The Old City of occupied Jerusalem is shrouded in layers of history that reveal themselves as one journeys and makes discoveries into its inner sanctuaries. Tucked away, in between Jaffa Gate and New Gate on St. Francis Street, I locate Razzouk Tattoo, one of the oldest tattoo establishments in the world, tattooing Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land.
In the 21st century, tattoos have emerged as popular travel souvenirs, but Razzouk Tattoo offers a truly unique experience — a link to hundreds of years of history through a visceral transaction of bloodletting and pain.
Wassim Razzouk is busy tattooing two French pilgrims as I observe him practising an age-old craft handed down through generations, and he talks about his unique art form, much to the interest of his clients.
“It all began 700 years ago with the Copts in Egypt,” Razzouk says. “We are originally Egyptian Copts who are now Palestinian. We still have family in Egypt and many of them are still working in Churches there doing tattoos.
“My ancestors used tattoos to mark Coptic Christians with a small cross on the inside of their wrists to grant then access to churches. Those without it would have difficulty entering the church. Christians tattooed their children identifying them as Copts at a very early age. Today, we continue this family tradition by offering tattoos to Christian pilgrims visiting the Old City of Jerusalem.”
Bruno, a visiting French actor adds: “This is my first pilgrimage to the Old City of Jerusalem. I learned about this religious tattoo from my sister, who read about it on the internet, and we decided that in solidarity with the Christians suffering in the Holy Land we should have it done before we return home.”
“The practice of tattooing was done at the church as a service and my great-ancestor came as a pilgrim to Jerusalem and founded a whole new tradition of tattooing pilgrims,” Razzouk says. “It was a profession he knew and he introduced it to the orthodox church. “Whereas Islam prohibits marking the body, for orthodox Christian denominations like Armenians, Syrians, Ethiopians and Copts, tattoos are both decorative and a sign of faith or identification of pilgrimage – proof that the pilgrim had been to Jerusalem –and it was worn as a mark of pride back home.”
Roman Catholicism does not ban tattooing but the practice is not as common.
Razzouk moved to the current premises two years ago from where his grandfather used to work. He learnt that pilgrims found it difficult to locate it on the second floor in the myriad of buildings in the narrow, cobblestone-paved streets in the Christian Quarter of the old city, and climbing up the stairs caused hardship to elderly pilgrims. The current premise has greater visibility, is easily located and accessed.
“My dad tattooed for 50 years and my grandfather before him for 60 years,” Razzouk says as he continues his work. “My grandfather even tattooed Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie in the 30’s when he was expelled by the Italians. He stopped here on his way, and although his mother was Jewish, he got his tattoo, a cross on his hand.
“My grandfather, known also as hagop (Arabic for tattooist), was the first tattoo artist in Palestine to use an electric tattoo machine – powered by a car battery – and the first to use colour as well. Many artists have learnt from him, and he has been written about in many books that discuss the history of tattooing, especially religious and Christian tattoos.”
Proudly displayed in his tiny shop are testimonies bearing the names of other famous persons like Otto Friedrich von der Groeben (1657 – 1728) who journeyed to Palestine at age 17. In his journals he describes with illustrations tattoos he received – and two of them were made using original Razzouk wooden blocks.
Heinrich Wilhelm Ludolf (1655 – 1712) one of the founders of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge in London, documents tattoos dated to 1699, using two original Razzouk wooden tattoo blocks.
When and how did Razzouk become a tattooist?
“I was never into tattoos and I did not entertain the notion that I had to continue the family heritage but in my 30s I decided to do so. My father taught me as well as Russian artists in [occupied] Jerusalem, who would come and assist him during the busy Easter season. I then taught my wife, who helps me now. My 14-year-old son is now learning the art. He wants to keep it alive as we are considered the custodians of this religious tradition.”
Being the only tattooists in the Old City of Jerusalem what makes their art so special?
“We continue with the same age-old designs, that are hundreds of years old. My ancestors brought with them hand-carved wooden stamps that act as stencils for the designs of religious motifs inspired from the Bible, such as the crucifixion, ascension, Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus, Saint George fighting the dragon and many others. Pilgrims would line up, waiting for their turn to be tattooed with either a cross or by choosing one of the designs on the wooden stamps, the date being included as certification to their pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Many pilgrims who returned another time, asked for the date of that year to be added to the tattoo. Today we continue that tradition in the same way.”
Razzouk adds: “Interestingly, people have seen these tattoos on their grandparents and others in their family and when the next generation makes the pilgrimage to the Holy land they make sure not to return home without the same tattoo. In most instances, they may not even be tattoo enthusiasts but they too wish to keep their family tradition alive.”
Watching Razzouk complete tattoos on the French actor, Bruno and his sister, using modern machines, needles and all the other paraphernalia that accompanies the art form, he points to age-old needles that his ancestors used, which were time consuming but just as accurate, and which he now proudly displays.
“Not all who come here, come to have tattoos,” he says. “This morning, we had a group of Polish tourists who heard about us on social media. We have a website, Facebook page and Instagram, and for them this is a historical place that they came to visit.”
He wraps it all up with a smile and a sense of pride. “Wanderlust, the UK’s leading Travel Magazine, considers us to be one of the five best places in the world to be tattooed.”
I leave, enlightened on the art of faith-inspired ink which has not only assumed a religious complexion but has also been used for millennia, thanks to the generational efforts of the Razzouks, still inscribing marks of Christian pilgrimage on the skin of the faithful to memorialise journeys to the Holy Land.