The piece of paper was not where it was supposed to be. An art history student was looking at a book in the library of the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb. A student named OKO took a closer look at the stray page. The hand drawings were accompanied by Cyrillic text. Suns, crosses, and crescent moons are hung with boughs wrapped around wrists. OKO would discover that it was part of her heritage after seeing it for the first time. She didn't know we had a tradition. Nobody knows where it came from.
In what is now Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, women used to perform sicanje on their children. Using needles and a mixture of soot, spit, honey, and breast milk, the tattooing tradition covered the hands, chest, and sometimes forehead According to Edith Durham, sicanje had passed from one generation to the next for over 4,000 years. It disappeared in the 20th century. The tradition is being revived by a new generation of women and men.
It is not clear when or why Bronze Age tribes in the region began tattooing themselves. We don't have any primary sources for the tradition's beginnings. The Sicanje Project, an oral and visual history of the tradition, states that the Greeks talk about them as their opponent. Maracic was born in Bosnia and studied art history at Cleveland State University.
Bronze tattooing needles have been found in 3,000-year-old graves, which were depicted in written histories and on vases. The kolo circle, which represents family and unity, is one of the ancient designs that appears universal. A specific village or tribe appears to be represented by a particular combination of tattoos.
sicanje was a symbol of identity and protection for hundreds of years. The pagan tradition of sicanje incorporated Catholicism as the Balkans became Christian in the ninth century. The kriz is a pagan symbol of the four cardinal directions. The feast day of St. Joseph, which falls close to the arrival of spring, is when women began marking their daughters as a rite of passage.
This time, sicanje became an act of resistance. The blood tax was levied under the Ottoman rule. In order to limit the power of the Turkish elite, boys as young as eight were taken to Istanbul. Even though they were well educated, they were still far from home.
Catholic Balkan mothers started tattooing boys and girls with symbols of protection and belonging during this time. If devshirme ever came back to their village as an adult, their sicanje would identify them.
sicanje was a mark of beauty and religious belonging as the Ottoman empire waned. Some men also had the marks on their bodies. The tradition of sicanje waned in the late 20th century under the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The attitudes about old customs changed as a result of modern trends. Women hid their marks, and their daughters didn't want to see them. In the 1960s, sicanje lived on in faded marks on grandmothers' hands.
The tradition is being rediscovered in the 21st century. The revival of sicanje is due in part to the growing global acceptance of tattoos. In a post-Yugoslavia world, popularizing the nearly- lost art is a way of celebrating heritage and identity.
A chance discovery in a university library led toOKO permanently ink the marks on her own skin. The artist has incorporated sicanje into her street art in Zagreb. She says she did a lot of pasteups around the city. The entire city was claimed by me. We have the same marks, so it's my home.
Luka Tomic uses sicanje in his art shows to pay homage to both his grandmother's Catholic sicanje and ancient roots. Tomic wants to honor the heritage rakija, a traditional brandy, and Bosnian coffee are enjoyed by guests during the shows. The ritual room is where Tomic permanently ink participants with original designs that incorporate traditional motifs.
Her family was the inspiration for her research. She says that she was raised by older women with marks on their hands. She didn't find a lot of written sources when she was researching the topic. She went back to her homeland to interview the last living women with traditional sicanje, a project that took her and her co-author to some of the most remote regions of Bosnia. She hopes her work will inspire a wider audience to learn more about sicanje.
It's rare for most people to see it, but people like me grew up with it. We were able to get to know each and every woman we talked to. I would like to give other people the chance to learn about our traditions.