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Photography Mark Leaver

A body-modifying ‘hybrid human’ on his life and tattoo power

Born into a female body, Touka Voodoo has transformed himself through surgeries, hormones and body art – we discuss the concept of femininity, modification and life in Iran

In Iran in 1972, Touka Voodoo was born into a woman’s body. His experimentation with cross-dressing began after the Islamic revolution, when he would ‘pretend’ to be a boy to avoid wearing state-enforced hijabs. Since then, he has actively used aesthetic body art and biological modifications to transcend the notion of binaries and exist as his own category, a self-identified ‘hybrid human’.

Voodoo’s body is scarred and tattooed, modified and adjusted, embellished and clothed in ways that challenge the norms governing the appearance of ‘real’ humanness. “I find it quite absurd that, as humans, we are introduced to this world inside of a body whose design we’ve had absolutely no part in,” he says. “Why not use body art and modification to adjust the default design so that it can become more ‘us’?” His extreme aesthetic modifications were carved alongside biological modifications such as hormone therapy and a mastectomy, enabling him to achieve a body that perfectly suits his spirit.

“My dream was to one day recreate myself and become a different kind of human. One who broke all the gender rules and one which would not fit into those frames.”

By exercising bodily autonomy, transitioning between genders and adorning his face and body in heavy black tattoos he has become, to use Judith Butler’s phrase, that for which there is no place within the given regime of truth. This conversation is about a complex and often absurd world of gender and the body, what it’s like moving between different kinds, and the changes in human interactions that come with each shift.

There’s a sentence in Judith Butler’s Undoing Gender: ‘There is a certain departure from the human that takes place in order to start the process of remaking the human. I may feel that without some recognisability I cannot live. But I may also feel that the terms by which I am recognized make life unliveable.’ Does that resonate with you at all?

Touka Voodoo: It is such an amazing time for us humans who are interested in exploring alternative bodies through body modification. I am interested in transforming the body to reach its most powerful form. I believe that through suitable tattooing we can achieve the visual expression that our spirit wishes to demonstrate. Through this positive transformation we will be able to feel better both emotionally and psychologically and become happier people.

I was born with a complete female body once, today I am a hybrid human. An androgyne. My body has been modified to be neither male nor female. I am heavily tattooed and psychologically I am happier than I have ever been. When one takes that step to fully tattoo the body, head and face, one enters a very liberating and empowering realm. Because you have been powerful enough to take this step, regardless of dogmas within the intransigent mainstream society.

A tentative person who is easily affected by others’ opinions will simply not manage this accomplishment. Yet the concept of such complete modification of the body is still fairly new for our time and this means that, within that sense of inner happiness, lies an almost melancholic realisation that one now belongs to another dimension which can at times be difficult to grasp by the conventional majority.

Before you belonged to that different dimension, you were born in Iran. Can you tell me about that and how you ended up in Sweden?

Touka Voodoo: Of course. My name, Touka (meaning Toucan), was given to me by my parents. They are both wonderful artists and so my family life from birth has always been surrounded by the magical worlds of theatre and film. I did not have a name for a whole month after birth as they could not agree on a name. Then one day a friend came to visit with a book called A Toucan in Cage by Nima Yushij. A story about freedom.

As a child in Iran, surrounded by war, revolution, constant fear and chaos, I realised that without fantasy the so-called ‘real world’ was something dry, harsh, unjust and full of despair. Ideologies were enforced and individuality highly discouraged. There were boxes and frames pre-made and, by law, you were doomed to live your entire life trapped inside of them.

In 1986, my mother and I left Iran and moved to Sweden. I grew up and continued my passion and education in art, textile and design. I often had disagreements with professors and teachers who would not allow much artistic freedom, but rather preferred that everyone followed the same safe formula and created similar good results. It was controlled, mediocre lifelessness, and it felt as if I was trapped again. I worked successfully within the entertainment industry until it was time for me to close that chapter, too, and so I moved to London at the end of the 90s.

So, what sparked your interest in tattooing?

Touka Voodoo: It was 2002 and the pioneer of geometric dotwork tattooing, Mr Xed LeHead, worked at the legendary Into You tattoo studio in north London. From the very moment I met Xed I became utterly captivated by his energy and approach to tattooing. Until then, tattoo studios were intimidating dentist-like places where you booked a tattoo and sat in the waiting room and were met by a very grumpy tattooist who would not even bother to say hello. This was a completely different approach.

This was like meeting a holy man who looked right into your soul. What sacred art, what magic, what dynamic! It was far more intimate than sex and far more spiritual than any religious ceremony, and at the end of it all, there was Rebirth! And so, I began to visit Xed on numerous occasions and a few years later I began self-tattooing extensively. At this point in time, I was a radical ‘femme’ lesbian. I had long hair, wore high heels and worked as an exotic dancer.

Tell me about self-tattooing and how that worked during your time as an exotic dancer.

Touka Voodoo: I had a fully disposable setup to tattoo at home and, with the guidance of ‘Bryan’, a tattooist friend from Hong Kong who was amazing at doing large-scale tribal blackwork (but at the time spoke no English), I began tattooing myself. But there was a no-tattoo rule for dancers at most strip clubs back then. The tattoos started on my lower leg which I could easily hide under my knee-high socks, they continued to my hand and arms which I could easily hide under long gloves, onto the throat where I could hide under various collars and then one day I gave myself my first facial tattoo (today all my facial tattoos have been made by myself in the mirror). This first facial tattoo marked the end of my cycle as a female exotic dancer and the beginning of a new cycle as a male tattoo artist. I then began my apprenticeship at London Tattoo in north London, which continued to a full-time position.

In 2009, Xed’s plan of opening a magical tattoo studio took shape and, together with the great fetish king of London, Mad Alan, they gave birth to Divine Canvas. I left London Tattoo and became one of the first members of the tattoo club of Divine Canvas. There were many factors which made Divine Canvas a one-of-a-kind studio. Firstly, you were expected to spend at least 12 hours of your day at the studio. The artists were chosen very carefully with great attention to the quality of artistic work, energy, morals and a will to be kind and compassionate. An extreme obsession with tattooing was highly encouraged.

“A few years went by and I finally had my mastectomy. I was on the other side. What a bizarre feeling to be on the ‘other’ side as a radical feminist lesbian!” – Touka Voodoo

Not only the artist but also the clientele belonged to the world’s finest extreme body modificationists and avant-garde experimentalists. Everyone worked with powerful mining head torches and we had more neon lights than a Las Vegas Christmas party. Clients felt at home and were offered milk oolong tea, incense and occasional chanting. We aimed to reinvent the atmosphere of an ancient tattoo ceremony, as we wanted to remind the client and ourselves that a very long time ago, tattoos were magical markings of protection and strength, and that the event of getting tattooed is as spiritually significant as it is aesthetically.

A few years went by and I finally had my mastectomy. I then lived as a super-manly man, I had a beautiful new girlfriend and a really good beard. I was on the other side. What bizarre feeling to be on the ‘other’ side as a radical feminist lesbian!

What was that like, to be a radical feminist lesbian inside the body of a heavily tattooed male?

Touka Voodoo: I learned that men don’t have it as easy as I had thought. That life as a heavily tattooed man entails unexpected features. The polite, friendly people who held the doors and tried to help when heavy objects needed lifting suddenly completely disappeared. The same guys on the street corners with unimaginative chat-up lines were now looking at me in a sort of challenging manner.

I learned that men do not smile at each other much, that now I was expected to handle any tough situation without breaking down, carry all the grocery bags without any display of discomfort, that I had to get the bill when out on a date and that my lesbian girlfriend would leave the relationship as I began to feel less and less like a woman and more and more like a man.

That’s quite a shift of occupations, too – from female exotic dancer to a male tattooist. They seem like worlds apart.

Touka Voodoo: The dynamic between an erotic dancer and the seduced is quite similar to the dynamic between a tattoo artist and her client in the sense that, in both scenarios, the key to a perfect accomplishment is to be able to connect with the client’s deepest inner ‘self’. Without connecting to the client’s unspoken desires, one cannot possibly find the perfect design which will be in tune with the way the client likes to be perceived. This must be done naturally and without the need for very long discussions. It must be felt almost immediately at the consultation. The same way a great erotic dancer can almost immediately after meeting you have a pretty good idea of your kinks and the type of seduction which would suit you best.

How does the process of acquiring highly visible tattoos differ in its effect on your identity, and the way people respond to you, to the process of, say, acquiring gendered traits through surgery or hormonal treatment?

Touka Voodoo: After my initial transition, I spent many years living as a ‘he’, getting a chance to closely observe the way men and women interact with me once they assume that I am male. Then, after about seven years, I began a new personal experiment where I avoided sexual relations with others for three full years, to be able to find my true inner desires without the risk of indirect or direct influences from a partner. I then began to think more profoundly about the subject of gender. Is gender based on which sexual roles we like to play? What are our interests? If we play with dolls or cars and action men? Is it based on having breasts? No breasts? Is it based on genitalia? Is it based on facial hair? No facial hair? What is a man? What is a woman?

So, if I go out on a date before injecting testosterone hormones, would the other person get the bill? What about after an injection of testosterone? Am I then expected to get the bill, carry the bags? Be hard? Do I make them nervous when they look at me and cannot guess my gender? Do I make them nervous when I shave my beard and wear high heels?

When a man wears women’s clothing he can be called a sissy, he is assumed to be weak and unable to handle difficulties. And when a woman wears manly clothing, people automatically assume that she is butch, strong and may ‘even’ be able to ‘battle’ well. Here lies very strong evidence that the old tired patriarchal system of beliefs which was once created solely for reproduction and economic dominance is still quite surprisingly in full effect.

“There is a very dangerous cage made specifically for women which is introduced already when you are a little girl” – Touka Voodoo

It’s one thing to challenge gender norms, but then you’re also challenging the idea of ‘gendered tattoo’ norms.

Touka Voodoo: Yes, there is a very dangerous cage made specifically for women which is introduced already when you are a little girl. This cage is called ‘cute’ when you are born, ‘pretty’ when you are about five years old, ‘beautiful’ once you pass 16, and ‘feminine’ from then on. Throughout her entire life, (a woman) is to do her absolute best to stay within the borders of this cage, for as long as she possibly can. The choices she makes in life are highly affected by this rule, and the choices she will make for her tattoos are no exception.

The biggest fear for such an institutionalised female client is that her tattoos will make her appear ‘less feminine’. The question to ask is, ‘What is femininity?’ We must never confuse femininity with a sense of vulnerability or weakness. A heavily tattooed woman is obviously one who has been strong and determined enough to acquire her sacred tattoo markings. This is why a heavily tattooed woman is making a great revolutionary and political statement. This is why a heavily tattooed woman is a sacred, breathtaking display of the purest form of femininity.