CAIRO — "Everyone wants a tattoo now in Egypt," says 23-year-old Kareem Shaheen as he sits on his bed sketching the outline of a flash of lightning.

Shaheen started to tattoo less than a year ago under the name "Monkey Tattoo," and hopes to open the first street tattoo studio in Cairo.

"People relate getting a tattoo to freedom," he says, "It's something just for you."

Orne Gil arrived in Egypt in 2012 and has spent the last four years creating Nowhereland Tattoo Studio in Zamalek, contributing to a growing tattoo subculture in a country where this form of body art is taboo for some.

The practice has evolved, as is evident in the design choices Gil's clients make. When she first started working in the country, she used to receive requests for small, simple tattoos — often a copy of a tattoo similar to that of someone famous — but now, she says, things are changing and people are more creative.

"People often come to their appointments either with a bad design, or with no ideas at all," says Shaheen, the former manager of Nowhereland.

"After talking to them and showing them books, pictures and ideas, they often choose differently," he says, adding that up until four years ago this kind of tattoo art was relatively unknown.

A type of tattooing has been widely used in the Christian Coptic community for years. The small black cross many Copts wear on their wrists is an indelible mark of their faith, an identifying symbol in a nation where they are a minority. With time, this Coptic tattoo tradition is also evolving, with many young people opting for bolder, less traditional designs.

A man showing his dragon tattoo in Cairo – Photo: Kareem Shasheen

Sherif, a 35-year-old lighting designer, just got his first tattoo. "People often stare at me in the streets," he says. "But lots of things are changing, from girls driving motorbikes or sitting in cafés smoking shisha, to the way we dress.""

"One day I was in the metro and a man grabbed my arm, twisting it strongly to check if my tattoo was real or not," says Shaheen. "I would like to have piercings and more tattoos, but I don't know if I can handle the behaviour of people in the streets."

Gil started a tattoo convention in Cairo in 2014, bringing together a number of Egyptian tattoo artists on a small scale. A year later, she organized the Cairo International Tattoo Convention, held over two days in November and involving 18 tattoo artists from Chile, Spain, Turkey, Russia and Egypt.

Many places refused to hold the convention and people had little idea of what it would entail, she says, explaining that some attendees either wanted temporary tattoos or expected free body art as part of their entrance fee. One of her biggest concerns was security, she says, fearing police would shut down the event.

Gil says the convention was a huge success and beyond her expectations. "People had a chance to talk with the artists and choose their tattoos," she says.

"At this is no longer just about breaking taboos, whether religious or social. Younger generations are looking for something more," says Gil.

Esraa al-Mowafy, a 21-year-old student, sits in Nowhereland studios before getting her first tattoo despite being worried about the reaction from her parents. "Egyptian youth are, without a doubt, becoming more open," she says. "We have more understanding about other cultures. We are more rebellious regarding traditions and restrictions because we are trying to give ourselves a better chance to choose, to be ourselves and act freely."

*Some names have been changed at the request of those involved.