For her first 60 years, Ann Ronaldson never wanted a tattoo. But the accountant from Milton Keynes, England, changed her mind last week while visiting Jerusalem for the first time.
Together with her husband John and friend Anne Phillips, Ronaldson headed to Razzouk Tattoo in Jerusalem’s Old City, bucking up the courage to have proprietor Wassim Razzouk permanently mark the inside of her wrist with a small Jerusalem Cross.
“This isn’t just any tattoo. It’s our last day here, and I’m doing this as a seal on this special experience,” Ronaldson said at the small shop in the Christian Quarter near the Jaffa Gate.
It’s so crowded it’s hard to move inside Razzouk Tattoo in the weeks surrounding Easter: This year, like every year, the place is packed with Christian tourists from around the world seeking tattoos as lasting memories of their pilgrimage to the Holy City.
Razzouk Tattoo claims to be the only remaining traditional pilgrimage tattoo business in the world. Seven hundred years ago, according to family lore, the Razzouks began tattooing fellow Coptic Christians in Egypt. They continued the practice after moving to Jerusalem around 500 hundred years ago, eventually offering their services to Christians of all denominations.
Customers patiently wait their turn, with the queue sometimes spilling outside into St. George Alley. To pass the time, they flip through a binder filled with different designs, many of them Coptic, appearing on antique hand carved wooden blocks (stamps). Some of the blocks were brought by the family from Egypt.
This year’s visitors join the ranks of innumerable Christian pilgrims to be permanently inked in Jerusalem since the 16th century. Almost all clients request religious designs, many featuring the Jerusalem Cross, a symbol of the Holy City and Holy Land first introduced in the 15th century by the Franciscan order. The Franciscans were appointed custodians of the Holy Land’s holy places by the Catholic Church in 1342. They were also made responsible for the physical and spiritual welfare of pilgrims to the Holy Land.
Wassim Razzouk, 44, is the latest link in the unbroken chain of Razzouk tattooists. The motorcycle enthusiast originally pursued a different career path, but had a change of heart after reading an interview quoting his father as saying he was extremely sad to think that the family’s centuries-old occupation and mission would die out with him.
“I felt the weight of carrying on and preserving this holy tradition. We are its custodians,” Razzouk said, who opened his current shop two years ago.
“People come to us to be part of the history and tradition of the Holy Land. In some ways, who is giving you the tattoo is more important than the tattoo itself,” he said.
The Razzouk family’s legacy is evident everywhere you look in the shop. The stone walls of the 350-year-old space (at one time an Armenian shoemaker’s shop) are adorned with framed articles about the family from around the world. There is also a touching arrangement of black and white portraits of the business’ proprietors over the last four generations, each depicting their tattooing instrument. (They are all men, but it turns out that women in the family also did tattooing.)
Razzouk’s tattoos are simple and usually take no more than 15 or 20 minutes to complete. Many take even less. The tattoos cost between $50 and $100.
Easter season business accounts for 50 percent of Razzouk’s revenues. It’s not unusual for him to provide service to several dozen customers in one day. Usually closed on Sundays, he’ll open up in the Easter season to meet tourists’ tight schedules.
Pilgrims with more time and who desire more detailed tattoos visit Sam Dalu at his shop outside the Old City near the New Gate. The 26 year old began tattooing eight years ago in the Christian Quarter.
“I had the only full-fledged tattoo shop at the time. The Razzouks had a souvenir shop and were doing tattoos in a corner of it. It was only a couple of years ago that Wassim opened his shop,” Dalu said.
Dalu does small crosses and other religious imagery for pilgrims, but his bread and butter are the more elaborate, time-consuming pieces he does for his local Palestinian and Israeli clientele. Among these are religious imagery, including a large, lifelike portrait of Jesus’ face he tattooed on one customer.
“I am doing fewer tourists, because they don’t care so much about the art. They care about the price and the heritage story of the Razzouk legacy,” Dalu said.
All about the branding
Tattoos date back millennia before Western Christian pilgrims first got them in the Holy Land in the 16th century. Recently, archeologists discovered the oldest artistic tattoos on a pair of Egyptian mummies believed to have lived between 3351 BC and 3017 BC.
Israel’s former ambassador to the Holy See Mordechai Levy has researched the history of tattoos for decades. He’s written about the presence of tattoos in early Middle Eastern cultures, in which they were often used to denote a belonging to a specific religious group. In an article he wrote for a 2000 issue of the Ben Zvi Institute’s Cathedra journal, Levy stated that Christianity accepted tattoos on a pragmatic basis due to its desire to convert pagans who often already had them.
According to Razzouk, his family began tattooing fellow Christians in Egypt as a service to the Coptic church. They marked Copts with a small cross on the inside of their wrists. It’s a custom that continues to this day.
“It was, and still is a mark that lets them get into the church. Also the Muslims rulers wanted the Christians tattooed to distinguish them from Muslims,” Razzouk said.
Fortunately, people getting tattoos today don’t subject themselves to the health risks and pain pilgrims faced centuries ago. According to sources cited by Levy, Western pilgrims tattooed by dragomans in Bethlehem, and Copts or Armenians in Jerusalem, often suffered dangerous fevers. One source mentioned the necessity for a tattooed limb’s amputation.
A description of the tattooing technique used on pilgrims comes from an eye-witness account from Reverend Henry Maundrell, a chaplain for the English Levant Company’s office in Aleppo, Syria, who visited Jerusalem the day before Easter, 1697:
…then taking two very fine Needles, ty’d close together, and dipping them often, like a pen in certain Ink, compounded as I was inform’d of Gunpowder, and Ox-Gall, then make with them small punctures all along the lines of the figure which they have printed, and then washing the part in Wine conclude the work…
Wassim Razzouk practices the most up-to-date and sterile methods, using a modern tattoo machine. In contrast, the instruments used by his ancestors — some of them displayed in the shop — leave much to be desired by today’s standards.
Razzouk’s great-grandfather is depicted in a photo crouching across from a young woman as he tattoos her forearm in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The instrument he uses resembles the one described by Maundrell.
Yacoub Razzouk, Wassim’s grandfather, did tattooing during the high season and worked as a carpenter (mainly making coffins) to keep food on the table year round. He is credited with introducing electric tattooing machines to the family business.
“He made his first one from a doorbell and powered it by a car battery. Then when British soldiers told him about the proper electric machines being used in the UK, he asked them to bring one back for him,” Razzouk said.
The family continued to tattoo pilgrims in the Old City while it was under Jordanian control, with Yacoub’s son Anton (Wassim’s father) eventually taking over the business and running it from his souvenir shop on Christian Quarter Street after Jerusalem’s reunification in 1967.
Now 78, Anton comes by Razzouk Tattoo several times a week to check on things. Sitting either inside or at a small patio table outside, he likes to schmooze with the customers.
“I gave the business to Wassim 10 years ago. My eyes and hands aren’t good enough anymore,” he said.
While Anton sat outside, his son finished giving Futzum Aitzegheb, 65, multiple tattoos. A trucking company owner, Aitzegheb is an active lay leader at the board of Medhanie Alem Eritrean Orthodox Church in Toronto. He got several tattoos from Razzouk last year, as well.
“I used to not believe in Jesus Christ, but in the last 20 years I am a very devoted Christian man and I want to show people that everything is in the Bible,” he said.
“Getting tattooed in the place where Jesus was born and was crucified for me, and dismissed my sins, is important to me,” he said.
A block of time
One of the designs Aitzegheb chose was from one of the approximately 60 surviving wooden blocks that have been handed down over the centuries in the Razzouk family. All with the typical simple lines of Coptic art, they depict a variety of Christian motifs. Razzouk applies ink to the blocks and then stamps them on a customer’s skin before going over the design’s lines with his tattoo machine.
“Many people ask for the blocks. The block touches their skin after it has touched thousands and thousands of other people. That’s powerful,” Razzouk said.
Islamic Art researcher John Carswell stumbled upon the Razzouks’ collection of stamps on a visit to Jerusalem in 1956. With the family’s permission, he made impressions of the 184 that were then in existence. The book he wrote about the blocks, “Coptic Tattoo Designs,” is still of interest to scholars and collectors. Razzouk displays a second edition copy in a display case in his shop, and uses it as a reference to recreate designs for which he no longer has blocks.
As Razzouk dressed and bandaged Aitzegheb’s fresh tattoos, a group of students from DePaul University in Chicago, squeezed into the shop to pour over sample tattoo designs. They were in Israel for a weeklong study abroad trip for their “Jerusalem: The Making of a Holy City” course. For some, it would be their first tattoo. For others, their second or third.
Danaka Katovich, 18, settled on an image of mountains. She said she was inspired by hills she saw in the West Bank at sunset, and also by her late mother’s love of mountains. The image is also commonly associated with Matthew 17:20: “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”
Her classmate Ryann Holland selected an angel of ancient Coptic design for the back of her ankle, while Chatovanaya Walters asked Razzouk to tattoo Jesus’ name in Arabic script and a cross on the inside of her wrist.
Others requested the Jerusalem Cross, a ubiquitous symbol in the Old City, as well as at other ancient and holy sites in Israel.
There are several interpretations for the large cross surrounded by four smaller ones. Some believe it represents Jerusalem as the center from which the Good News is spread to the four corners of the earth. Others think it stands for Jesus and the Four Apostles. According to a third tradition, the five crosses are the Five Holy Wounds that Jesus suffered upon his crucifixion.
Some customers had Razzouk discretely put the symbol on the inside of their wrist. Others wanted it on their ankle, upper arm or back. Ann Ronaldson’s husband John, a gregarious youth pastor at a Church of England congregation, wanted it right over his heart.
These contemporary pilgrims are in auspicious company, as historical figures such as the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), the Duke of York (later King George V), and Kaiser Friedrich III all got Jerusalem Cross tattoos on visits to Jerusalem in the 19th century.
Razzouk hasn’t tattooed any royalty yet, but he has inked plenty of religious leaders, including a priest whom he said has seven religious tattoos under his clerical garb.
Reverend Carrie Ballenger Smith, the American pastor of the English-language congregation at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Old City has gone to Razzouk for three tattoos in the last two years. Smith, 45, pulls up the long-sleeves of her clerical top and shows off a Jerusalem Cross on one arm, and a tattoo of St. George (the patron saint of Palestine) on the other. Below the Jerusalem Cross is another tattoo, a Latin phrase.
“It’s not religious. It’s from ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ and it says, ‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down,'” Smith said.
“I was having a really bad day, so I ran out to Wassim at lunchtime and had him give me that one,” she said.
Smith had never thought to get a tattoo, but she reconsidered after living and representing a religion in Jerusalem.
“I wanted a permanent mark to remind me of how my experience here has changed me. It’s both deepened and disturbed my faith in God. It’s changed my spirituality and my sense of being a pastor,” she said.
If average pilgrims seek out Razzouk, then it’s no surprise that their priests, nuns and reverends do the same. Razzouk has tattooed clergy of all denominations, including bishops and archbishops. However, there’s one religious leader who has yet to drop by his shop.
“Maybe one day I’ll tattoo the pope,” he said.