Beauty through the pain: Survivors of October 7 inked by visiting tattoo artists

12 inkers from abroad join 50 local artists to offer body art to 120 survivors, soldiers and relatives of victims of the Hamas massacre

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Lucas Cunio, older brother of hostages David Cunio and Ariel Cunio, with his freshly tattooed arm at an Artists 4 Israel event at Jerusalem's Botanical Gardens on July 7, 2024 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Lucas Cunio, older brother of hostages David Cunio and Ariel Cunio, with his freshly tattooed arm at an Artists 4 Israel event at Jerusalem's Botanical Gardens on July 7, 2024 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Lucas Cunio held up a muscular forearm, wrapped in plastic but with the freshly tattooed image of a dinosaur in the jungle visible on his arm.

“It’s a forest, a jungle,” he said. “Because our world is a jungle.”

Cunio, who has two younger brothers held hostage by Hamas in Gaza, was one of 120 Israelis tattooed for free over the last few days at a popup tattoo parlor at Jerusalem’s Botanical Gardens, with help from the Foreign Ministry.

The initiative come from Artists 4 Israel, run by Craig Dershowitz, who has been bringing tattoo artists to Israel for years as a method of dealing with various traumas.

This time, Dershowitz brought together a band of 12 artists from abroad with some 50 local inkers, and the group is spending long hours over the course of three days helping survivors seeking body art.

“A tattoo can help, while you’re getting it, to not think of other things,” Cunio observed.

Cunio’s younger brothers, David and Ariel, were taken captive by Hamas terrorists on October 7 from Kibbutz Nir Oz. David was taken with his wife, Sharon Aloni-Cunio and their toddler twins, as well as his sister-in-law Danielle Aloni and her five-year-old daughter Emilia. The women and children were all released in the brokered ceasefire at the end of November, while David was left in captivity.

Ariel, the youngest of four, was taken captive with his girlfriend, Arbel Yehud. Both Ariel and Arbel are still held hostage. Yehud’s brother Dolev was initially thought to have been taken hostage but his body was later identified in Israel.

David Cunio (right) was abducted from Kibbutz Nir Oz on October 7, 2023 (Courtesy)

Lucas also lives in the kibbutz, as does the entire extended family. On October 7, “I was at home with my wife and three kids, and held the door for 12 hours.”

“It’s the same story as everyone else’s, but my brothers’ story is a little different.”

Cunio’s arms are covered with a smattering of tattoos, including a somewhat faded peace sign, his first tattoo, inked on his left upper arm when he was around 12.

“There are people who are in so much pain and think this could help,” said Dershowitz. “There’s the concept of personal agency: ‘Something was done to me and I want to reclaim my body and my narrative and this tattoo is something I am choosing.'”

Craig Dershowitz, founder of Artists 4 Israel (Courtesy)

Other people choose a tattoo after being disfigured by a bullet or shrapnel and want the tattoo, not their disfigurement, to be what people notice, he added.

Some people were getting tattoos in memory of friends, or in honor of those who helped them survive on October 7.

Others were being inked with a tattoo that someone they knew who was killed had thought of getting. One such case was that of two fighters from the Yamam counterterrorism unit, which rescued four hostages in a daring early June operation in which team leader Arnon Zmora was killed. The two were inked on Thursday with a tattoo Zmora had been considering for himself.

Dershowitz and his fellow tattoo artists had been scheduled to come in mid-October, but held off after the October 7 attack. He began planning this trip a couple of months ago, and invited several inkers who are former Israelis living in the US and Berlin, and who wanted to join the mission.

Free tattoos being inked by Artists 4 Israel for October 7 survivors, fighters and the bereaved (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

“Who knows if even now is the right time,” said Dershowitz. “But we couldn’t stay away, either.”

Dagan Fleischer, 23, was lying on a tattoo bed as Charis Nwaozuzu, a veteran inker from Oklahoma City, painstakingly etched a colorful bird of paradise flower over most of his right calf.

The boldly dressed and colorfully tattooed Nwaozuzu, who recently took the name of her Nigerian partner, isn’t new to trauma-related tattoo work. She’s Jewish — “aggressively Jewish,” in fact, for Oklahoma City, according to her. At home she regularly holds Jewish holiday parties in her tattoo parlor and often faces antisemitic comments on her social media feed.

“They’ve tried to hack our accounts, but they’re not very creative,” she said, shrugging.

Fleischer winced as Nwaozuzu pressed down on a bone, his cheeks coloring slightly, but smiled in spite of the pain.

“My father didn’t really like tattoos,” said Fleischer, “and I’m pretty sure he would’ve thought this was a big one.”

Fleischer’s father Avi, 64, was the only Kibbutz Magen member killed on October 7. He was part of the kibbutz response team that held back terrorists from reaching homes.

Dagan Fleischer from Kibbutz Magen being inked on July 7, 2024, in an Artists 4 Israel event at Jerusalem’s Botanical Gardens (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Avi Fleischer had worked as an engineer for most of his life, but had trained as an agronomist, said his son, and they had the most beautiful flower garden in the kibbutz.

“And we had birds of paradise,” he said, pointing to the regal orange flower being inked on his calf.

It isn’t Dagan Fleischer’s first tattoo. But he said it’s all part of the process he, his mother and two siblings are going through right now, as they attempt to reshape their lives without Avi.

Dagan and his sister had only just moved back to the kibbutz in early October, to the youth area where they were both living in their own small apartments, when Hamas attacked. The two siblings hid together in Dagan’s safe room while their mother was alone in the safe room of their family home.

“They never got near us, because my father and the rest of the response unit didn’t let them,” said Fleischer. “This is just one of the ways I’m remembering that.”

Next to Fleischer was seated Mina Cohen, 68, a flowered scarf wrapped around her shoulders, as Nwaozuzu’s 21-year-old daughter Avi Turner inked a flowery crown on the inner side of Cohen’s right arm, close to her wrist.

Mina Cohen, from Kibbutz Magen, being inked on July 7, 2024, in an Artists 4 Israel event at Jerusalem’s Botanical Gardens (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

“I didn’t realize until all this happened that I’m really the queen of the household, I’m the one who has to make sure things happen,” said Cohen.

It was Mina Cohen’s husband, Baruch Cohen, 72, who is often credited with saving Kibbutz Magen. Cohen was head of kibbutz security, a veteran of the Yom Kippur War, and was reportedly relentless in the team’s training, insisting on regular maintenance of weapons and drills in case of an attack.

According to several reports, one of the kibbutz residents, a member of the response team, was on a hill overlooking the plain toward Gaza as the rocket barrage began on October 7, and saw Hamas terrorists approach in a line of motorcycles and pickup trucks toward the kibbutz fence.

He called for backup and while they successfully held off the assault on the kibbutz border fence, the terrorists just kept on coming.

At that point, Cohen jumped into his pickup truck and drove at full speed toward the fence. The Hamas gunmen stopped him with an RPG, which slammed into the car, seriously injuring him.

Cohen, Fleischer and another kibbutz member were rushed to a doctor in the kibbutz and eventually airlifted by helicopter to a hospital. Fleischer died, but the other two survived.

Now, said Mina Cohen, her husband is recuperating from the loss of his left leg at Lowenstein Hospital, a rehabilitation center in Ra’anana, while she has been living in a nearby hotel.

“I think he’s the oldest person with battle injuries from the 7th,” she said. “He’s simply amazing.”

Cohen has spent the last months dealing with the bureaucracy generated by their evacuation from the kibbutz and by her husband’s extensive injuries. She’s not unaccustomed to paperwork as the former head of absorption at the kibbutz, where she brought in some 20 families in the last few years to the 400-person community.

They’ll be back at Magen, said Cohen, who grew up in Tel Aviv but has been living at the kibbutz for the last 40 years, where she raised her family.

“Where else would we go?” she said. “We have to be there. This country can’t hold everyone in Tel Aviv.”

She looked down at the crown taking shape on her arm, and smiled.

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