Photo of a woman from the back with a tattoo on her right arm of a teapot with legs and female genie coming out of it.
Two of Barghout's tattoos. Image: Khaddouj Barghout

These Tattoos Celebrate The Sexuality of Queer North African Women

"Sensuality is something that belongs to everyone, no matter your cultural background."

This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.

When you picture a sexy tattoo of a naked woman, you might think of a pin-up with big boobs and a tiny waist inked onto someone’s bicep. But Rotterdam-based tattoo artist Khaddouj Barghout thinks that erotic tattoos aren’t only meant for a man’s arm. They should be reclaimed for – and designed by – women, as a celebration of female sexuality


Barghout, 24, is a self-taught queer visual artist of Moroccan descent who started tattooing two years ago. In her work, Barghout explores female sexuality, the female body and how society still looks down on women who dare to express themselves as sexual beings.

VICE spoke to her about tattoos, painting, and why it’s important to make sensual images of women from a woman's perspective.

Side photo of tattoo on an arm featuring a women with long hair.

Image: Khaddouj Barghout

VICE: Can you tell us about your latest exhibition, Sappho and her Friend, which took place in Rotterdam this summer?
The exhibition was about the perception of female love, intimacy and sexuality between women within the North African culture. I’d noticed that these types of images are still often erased, not only in North African culture, but all over the world. 

When people see depictions of two women, they often assume they’re friends or roommates. I even noticed this during the exhibition: While visitors were looking at paintings of two women, I asked them what they thought they were looking at, and many of them said “sisters”. And when they saw more sensual depictions of women, lots of visitors assumed the artist behind them was a man.

Photo of a tattooed upper arm featuring a naked woman from the back.

Image: Khaddouj Barghout

So, people still commonly assume that sensual art about women is made by men?
Yes, exactly. I actually incorporate that theme into my art. For a new exhibition in December, I want to depict the female body again, but in metamorphosis. I will show realistic paintings of women's bodies fusing with objects, like a carpet or a piece of meat. 


When portrayed by men, the female body is often objectified and used to sell products, like in advertisements for example. With this work, I want to ask the question: What functions are prescribed to the female body, even today? And should we want that?

Photo of several pink, red, purple and black paintings against a white wall.

Barghout's paintings in a studio. Image: Khaddouj Barghout

Your work seems to be evolving from straightforward depictions of naked women to more abstract representations. Why?
I want to zoom in very closely on skin and bodies. This kind of image repels you on the one hand, but you also feel the urge to touch the flesh and skin. My ethnicity is also increasingly fading into the background in my new work.

Why did you choose to tattoo your art, too?
I’m fascinated with the texture of skin and the shapes it can take. I find that interesting to incorporate into my work, and tattooing is a part of it.

Also, by getting a sensual tattoo, you claim your sensuality back. You literally put it on your skin. I’ve noticed that lots of North African and Asian women come to me for tattoos, and I think it’s because there are few people with my roots who do this, so they feel more comfortable doing it with me.

Painting of a woman posing naked in front of a red background, viewed from below.

'Put Your Vagina First', a self-portrait of Barghout. Image: Khaddouj Barghout

Your erotic tattoos also hold many references to Middle Eastern and North African culture: tajine dishes with sexy legs, a Moroccan teapot, etc. How come?
They are quite nostalgic images that are still present in my life. My roots are in Morocco – both my parents are Moroccan – and I'm proud of that. I am also a queer woman, and I incorporate the different ways in which I explore my body in my work. The way I discover my body as a woman cannot be separated from where I’ve come from. 


Do you want to convey a specific message with these tattoos?
My culture is a part of me and this is obviously reflected in my work. But I want to emphasise that my aim is not to shock anyone with my work. Sensuality is something that belongs to everyone, no matter your cultural background.

Do people come to you specifically for these kinds of tattoos?
Well, the people who come to me for a tattoo know the kind of work I do. Sometimes they come with a very specific idea and then we design it together. But in the end, I usually tattoo my own concepts.

One tattoo that has stayed with me is the one of the mirror with two vulvas in it. I think it’s so beautiful that she wanted and dared to do this. And it also gives me hope that a time will come when more and more women will dare to express their queerness.

Erotic tattoos, of course, are nothing new. But images of erotic women were always paired with a straight man. That may well change. And the thing is, women are getting these tattoos for themselves because they like it and they stand behind this idea.

A drawing of a colourful tajine with four naked legs.

Image: Khaddouj Barghout

What kind of reactions do you get to your art?
I often hear from women that they experience my work as a relief, or that they are pleasantly surprised when they discover it. To them, it’s a confirmation that it’s normal as a woman to explore and express yourself in this way. I get different reactions from men, though.


Go on…
For example, I don't like to use the word “erotic” when describing my art to men, because I’ve noticed that the word is mainly used to portray a female body as an object of lust. This, in turn, often leads to slut-shaming. I’ve noticed that men regularly take offence when a woman paints another naked woman.

And sadly, this has led to me being stalked and attacked. Let's just say I have to keep my phone number and address private. That just proves there is still a lot of work to be done. I’m harassed by all kinds of people, of all ethnicities. Slut-shaming is a universal problem that does not only affect painters like me.

When you receive these kinds of responses, do you sometimes feel like quitting, or does it ignite a fire in you?
The latter. I am constantly confronted with how important it is for me to make this kind of art. I don't make these paintings and tattoos for men. If men feel so appalled by my work, it says something about how women are still perceived today. Apparently we are still not used to a woman's body being portrayed from a perspective other than the male gaze.

Scroll down for more pictures of Barghout’s work:

painting of a brown bench with a pink blanket with drawings on it, on a dark purple background

'Woven into Me' by Barghout. Image: Khaddouj Barghout

Photo of two feet in black socks and a calve with a black tattoo of two women in a flower

Another of Barghout's tattoos. Image: Khaddouj Barghout