Jerusalem tattoo artist inks pilgrims, priests and people scarred by conflict

JERUSALEM — A Jewish man who may have been drunk once asked her to get a Hebrew “kosher” tattoo on his butt. His oldest client was a 101-year-old woman. Members of the US Secret Service often stop by to sample his work when in town.

He was also a regular participant in Healing Ink, a project providing free tattoos to cover the scars suffered by survivors of terrorist attacks and by Israeli soldiers injured in battle.

But during Holy Week and the days leading up to it, Wassim Razzouk’s tattoo parlor in Jerusalem’s Old City is filled with some of his most trusted customers: Easter visitors who, in search of an indelible memory of their time in Jerusalem, “want a tattoo as a certificate of pilgrimage,” Razzouk said.

One client, Kathryn O’Brien, a 20-year-old college student from Texas, deliberated between getting a tattoo with an image of either the Last Supper or the Crucifixion. Her friend, Emily Rodriguez, 20, also from Texas, opted for a more contemporary feel, spelling out the title of a popular Christian song, “Through & Through,” with the black letters rising up her arm.

Getting his first tattoo, Steve Ferguson, a 70-year-old Episcopalian priest, opted for a Christian fish symbol blending into a Star of David and a menorah, a design meant to illustrate, he said, his affinity for Israel and the Jewish people.

Jerusalem has been particularly tense in recent days, ahead of the rare convergence this weekend of Passover, Easter and Ramadan, and amid an outbreak of violence. Those tensions erupted again on Friday when Palestinians threw stones at police, who responded with stun grenades and rubber bullets. More than 100 Palestinians and several Israeli officers were reportedly injured.

Since March 22, there have been four attacks in four Israeli cities, involving five Arab assailants who killed 14 people. Around 20 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire during the same period, most while carrying out or attempting to carry out an attack, according to Israeli authorities, or during clashes during Israeli counterterrorism operations in the West Bank busy.

The Old City, in predominantly Palestinian East Jerusalem, has long been a melting pot of friction. Captured from Jordan in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the area was later annexed by Israel in a move that has never been internationally recognized. Palestinian leaders covet it as the capital of a future state, and much of the world sees it as occupied.

Mr. Razzouk’s tiny store is a kind of refuge amidst all the hostility, a symbol of religious and political tolerance.

“I’ve tattooed Christians, Palestinians, Ethiopians, Israelis — believe it or not, I’ve tattooed an Orthodox Jew with sideburns,” said Razzouk, who identifies as a minority. Palestinian Christian. “I tattooed nuns, atheists and bishops.”

As dusk fell on a recent evening, her store’s ink machine still hummed as more and more customers gathered in the cobblestone walkway outside, waiting their turn.

While tattoos may have only entered the global mainstream in recent decades, the Razzouk family has been practicing the art form for quite a bit longer: 700 years, or 27 generations, he said. he declares. He is the scion of a family of long revered tattoo artists, Coptic Christians who, according to family tradition, came on pilgrimage from Egypt to the Holy Land hundreds of years ago and decided to stay in Jerusalem and to settle down.

Mr. Razzouk — with his long hair, his Harley-Davidson biker jacket and his passion for motorcycles — decided to carry on the family tradition at the age of 33. His two sisters and cousins ​​of his generation weren’t interested in becoming tattoo artists, he says, adding, “I knew if it wasn’t for me, the tradition would die out.”

His father, Anton, 82, taught him the trade, having learned it from his father, Jacob, or Yaqoub.

Tattooing is generally considered forbidden in Islam and Judaism, and for many Jews, tattoos stir up unsettling memories of the numbers engraved on the arms of Holocaust victims. But the tattoo is now hugely popular among Jewish-Israeli hipsters, and Mr Razzouk said some young Palestinian Muslims now also want tattoos, influenced by those from Russian prisons they’ve seen in movies.

He sends clients looking for more contemporary designs to a studio he opened a few weeks ago in predominantly Jewish West Jerusalem. It caters primarily to the local market, which prefers more realism in body art, and is run by his wife, Gabrielle, and an employee he trained.

“If someone wants a Russian star, a pistol or a Kalashnikov,” Mr. Razzouk said, “it is not appropriate to tattoo it alongside a 70-year-old pilgrim receiving a cross.”

He opened the new store, which also offers body piercing, to diversify after two tough pandemic years. Tattoo parlors were closed the first year, and for much of the second year Israel was largely closed to foreign tourists and pilgrims.

Now they are coming back.

While a tattoo parlor might seem like an unlikely stop on a pilgrim’s route, the family business Razzouk has long been popular – under Ottoman, British, Jordanian rule and now over half a century of Israeli rule. .

The company is renowned for its continued use of the age-old hand-carved wooden stamps of the Razzouks as stencils to guide the tattoo artist’s hand. The most popular images remain variants of the Jerusalem Cross, an emblem of the Crusades which is a cross with four equal sides with four smaller crosses drawn in each of its quadrants.

“Crosses are not easy to make,” Mr. Razzouk said, because of the straight lines.

For some religious clients, a stop at Razzouk Tattoo is almost a spiritual rite of journey to the Holy Land.

“Coming in and being inspired by someone’s art is exciting,” said Ms. O’Brien, the student from Texas who accompanied the Last Supper. “I was seeing something unique that I couldn’t get anywhere else.”

Mr Ferguson, the Episcopalian priest, left elated, describing the experience as “a great tradition”.

Razzouk Tattoo in the Old City occupies a cave-like two-room space with a stone domed ceiling near Jaffa Gate. Mr Razzouk moved here about six years ago from his grandfather’s original workshop further out in the Christian Quarter of the Old Town, which was up steep stairs and harder to reach.

Mr Razzouk said that while he wanted to adapt the business to make it “bigger, more modern and more professional”, he added that he was committed to preserving the family heritage, which he described as ” Don”.

Dozens of old stamps are stored in a glass case. A framed entry in the 2022 Guinness Book of World Records declares Razzouk the world’s oldest tattoo business.

Customers can flip through two books, one with the traditional designs of antique stamps, the other with other designs, including various types of crosses and religious symbols and more modern designs, such as “Love and Peace” in Arabic calligraphy.

A poster commemorates Mr. Razzouk’s role in Healing Ink, a project launched in 2016 by the advocacy group Artists 4 Israel. His participation drew criticism from some staunch supporters of the Palestinian cause.

“My answer is always the same,” he said. “I tell them I don’t need your judgment.” He added that Healing Ink “is a beautiful experience and one of the most humanitarian things we’ve done.”

He experienced trauma up close. As a teenager, in the shadow of the first Intifada or Palestinian uprising, Mr. Razzouk lost a friend who went out to throw stones at an Israeli settler bus and was shot and killed.

More recently, a Jewish-Israeli client rescheduled an appointment. His girlfriend called to say he had been involved in a Palestinian stabbing. When he finally arrived, after several months of waiting, Mr. Razzouk saw two scars on his upper body.

As for the man who wanted a “kosher” mark on his behind, Mr. Razzouk said he checked that the customer was safe before getting to work.

Mr. Razzouk has found his own way to transcend conflict, without ignoring its complexity. His main identity today, he said, is as the founder of the Holy Land Bikers Motorcycle Club. Its members include Christians and Muslims, he said, and they ride in coalition with all types of Israeli motorcycle groups and have connections throughout the Arab world.

And he trained the 28th generation of Razzouk tattoo artists: his sons, Anton, 21, and Nizar, 19, work in the shop.

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