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Mar 01, 2016 | Ken Chitwood

A Pilgrim’s Tale of Religious Body Art

Apparently, your chest is one of the more painful spots one can get a tattoo. I didn’t know that little tidbit when I buzzed the Razzouks’ “call up” button next to a nearly invisible old door in one of the winding alleyways of the suq. What I did know was that I was about to be in contact with a seven-century-old tattooing tradition. 

 

Indeed, for nearly 700 years tattooing has been the profession of the Razzouk family. I found Wassim Razzouk by asking a jeweler near the Jaffa Gate: “I’m looking for a tattoo artist, do you know … ?” Before I could finish my sentence, the jeweler said, “You mean the Razzouks?” Their notoriety preceded my rendezvous with history. 

 

After a circuitous and, at times, comical scavenger hunt for the Razzouk family home up and down the winding market streets of Jerusalem’s Old City, I finally shook hands with the capable and charismatic Wassim Razzouk. The baby-blue ceilinged, confined space of his family’s home doubles as a pilgrims tattoo parlor. In contrast to the bustling passageways of the Old City, the Razzouk home is tranquil, only the whir of the electric needle and my bated breath interrupt the quiet.

 

Yes, I held my breath throughout the process. Not only did I not want to rattle Razzouk’s rock-solid hand as he etched a sacred design over my heart, but I felt the weight of history upon my chest as well. After all, I was inscribing a mix of faith, physical journeys and spiritual intimations onto my body with ink, flesh and blood. I was not alone. Thousands of pilgrims stood before me with a myriad of religious traditions and personages that wove their way into my tattoo as well. 

 

Coptic Christians, the Razzouk family originated in Egypt. As Anton Razzouk, the family’s elder statesman, recalls, “the [family’s tattoo] business can be traced back to a Coptic ancestor who traveled by camel and donkey from Egypt to Jerusalem for a pilgrimage about 300 years ago and decided to remain.”

 

Jersuis was a Coptic priest and brought the tattooing art he had learned from his forefathers to Palestine around 1750. Today, Wassim Razzouk carries on the centuries-old tradition. 

 

Tattooing serves as a marker of Christian identity in the Coptic tradition (and among other Eastern Christian communities—Ethiopian, Armenian, Syrian, Maronite, Kildanian, etc.). Historically, small crosses tattooed on the inside of the right wrist were given to Coptic Christians (some as early as 40 days old) and these marks granted religious peregrines access to sacred sites across Christendom.

 

Designs of pilgrimage tattoos have ranged from that of the Annunciation (for virgins, apparently) to the classic Coptic cross and images of Christ in his passion. In the past, the Razzouks and other artists used olive and cedar wood blocks to stencil the designs on before commencing their work of making the design permanent. The blocks were important in allowing for rapid work during busy seasons like Easter. The Razzouk family has had as many as 200 different tattoo designs over the years. Several of these wooden stamps remain in the Razzouk family and are said to have been used to tattoo the likes of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, King George V and King Edward VII of England. Their designs are various and many contain dates to mark the year of pilgrimage. The tattoo I received can be dated back to the 17th century.

 

Pilgrimage tattoos also include designs that signify where the pilgrim had journeyed to, which sacred sites he or she had visited. This was not only inscribing one’s spiritual journey in ink and blood, but one’s physical pathway through the Holy Land. Simultaneously, tattoos among Christians in the Middle East could be maps, keys or testimonies.

 

As time wore on, European devotees who made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land would have Christian symbols or scenes inked onto their bodies to commemorate the experience. In 1680, Lutheran theologian Johannes Lundius spoke of Christians who made pilgrimages to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and made marks on their bodies “because of the special sacred awe associated with the place and because of the desire to prove that they had been there.” 

 

Many pilgrims over the last 300 years undoubtedly came to the Razzouks in the Old City, but there were other tattoo artists who would perform the service on the cobblestoned streets or in passageways between churches and shrines. 

 

Today, the Razzouks are unique in the Old City, but they are not alone in the tradition of religious tattooing, prevalent the world over. From Judeo-Christian symbols to pentagrams to Buddhist mandalas, many religious adherents choose to proclaim some aspect of their faith or practice through body art. Though the symbols may fade with time, or cause a commotion today, they are ultimately simple and yet strong expressions of personal devotion. In a recent article by Miliann Kang and Katherine Jones in the e-zine New Tattoo Subculture, they write:

 

“The tattoo speaks to the ongoing, complex need for humans to express themselves through the appearance of their bodies … The popularity of tattoos attests to their power as vehicles for self-expression, commemoration, community building, and social commentary.” 

 

Without entering into a full-fledged discussion of religious aesthetics and meaningful religious iconography, religious tattoos serve as powerful vehicles for self-expression and whether they are beautiful, boring, contentious or cool, they act as an interpretive tool for people to understand religion, their own or others’. All religious art serves a dual purpose as a hermeneutic of a theological truth (for the artist, or the inked) and as a window through which observers interpret a religion and its adherents. In the end, religious tattoos, just like a Christian fresco or an artistically scribed Qu’ran, serve as interpretive vehicles through which humans give voice to their religious devotion and allow others to comprehend religious truth through art.

 

Just a few years ago it seemed that the family line of Razzouk tattoo artists would finally come to an end. The tradition had been passed from father to son for ages, but when Anton Razzouk wanted to retire, his son Wassim was not initially interested. 

 

“I was young and more into motorcycles than family,” Wassim said. “Then I realized what I was giving up and that I did not want the centuries-old story to end with me.” He expressed interest to his father and began his apprenticeship. From the moment he took over a tattoo midway through, because his father’s eyes were tired, Wassim has never looked back. 

 

Now, using a few rooms of the original family home where his ancestors tattooed the faithful of the world, Wassim feels compelled to pass on the tradition. He is a man of many ventures (with a possible motorcycle shop in his future) but, when I ask if his son will take up the sacred work of tattooing pilgrims, Wassim said, “Of course!” The lines of pilgrims seeking tattoos has died down and the path of the future is as uncertain in the unassuming location of this tiny parlor in Old Jerusalem, but the tradition will live on in some measure, carved into the unwritten laws of generations of the Razzouk family. 

 

As he wraps up his work on my chest, Wassim said to me, “You have the skin for tattoos.” 

 

I look at the finished tattoo and in the moment the room is still and silent—a solemn second in time. As I look in the mirror I reflect on the fact that I have now imbedded this journey—both of faith and of pilgrimage—onto my body and joined thousands of pilgrims past, present and future. 

 

This is not just a tattoo, I think, but a history, a community, a place and a people. More than ink, it is part of how I make my way through this world in thought and deed. The good news is that I am meant for this journey and I am not alone. 

 

Chitwood is a Lutheran theologian, pastor and speaker and Ph.D. student at the University of Florida. Follow his blog on religion and culture at www.kenchitwood.com/blog/

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