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The traditional tattoos of Croats - Learn more about the variety of motifs

The traditional tattoos of Croats - Learn more about the variety of motifs

Discover the magic that emanates from the archaic tattoos

The ritual of tattooing is a centuries-old tradition of Croatians, which was practiced mainly in the central and southern part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, but could also be found in the Dalmatian hinterland and even in areas of Lika and Slavonia. Even today, these ethnic tattoos can be admired on elderly ladies at local festivities. If you ask them where this tradition comes from, they will most likely tell you that it goes back to the Ottoman Empire.

The tattoos are a reminder of those times and for many they express belonging to the Croatian people and the Christian faith. The tattooing is called sicanje or bocanje, depending on the region, and it was usually performed by older women, who were also called vjeste zene (engl. skilled women). These women were often family members - grandmothers, aunts or mothers. Sometimes, however, the girls also tattooed each other and the brave among them even tattooed themselves. The recipe for the mixture used for tattooing varied from region to region. In Kraljeva Sutjeska, for example, they tattooed with charcoal and the breast milk of a woman who had a child with blue eyes. People believed that it had an influence on the pigmentation of the tattoo.


In Rama, they did not use mother's milk at all and instead took the milk of the black sheep which was mixed with charcoal and honey. In other areas, they also used mixtures with spuke, berries or egg white. The significance of the mother's milk in the context of this rite leaves room for speculation. In the Christian interpretation, milk as well as honey could be interpreted as symbols of the Promised Land. In any case, it can be stated that milk as well as honey have an antibacterial and anti-inflammatory effect, which had a positive impact on the healing process of the tattoo.

The charm of these tattoos lies, among other things, in the motifs and symbolism. The motifs are mostly crosses and nature symbols, which we present below:


1. Cross
The cross is certainly the most common and also the most popular motif. It is the only motif that could be interpreted as Christian. All the more remarkable is the fact that it does not resemble the Latin cross. It is a Greek cross, which is characterised by the same length of all arms. The symbol is, among other things, enriched by dots and twigs. The cross can appear as the main motif, but also as a component of a more complex motif. In Kraljeva Sutjeska (Bosnia), you can admire a special variant of the cross among the inhabitants which is composed of a cross with branches and four dots. It can also be found on the embroidery of the folk costume.

2. Circle
Like the cross, the circle can be an independent motif. Often it encloses a smaller motif such as a circle or a cross. It is decorated with twigs, dots and lines that surround the circle like rays or shovels of the mill wheel. It can be interpreted as a nature motif (sun), but also represent the circle of life and unity. Typical for the region of Rama (Herzegovina) is a cross surrounded by a circle which itself is complemented by other circles in the form of dots.

3. Bracelet
This motif, as the name suggests, is tattooed on the arm, but most often on the wrist. It is most common in central Bosnia and can consist of straight lines and zigzag patterns completed with dots, small crosses and twigs.


4. Fence
The motif of the fence occurs exclusively in Bosnia and is composed of crosses and circles and semicircles which are complemented with dots and rays. Popular places for tattooing are the back of the hand, chest and elbows.

5. Twig
In this complex natural motif, crosses and circles are used to imitate the shape of pine trees, grain and branches. It is usually larger and can complement other motifs, but can also appear as isolated.

Many of the most common motifs can also be found on the medieval tombstones stecci, which date to the 14th and 15th centuries. In addition to these motifs, however, there are other motifs that were tattooed less frequently such as moons and stars, but also motifs older than Christianity. Which symbols are we talking about? How is it possible, when most articles prove that the tradition of tattooing among Croats flourished during the Ottoman Empire? We will try to get to the bottom of this question in the next article about the traditional tattoos of the Croats.

Maja Kovacevic

+385 1 222 70 50