A Russian tattoo artist is helping survivors of domestic violence make peace with their past and take control of their future by covering the scars left by their abusers with intricate tattoos. In her studio in eastern Russia, she charges nothing for her hours-long work.
Zhenya Zakhar, who is now 33, lives in Ufa, the capital of Bashkortostan, a federal subject of Russia located between the Volga River and the Ural Mountains. She started working as a tattoo artist in 2005.
One day, Zakhar read an article about Flavia Carvalho, a Brazilian tattoo artist who has been offering her services to survivors of domestic violence since 2013, and she was inspired to do the same thing. In June 2016, Zakhar worked for the first time with a survivor to tattoo over her scars.
"The women leave feeling transformed"
Each Monday, I open up my studio to survivors of domestic violence. When they arrive, they are often really self-conscious of their scars, even if they are really small. They find them incredibly ugly.
We choose the design for the tattoo together. Very often, I end up drawing flowers or butterflies — something very sweet and feminine, just like the women who come to my studio. Once, someone even asked me to draw a unicorn.
Many of the women cry when they see the finished tattoo. They cry tears of happiness because their scars are no longer visible. They're not ashamed of their bodies anymore and leave feeling transformed. The tattoo helps them to come to peace with the past.
"Many women who experienced domestic violence are afraid of men"
All of the women who come to my studio are different, but all of them have terrible stories. One of them told me that her partner — whom she had lived with for three years — shot her just before their marriage, in the room right next to where they were going to celebrate the ceremony.
Another woman told me that her husband used to beat her on her stomach and chest. His blows didn’t leave any visible scars on her body, but she later learned that they had caused blood clots, including near her ovaries. She had to have an operation, which left behind huge scars on her body, and she can no longer have children. As a result, she lost all faith in life and she is now terrified of men. That’s the case for many survivors who I speak with.
Many of these same women also told me that they had tried to alert the police, but that the response was: “We’ll come if there is a death." Police often consider domestic violence as a private, family affair, even if some men have already served prison time for it.
I’ve already done 200 tattoos on survivors of domestic violence. In the future, I’d like to offer this service to women who don’t have the money to come to Ufa. My partner — who works with me — and I have a plan to travel by motorcycle to different towns in the Russia for this purpose.
Zakhar’s work took on special meaning on February 7, the day Russian President Vladimir Putin approved a law decriminalising domestic abuse. The law had already sailed through both houses of parliament with overwhelming support. Before, perpetrators of domestic violence could face up to two years in prison. Now, a man who beats his spouse or children, even causing bleeding or bruising, would be sentenced to just 15 days in prison or a small fine... as long as there are no broken bones and it doesn’t happen more than once a year.
According to the state statistics agency, there were 49,579 crimes committed in Russia in 2015 involving domestic violence, of which 35,899 involved violence against a woman. Rights group ANNA estimates 7,500 women died in 2015 from domestic violence.
One out of five women in Russia have experienced violence at the hands of a partner, according to an official report from 2011.
“This law will just make things worse for women”
I think this law is aberrant. That’s what the women who I tattoo think, as well. This law gives violent men total freedom. It will only make things worse for women, even though I haven’t noticed a difference since it was approved.
Instead of adopting the law decriminalising domestic violence, we should help these women. There are several centres in Russia for women who experience domestic violence and even projects like mine help move things forward.
Polina Myakinchenko (@Pollyjourn) helped in the reporting of this article.