Last Night, an Ex-Yugoslav Soldier Tattooed Me Whilst Wielding a Switchblade

He taught me some interesting lessons in privilege

Charlie Brown


Image courtesy of author

He wasn’t what I expected.

I thought I was going to a trendy tattoo studio in Croatia’s capital Zagreb, a hipster-on-the-outside-but-not-really city.

The door opens and a late-40s dude tattooed up to the hilt (of course) leads me into what looks like a tattoo studio crossed with a knife museum.

As this burly Croat draws out an elegant design for an olive branch, he tells me his preferred method for cutting out tattoo designs is a Fairbairn–Sykes fighting knife, last used by the British army in World War II. I think he’s joking until he takes the knife out to show me. Then he proceeds to prepare the tattoo gun with a switchblade from behind the counter.

This is going to be an interesting session.

“I went from putting holes in people to putting holes in people. At least now they enjoy the results”

My artist tells me more about his life as he tattoos the most beautiful design on my arm.

He was brought up in Yugoslavia, which if anyone with an inkling of 80s and 90s European history will know, did not have an easy time of it back then. The Homeland War was bloody and made for pretty miserable living for those who happened to call Croatia their home.

He was a soldier, he grew up learning how to fight, and then as the Homeland war started, he was on the front line.

The thing is, it’s easy to forget this war ever happened. You can walk around one of Croatia’s stunningly attractive old towns and forget that dead bodies were over here and buildings were burning over there, less than 30 years ago.

It’s not like we all want to (or have to) remember these atrocities on an everyday basis. But having someone tell me about how they would be taught in elementary school to dismantle a rifle in less than 20 seconds, and how to put a gas mask on in less than 6, well it struck a chord with me.

What were you doing in elementary school? Because if you live in a comfortable Western country…



Charlie Brown

Writer of opinions. Wine & food pro. Editor of Rooted, a Medium food & drink pub.. Niche-avoidant. Also at