk fighter” by virtue of his immense contribution to folk culture.

Figure 21. Al Tinawi film, undated. (Source: YouTube)

The folk fighter

In Egypt, reverse glass painting was not dedicated solely to epics and legends. Rather, it was utilized for al-Washm illustrations more broadly: while these included epic stories, they also embraced the ancient history of al-Washam practice.

The historiographical and anthropological studies of al-Washm mentioned here have helped us to understand different aspects of these tattoos: their function, their possible meanings, and tracing their potential roots. However, I want to venture into the uncharted territory of thinking more abstractly about al-Washm illustrations inside these glass panels. If we contemplate their condition, we could argue that they exist in a state of liminality, in the sense that they are neither the physical reality that they depict (and they did depict real people sometimes—see figure 23), nor are they yet on the intended medium—the body. Their existence on the tattoo board is transitional: a place where symbols are born, then copies are reproduced each time with the potential to acquire new meaning or function.

Taking a moment to examine what prompts the moment of creation of these symbols on the tattoo board could illuminate a connection between the observers of the board and these symbols, beyond the subjectivity of body adornment and the belief that they have curative powers. The photograph in figure 23, which shows the celebrated local Egyptian hero, Ibrahim Afandi Moustafa, indicates this. To understand how Ibrahim Afandi made it onto the board, I employ a Jungian analysis of folk stories (Jung 1953). Jungians would suggest that it is because he invoked the archetypal image of the local hero, with a life story rich with archetypal themes such as tragedy, overcoming adversity, and rebirth; all of these are consistently recurring motifs in Arab epics. As a result, the tattooed are not solely getting Ibrahim Afandi, but they are also being marked with a symbol that encapsulates these diverse archetypal themes.

The idea that these tattoo illustrations serve as symbols is pivotal, because it means that there is no inherent meaning associated with them, which is a common understanding within semiotics; as expressed by Langer, “symbols are not proxy for their objects but are vehicles for the conception of objects.” (Katherina 1942, 49.) The fact that the illustrations are freed from the rigidness of representing a real object or having a specific meaning, coupled with their state of liminality or transitionality, allowed Ellabbad to have a more playful engagement with them. This is something I will return to when exploring his work for Sharqiat publishing house.

Certainty about why Ellabbad was charmed by these tattoo illustrations might be unattainable. However, it is safe to say that his interest in them can be situated within his broader interest in Egyptian and Arab cultures as part of his lifelong pursuit of balancing authentic and modernist graphic design practice.

 It is also possible to trace Ellabbad’s growing interest in folk culture. We know for certain that he actively sought to collect and study materials from folk culture. In Nazar! 1 (1987), Ellabbad tells the story about chasing a print of Abou Zeid al-Hilali to include in one of the children's books he was working on at the time. (Ellabbad 1987) This story reveals to us his persistent pursuit of the materials necessary to him, and his unwillingness to compromise on their quality; he appears simultaneously frustrated by and motivated to obtain the missing materials. The essay in Nazar! 1 highlights the irony that he had to search for the material in Japan and pay to obtain it because it was not available to him anywhere where this material originated. This irony sadly continues to underline our modern history, as evident in the imagery sources and references contained within this essay.

The same year, in 1987, Ellabbad published a coloring book titled Colour Folk Drawings (Lawn al-rusūm al-shaʻbīyah) as part of the series Color, Know (Lawn, Iʻraf), an educational series that explores different heritage-related arts and crafts. In this book, Ellabbad re-presents illustrations by Al Tinawi, who occupied a special place in Ellabbad’s repertoire of graphic references.

A year afterwards, in The Illustrator’s Notebook (1988), Ellabbad speaks of the difference between illustrations rooted in Arab culture and Western illustrations that were increasingly dominating mainstream media. He highlights this difference by juxtaposing two drawings. On the one hand, Ellabbad redraws al-Zahir Baybars, the Mamluk sultan of Egypt and Syria (originally drawn by Al Tinawi), which Ellabbad claims to illustrate with ease and pleasure. On the other hand, he pastes a Western comic drawing of Superman and Batman after supposedly multiple failed attempts to redraw it.

Ellabbad emphasizes this “failure” to redraw the “Western” heroes to illustrate his point of how he connected more with the Arab hero drawing. Anyone who knows Ellabbad’s work would agree that it was not really the case that he failed to redraw the Western comics, but rather that he employed playfulness in storytelling, self-deprecating humor, and self-referentiality to present his argument in favour of local Arab stylistic approaches.

In 1997, Ellabbad art-directed and curated the visual material for the book Arabian Epics (Siyar wa-rusūm shaʻbīyah). At this point, we see the wealth of materials Ellabbad was able to harness from visual folk culture, specifically al-Washm illustrations.

In Nazar! 04, (2005) Ellabbad explicitly talks about the tattoo board he acquired in 1994. He states that the reason why he was eager to incorporate these illustrations into his designs was that he felt an urge for everyone to see them; in other words, he recognizes the power that these illustrations conceal. His rich graphic repertoire of collectables was truly versatile, and he utilized all of the materials he gathered in his graphic practice. One exemplary project was the Sharqiat book series. Ellabbbad designed all the book covers of this series by deploying the “cut-up” technique popularized by William S. Burroughs. (Styrax 2013) He would cut up illustrations from his inventory of materials (i.e., tattoo boards, circus posters, found ephemera, vernaculars, etc.) and then rearrange, alter, or transform them while mixing in other elements (i.e., typography, lettering, etc.), in order to create new and unexpected compositions. 

The pinnacle of Ellabbad’s preoccupation with folk culture is perhaps exhibited in the way he replaced himself in the cover of The Illustrators Notebook in two editions—first in the English version in 2006 and second in the French edition in 2008. Instead of a cover illustration of himself driving the metro, Ellabbad replaced it with a horseman illustration found on a tattoo board from the private collection of Saad Kamel. 

Fiercely decolonial

In my previous essay on Ellabbad titled Scratching the Surface of Ellabbad School – Part I (Elhossieny 2022) I mentioned that only when we consider the totality of Ellabbad’s body of work can we identify how his decolonization pursuit weaves through and defines his graphic practice. His quest for the liberation of Arab aesthetics from Western cultural and aesthetic hegemony spans his lifetime. This started to take shape when he joined the publishing house Dar al-Fata al-Arabi in Lebanon in 1974. (Khan 2010) then continued when he came back to Egypt to establish the Cairo-based duo in 1976: A1 (The Arab Experimental Workshop for Children’s Books), which echoed the conceptual and philosophical underpinnings of Dar al-Fata al-Arabi, and his establishment of the AGC (Arab Graphic Centre), whose core ethos was to provide a balanced modernist and authentic commercial Arab graphic design practice grounded in practical applications. The thread of his decolonization project continued all the way to his sharp-witted writings and graphic design of the Nazar! Series.

As Ellabbad engaged with these folk stories that convey passion, chivalry, bravery, heroism, and tenacity, he arguably became an embodiment of these qualities. His aesthetic resistance to US imperial cultural hegemony, Euro-American modernity conception, and finally, self-orientalism had been a glorious one. His graphic practice was authentic and fiercely decolonial.

In many ways, Ellabbad’s preoccupation with folk culture stood for the richness and plurality of Arab identity. For him, this active and critical engagement with the multiplicity of Arab visual culture was not a mere stylistic preference; it was an emergent practice upon which liberation from an increasingly Westernized world can be imagined.

Ellabbad echoed the legacy of the folk fighters that appeared in the past (in the original folk stories and the people who helped preserve them), not only through his graphic design practice but through critical publishing, curatorial practices, preservation and documentation. The subtext for his decolonization is to continue a legacy, one that ought to be passed down, the legacy of the folk fighter!


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  • Austin, Anne, and Marie-Lys Arnette. 2022. “Of Ink and Clay: Tattooed Mummified Human Remains and Female Figurines from Deir El-Medina.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 108 (1-2): 030751332211300.
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  • ———. 2005. Nazar! Vol. 04. Al Arabi Publishing & Distribution.
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  • 1Throughout the essay, the term “folk culture” will be used to always mean Arab folk culture and the terms al-Washam and tattoo will be used interchangeably. 
  • 2For non-Arabs, the word washm means “poking the skin with a needle and inserting a substance into the skin that leaves a mark on the body.” Al-washm happens through a process known as daq, which translates to “hammer or nail on the body.” The word daq refers to how al-Washm was made using a nail-like device (some of which are still in use in some parts of Egypt and around the world).
  • 3Mayers states: “An inquiry among the Moslem fellahin showed me that they were tatued, not by their fellow countrymen, but by certain alien wandering tribes who have a language of their own, and are said to trace their descent from further east.” He also mentions that one of the “Ghagar” tribes is known as the Romany, who descended from northwest India, as many historians would accept. 
  • 4In 1936, J. Bouquet published a more expansive essay on Tunisian Amazigh tattoo marks: Bouquet, J. “Tatouages décoratifs tunisiens”. In Revue d’histoire de la pharmacie 24, no. 93 (1936). Revue d'histoire de la pharmacie, 24e année, N. 93, 1936. Article title: Tatouages décoratifs tunisiens
  • 5A citation by Ellabbad of Jelassi’s work is found in Tarek Youssef, Arabian Epics (Cairo: International Committee of the Red Cross, 1997). 
  • 6“By the time of his death, Al Tinawi had accumulated unexpected fame. Though he never left his shop to see the exhibitions of his work, pieces had travelled to Europe and beyond. Rumoured to be one of the first Arab artists to participate in an exhibition showing Picasso in Paris, his work was acquired internationally by individuals and art institutions, including the Louvre. As a visual storyteller, Al Tinawi’s work has greatly influenced contemporary Arab artists and has also found its way into numerous publications and films.” (Atassi Foundation n.d.)