Apparently, getting tattoed on your chest is one of the more painful spots one can get a tattoo. When I buzzed the “call up” button with the name “Razzouk” sketched in Sharpie above it in one of the winding alleyways of the suq in the Old City of Jerusalem I didn’t know that little tidbit. What I did know was that I was about to be in contact with a seven-century old tattooing tradition.
Indeed, for nearly 700 years tattooing has been the profession and the prestige of the Razzouk family. I finally found the parlor by asking a jeweler near the Jaffa Gate, “I’m looking for a tattoo artist, do you know…?” Before I could finish my sentence, the jeweler said, “You mean the Razzouks?” Their name and notoriety preceded my rendezvous with history.
After a circuitous and, at times, comical scavenger hunt for the Razzouk family home running up and down the winding streets of Jerusalem’s Old City I finally shook hands with the capable and charismatic Wassim Razzouk in the baby-blue ceilinged and confined space of his family’s home, which doubles as a pilgrimage tattoo parlor. In contrast to the bustling passageways of the Old City, the Razzouk home is tranquil and quiet, with only the whir of the electric needle and my bated breath to interrupt the calm.
Yes, I held my breath throughout the process. Not only did I not want to rattle the rock-solid hand of Razzouk as he etched a sacred design over my heart, but I felt the weight of history upon my chest as well. After all, in this moment I was inscribing a mix of faith, physical journeys and spiritual intimations onto my body with ink, flesh, and blood. I was not alone. Not only because my wife was there or Wassim and I would talk motorcycles and traditions during the process, but because thousands of pilgrims stood before me and the traditions of myriad religious personages wove their way into my tattoo as well.
A Coptic Christian family, the Razzouks originated in Egypt. However, in the 18th-century an ancestor came on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. As Anton Razzouk, the family’s elder statesman, recalls, “the business can be traced back to a Coptic ancestor who traveled by camel and donkey from Egypt to Jerusalem for a pilgrimage about 300 years ago and decided to remain.”
His name was Jersuis and he was a Coptic priest. He brought the tattooing art he had learned from his forefathers to Palestine and later to Jerusalem around 1750.
In the Coptic tradition (and also among other Eastern Christian communities — Ethiopian, Armenian, Syrian, Maronite, Kildanian, etc.) tattooing serves as a marker of Christian identity. Historically, small crosses tattooed on the inside of the right wrist were given to Coptic Christians (some as early as 40 days old) and granted religious peregrines access to sacred sites across Christendom.
Designs of pilgrimage tattoos have ranged from that of the Annunciation (for virgins, apparently) to the classic Coptic cross and images of Christ in his passion. In the past, the Razzouks and other artists used olive and cedar wood blocks to stencil the designs on before commencing the tattoos. The blocks were important in allowing for rapid work during busy seasons (e.g. Easter). The Razzouk family has had as many as 200 different tattoo designs over the years. Several of these wooden stamps remain in the Razzouk family and are said to have been used to tattoo the likes of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, King George V and King Edward VII of England. Their designs are various and many contain dates to mark the year of pilgrimage. The oldest design block bears the date “1749;” the tattoo I received can be dated back to the 17th-century.
Pilgrimage tattoos also include designs that signify where the pilgrim had journeyed to, which sacred sites she had visited. This was not only inscribing one’s spiritual journey in ink and blood, but one’s physical pathway through the Holy Land. Simultaneously, tattoos among Christians in the Middle East could be maps, keys, and testimonies.
As time wore on European devotees who made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land would get Christian symbols or scenes inked onto their bodies to remember and commemorate the experience. In 1680, Lutheran theologian Johannes Lundius spoke of Christians who made pilgrimages to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and made marks on their bodies “because of the special sacred awe associated with the place and because of the desire to prove that they had been there.”
Many tattooed pilgrims over the last 300 years undoubtedly came to the Razzouk family in the Old City of Jerusalem, but there were other tattoo artists who would perform the service on the cobblestoned streets or in passageways between churches and shrines.
Now, the Razzouks stand alone as the sole tattoo artists in the Old City; but they are not alone in the tradition of religious tattooing, which is still prevalent the world over. Across the globe, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, New Agers, Pagans, Druids, Jews and other religious adherents get tattoos to represent their religion.
From Judeo-Christian symbols to Pentagrams to Buddhist mandalas, many religious adherents choose to proclaim some aspect of their faith or practice through body art. Though the symbols may fade with time, or cause a commotion today, they are ultimately simple and yet strong expressions of personal devotion. In a recent article by Miliann Kang and Katherine Jones in the e-zine New Tattoo Sub-Culture they share:
Without entering into a full-fledged discussion of religious aesthetics and meaningful religious iconography, religious tattoos serve as powerful vehicles for self-expression and whether they are beautiful or boring, contentious or cool, they act as an interpretive tool for people to understand religion, their own or others'. All religious art serves a dual purpose as a hermeneutic of a theological truth (for the artist, or the inked) and as a window through which outside observers interpret a religion and its adherents. In the end, religious tattoos, just like a Christian fresco or an artistically scribed Qu’ran, serve as interpretive vehicles through which humans give voice to their religious devotion and allow others to apprehend religious truth through art.
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Just a few years ago it seemed that the family line of Razzouk tattoo artists would finally come to an end. The tradition had been passed from father to son for ages, but when Anton Razzouk came to retirement his son Wassim was not initially interested.
“I was young and more into motorcycles than family,” Wassim told me, “then I realized what I was giving up and that I did not want the centuries old story to end with me.” He then expressed interest to his father that he wanted to apprentice under him. From the moment he took over a tattoo midway through because his father's eyes were tired, Wassim has never looked back.
Now, using a few rooms of the original family house where his ancestors tattooed the faithful of the world, Wassim feels compelled to pass on the tradition. While he is a man of many ventures (even a possible motorcycle shop lies in his future) he knows his son will take up the sacred work of pilgrimage body art. When I ask if his son will learn, Wassim said, “of course.” While the lines of pilgrims wanting tattoos has died down and the path of the future is as uncertain as the unassuming location of this tiny parlor in Old Jerusalem the tradition will live on, carved into the unwritten laws of the Razzouk family and its forebears.
As he wraps up his work on my chest, Wassim comments to me, “you have the skin for tattoos.” This is good news, I plan on getting more in addition to the two I have already, both of places (Israel and Palestine, California, respectively) and symbols of the land, its meaning in my life, and my journey in, and through, them.
I look at the finished project and for a moment the room is still and silent. It is a solemn second in time. As I sit looking in the mirror I soundlessly reflect on the fact that I have now imbedded this journey — both of faith and of pilgrimage — onto my body and joined thousands of pilgrims past, present, and future.
This is not just a tattoo, I think, but a history, a community, a place, and a people. This is more than ink, it is part of how I make my way through this world in thought and deed, with ritual, and embodied movement. The good news is that I am meant for this journey and I am not alone.
*Special thanks to Wassim Razzouk for the tattoo, to my in-laws Paul and Linda, and to my wife who accompanied me on the journey to find the Razzouk home in the Old City.