FOR MORE THAN 700 YEARS, tattooing has been the profession of countless generations of Razzouk family members. This Coptic Christian family originated in Egypt but in the eighteenth century an ancestor named Jersuis, a Coptic priest, brought the art he had learned from his forefathers to Palestine and later Jerusalem about 1750.
In the Coptic and other Eastern Christian communities (Ethiopian, Armenian, Syrian, Maronite, Kildanian, etc.), tattooing has long functioned to mark one’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land, among other things. For example, a small cross placed on the inside of the wrist granted religious pilgrims access to churches and other sacred places. Virgin girls often chose Annunciation designs to increase their chances of bearing children, and in this context these designs worked as fertility symbols rather than devotional marks. But the act of tattooing oneself also brought one closer to God; it was an outpouring of blood and could be identified with the sufferings of Christ on the Cross.
Anton Razzouk, the elder statesman of the Razzouk family who retired from fifty years of tattooing recently, added other functions: “The tattoo was not only an unforgettable souvenir from the Holy Land, but it also served as a reminder of the person’s Christian faith and not to commit sins, theft, robbery, or murder.”
There are early records of European pilgrims being tattooed in the Holy Land. Travel accounts dating to 1602 indicate that dragomans (Arabic and Persian-speaking guides) from Bethlehem, affiliated with Franciscan friars, created tattoos from wooden stencil blocks that were pressed to the skin and later pricked with pigmented needles. Another account written by French pilgrim Jean de Thevenot described the process as follows: “On April 23, 1658, the arms of the pilgrims were tattooed. They have several wooden molds, you choose the pattern you like most, which they fill with a tincture of charcoal powder ink mixed with ox gall; then it is applied to the skin so that it leaves a mark. After that, they’ll take your arm and prick the lines marked by the stencil. Then they wash the arm and if the pattern is not dark enough they repeat the process up to three times. For two or three days the arms are swollen and usually accompanied by a little fever. Later, a scab forms and the markings remain blue and never fade.”
The use of blocks was important because they allowed the tattooist to work more quickly during the busy Easter week. They also served as an early form of flash art from which clients could select their desired patterns.
Several of these tattoo stamps, made of olive and cedar wood, remain in the Razzouk family and were used to ink the arms of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, King George V and King Edward VII of England. Motifs include St. George Slaying the Dragon, the Resurrection, St. Veronica and the Veil, Mother Mary and Jesus, and the Crucifixion. Another is the ever-popular Jerusalem Cross. Anton Razzouk says of this design: “The center cross represents Jesus and the smaller ones the four Evangelists – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.” One of the Razzouk blocks contains the date “1912,” which marked the year of its creation and the actual date of pilgrimage. This practice of dating a tattoo is an ancient one, and I have seen examples from the seventeenth century.
Anton also owns a dated tattoo, a cross with “1948” etched into his skin. The motif was made by his father Yacoub (Jacob) Razzouk, who was the first tattoo artist in Israel to use color and an electric machine made from a modified doorbell assembly. Anton remembered: “The ink at that time was a secret, it was hand-made. My father used to burn the wick from an oil lamp and then he placed a clay plate over the burning wick. He scraped off the sooty residue from the plate and mixed it with wine. He had a set of needles bound in a stick and he poked-in the design. I was only eight years old at the time.”
Yacoub tattooed men, women, and children with pilgrimage tattoos. But he also applied therapeutic tattoos, especially for people with sprained or injured joints. These tattoos consisted of a continuous band of dots over the seat of pain. This form of therapy was common in other regions of the Middle East, especially in Egypt where Arab villagers tattooed dots on the skin to cure toothache, headache, eye complaints, and to make the fingers “strong.”
THE NEW GENERATION OF TATTOOING RAZZOUKS
Just six years ago it seemed that the family line of Razzouk tattoo artists would end. Anton told me, “Our first ancestor who came from Egypt to tattoo was a pilgrim and he passed on the tradition from father to son until my own father came into the profession, and then he passed it onto me and my sister Georgette. I learned by practicing on slabs of meat from the butcher and tattooed for five decades. I even continued to use my father’s table, which had an electric foot pedal to run the machine. But I did not think that anyone in my family would carry the profession into the future, because there was no interest. However, a few years ago I started to teach my son, Wassim, who thankfully showed interest to continue the family heritage and the art in the same way that my father had taught me. One day I was tattooing Ethiopian pilgrims at a hotel in Bethlehem and was accompanied by him. I was halfway through a tattoo when I told my son that my eyes were no good for tattooing any more, and that I wanted him to complete the tattoo. My client was a bit nervous, and so too was her daughter, but he finished the job and the women watching said that his work was better than mine! After that, they all wanted him to make their tattoos and he did! I was astonished and very proud of him, because he picked up the family tradition and has never looked back.”
Wassim, who is assisted by his spouse and fellow tattoo artist Gabrielle, recently solidified the future of Razzouk tattoo with the opening of a new studio on 31 Saint George Street, in the Old City of Jerusalem. Displaying a few props from Yacoub’s original studio, the new space sits near Yacoub’s carpentry shop that once advertised “Tattoos with Colour.” Previously, Wassim and Anton worked out of their family curio and currency exchange store near Jaffa Gate in cramped quarters.
Wassim noted: “It’s great to be here in the new space, especially during the Easter rush. I will tattoo until 3 or 4 am in the morning, then I return at 7 or 8 am the next day. Sometimes I might make forty tattoos in one day! But many pilgrims have dreamed their entire life to visit the Holy Land and when they visit us their tattoo is like a certificate of their pilgrimage. There is a lot of family pride that they finally made it here, and it is always very satisfying that you have given them something that completes their lifetime dream.”
Wassim tattoos clients from all age groups and he even hits the road, visiting the nearby city of Ramallah three times a week to provide cosmetic tattoos for Palestinian clients in a beauty salon.
Customers eager for pilgrimage tattoos are usually first-time tattoo recipients. “A lot of elderly people come to us for their first tattoos, the oldest man was an 87-year-old and the oldest woman was 92,” Wassim said. “He was originally from Iraq, a Kildanian Christian, and he wanted a tattoo to reaffirm his faith. The woman was Assyrian and it was her first trip to the Holy Land. Also very young people want a cross and the date of their pilgrimage to honor their ancestors. A few days ago an Armenian guy visited us and said he wanted an Armenian cross and that the size did not matter. He told me, ‘I need this tattoo and I want this tattoo to show that I respect my faith and family.'”
“In the past, Christian Catholic pilgrims used to mark their journey to the Holy Land by receiving a tattoo in Jerusalem, a tradition which was discontinued when the Church forbade the practice. However, during the past year, we have received a growing number of Catholic pilgrims, mostly younger clients, who are returning to the ancient tradition of marking their pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Holy Land, like their ancestors did. A favorite design is the Jerusalem Cross and they usually add the year to help commemorate their journey,” Wassim explained.
To embark on your own tattoo pilgrimage, please visit or contact the studio for more information. And make your own mark on history!
31 Saint George Street, off Greek Catholic Street, Old City
Near Jaffa Gate
1927. Blackman, Winifred S. The Fellähin of Upper Egpyt. London: George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd.
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2014. Lewy, Mordechay. “Der Alte Orient: Wiege der abendländischen Tätowierungen / The Ancient Orient: Cradle of Western Tattooing.” JMB Journal 10: 60-66.