JERUSALEM — Three generations of the Razzouk family busily attended to Christian pilgrims and tourists packed into a tiny shop to get Christian tattoos to mark their pilgrimages to the Holy Land.
The Razzouk family has been tattooing Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land for 500 years — and 200 years before that in Egypt. One of their ancestors, Jeruis, was a Coptic pilgrim to the Holy Land five centuries ago; he fell in love with the land and decided to stay and used his tattooing skills to make a living. The art of tattooing was passed down through the generations, with the methods adapting themselves to the times.
Wassim Razzouk, 44, the latest in a long line of family tattoo artists, also produces elaborate tattoo images of Jesus, Mary, Jerusalem crosses and St. George slaying the dragon. Some of these images are copied from original 500-year-old wooden stamp blocks used by his ancestors. He has 60 of the original 300 stamps. Some pilgrims come specifically for these ancient, intricate designs.
The tradition of Christian tattooing began among the Coptic Christians of Egypt hundreds of years ago, with tiny crosses on the right wrist to identify themselves as Christians. It continues today in Egypt, with the tattooing being done in the churches. Razzouk said Catholic pilgrims also had been traditionally tattooed in the Holy Land, and it was his family who later introduced the tattoos to Orthodox pilgrims.
Along the wall of Razzouk’s tiny studio, in an alleyway just inside Jaffa Gate, are the earlier instruments used for the tattooing. Razzouk has upgraded the studio’s standards and also brought it into the social media age with a website and Facebook page.
Razzouk joined his father in the family business 10 years ago, and today he is one of the most sought-after tattoo artists in Jerusalem. In October 2017, he was among a handful of local and international tattoo artists who participated in Healing Ink Artist in Israel, giving free tattoos to people who have been injured in war and terrorist attacks.
“I really felt like it was a responsibility (to carry on the family tradition) so I decided to do it,” said Razzouk, who prefers to work on his tattoos rather than talk about working on tattoos. In the busy days following Easter, he and two assistants worked nonstop.
Traditionally, the older pilgrims got the tattoos, explained Matthew Johny, 27, a Syriac Orthodox Christian from the Netherlands, but now younger Christians come for them as well.
“Now it’s becoming like a trend,” said Johny, who has two tattoos: a simple cross on his right upper chest and the image of Mary on his right forearm. “But it shouldn’t be something for a trend. It should be because you feel it. For me, it is something which connects me to Jesus when he was nailed on the cross — to make my body suffer just a little of what he felt, although of course it is not possible to even come close to his suffering.”
On a recent April afternoon, Razzouk’s parents helped by welcoming the clients and handing out post-tattoo care advice, while his youngest son, Nizar, 15, helped clients select patterns.
More than two-thirds of the Razzouk clientele were Eastern Christians with family origins in the Middle East. Most of these countries are enemies of Israel, and pilgrims can visit the holy sites now only because they either obtained a different foreign passport or are second generation living in the West.
Syrian-born Nevart Torian, a U.S. citizen, traveled with a group from the New York-based Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America. Torian, 71, of Bloomfield, Michigan, said she had waited for years to visit the Holy Land.
“I’ve gone to Jerusalem and now I will have my cross,” she said, referring to the tattoo she was getting on her right forearm. Torian said she feared she would not be allowed into the country because, although she was traveling on an American passport, her place of birth is noted as Syria. In the end, she went through passport control just like the rest of her group.
Markus Essen, 38, a Syriac Christian who lives in Turkey and often visits Jerusalem as a tour guide, added the image of Jesus on one ankle and the religious inscription INRI on his other ankle to his already plentiful religious tattoos on his arms and chest.
“This is the oldest tradition. It connects us across generations,” he said. The cross he had tattooed on his right hand symbolizes God’s love, he said. “It says I am Christian.”
Naila Aslan, 39, a Syriac Christian who lives in Germany, and Lema Demir, 46, also a Syriac Christian who now lives in Sweden, chose a less-traditional design, opting for the image of a rosary encircling the names of their children on their right forearms.
“We are Christians and I love my children,” explained Aslan.
“This is very special, my family started with this 700 years ago,” said Nizar Razzouk as he sorted out the designs for the two women. “I am the next generation. Some kids my age might not be interested in this and don’t see it as special, they say it is just tattooing. But they just don’t understand.”