That little girl in the middle there is Tea Turalija. She grew up in Bosnia and Herzegovina surrounded by tattooed women. Every day she would plant kisses on her great grandmother's hands, thinking nothing of the etchings on her arms. When she got older, Tea discovered that all the inked-up old folk around her were from the final generation of a secret Catholic cult that developed while Bosnia was being occupied by the Ottoman Empire. The cult members identified each other by tattooing their hands and arms using a compound ink that was made up, in part, of human breast milk.
Ethnic Croatian Catholic communities in Bosnia suffered hell under the Turks during the Ottoman reign, with the majority of them forced to convert to Islam. Girls were raped, children were taken to Turkey as slaves and Turkish Chiefs had the right to sleep with Christian women on their wedding nights before the bride's husband even got a look in. Lame. In response to such violations, women took to tattooing themselves on their hands, fingers, chests and foreheads with crosses and other ancient ornaments. They believed such practices would create a spiritual guard that would ward off the Turks, or would at least let people know they were once Catholic before undergoing a forced conversion.
At the height of the cult, mothers took to tattooing their children at home, usually before they were ten years old. The tattooing process involves using a crude needle and a special solution made of charcoal, grime, honey and milk extracted from the bosom of a lactating woman who has already had a male child. "We used mother's milk from the woman who has a male child because only that milk was good for tattooing," claims Tea. "We also believe this kind of milk can cure eye pain."
Although the cult outlasted the Ottoman oppressors, communist authorities made tattooed women targets of hate campaigns. Threatened and treated like criminals, they would often lose their jobs due to their religious allegiances. Eventually women stopped tattooing their children out of fear and the practice was more or less extinct by the 1950s.According to Tea, tattooing was neccessary during the Turkish occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina so that the children could be protected from kidnapping. Many had their names or initials tattooed into the skin to prevent their identity being taken from them.
One woman spoke to Tea in mystic tones about the tattooing process. "There was a paraffin lamp," she began, "milk was taken from the woman who feeds a male child and it was mixed with the soot from the lamp. Then she took the needle, dipped it and tattooed a cross on my hands until the blood ran. My hand was numb so I didn't feel anything. She wrapped it and I held it like that for one day without washing."
Tea herself has not yet been tattooed. "I would love to one day," she told me, "but only using the tattoos of my people, because they are a part of our identity and carry the meaning that no other tattoo could have for me. If I have children one day, I will give them these tattoos for protection, so that they know who they are. I would like them to be tattooed with mother's milk, as it was always done. The only problem is we would have to have some help from a modern tattoo artist, because the people who knew how to do it the traditional way are not alive anymore."
- Text via 'The Croatian Tattooed Grandma Cult' by Alex Hoban via Vice UK, here.