Once primarily the domain of motorcycle bikers, tattoos are fairly commonplace among the younger generation today. Personally, I’ve always had a strong distaste for them (blame it on my conservative upbringing). Ironically though, it came as quite the surprise to me when I discovered that tattoos seem to be common among some of the older, female members of my family, including my grandmother.

Tattooing has a long history and tradition among the Catholic women of Bosnia and Hercegovina. Numerous theories about the origin of this practice exist although some evidence seems to indicate that tattooing was widely practiced in Bosnia and Hercegovina during pre-Slavic (i.e Illyrian) times. This custom continued among the Catholics of Bosnia and Hercegovina and held even more importance during the Turkish occupation of Bosnia and Hercegovina (1463-1878).
For the Catholics that did not flee under Turkish rule, life was especially hard. They were generally taxed more than other religions in the Ottoman Empire and, depending on the area, their priests became targets of Ottoman nobles, often forcing them these church leaders to flee into neighboring Catholic areas like Dalmatia out of fear for their lives. This left many Catholic areas without priests and as a result, many people began looking to Orthodoxy and Islam to fill their spiritual and sacramental needs. As a result of these pressures, Catholic numbers in Bosnia and Hercegovina started to dwindle. It is believed that Catholic women during this time started getting tattooed as a way to avoid forced conversions to Islam (through marriage) or to prevent being taken into captivity (i.e. harems) by the Ottomans.
Young Bosnian Girl
During Ottoman times, the art of tattooing was often performed during spring time or important religious holidays. It was mostly and exclusively practiced by the more experienced and elderly Catholic members of the female population on young girls between 12 and 16 years of age. Grime, coal dust, honey or various sorts of tree bark were often used to add colour. The tattoo designs featured mostly Christian symbols such as crosses and stećak (tombstone) ornaments and were often placed on the hands (fingers, fists, forearms) and other visible parts of the body (brow, cheeks, wrists or below the neck). In some of the more extreme cases girls were also adorned with visible tattoos on their chests and foreheads.
The tattoo my grandmother has today might not be as prominent as they once were but it is definitely one of the key features that distinguish the older Croatian women of Bosnia and Hercegovina from their native born counterparts in Croatia today.
For more info, please check out the following article about Croats in Bosnia and Hercegovina:

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