Season 1
From the Travel Journal: Jerusalem – The City That Leaves a Mark
History that’s 700 years and a few layers of skin deep.
by DOMINIQUE FERRARI

This week we’re diving deep into one of our “Saved Pins” locations. And when we say deep, we’re talking “700 years and a few layers of skin” deep. We’re exploring the legendary story of Razzouk Tattoo, a family-owned tattoo shop in the heart of Old Jerusalem that’s been gracing religious pilgrims with their beautiful and powerful designs for 28 generations. Come dig into the incredible history of religious tattoos and find out how the oldest tattoo shop in the world has stayed around so long. This ink really is permanent.

Buried deep in the twisting alleyways in the Old City of Jerusalem, near Jaffa Gate, is a tiny shop with a sign that reads, “Razzouk Tattoo: Tattoo with Heritage Since 1300.” Inside, Wassim Razzouk and his two sons – Nizzar and Anton – grace patrons with simple but beautiful religious tattoos. Their shop is the last outpost of pilgrimage tattoos in the world.  

I’ve always been fascinated with tattoos. I have none myself (yet), but I am drawn to them in a very deep way. Now, I’m not an artist and I’ll confess that many great works of art are lost on me. I have tried and failed many times to cultivate a love and knowledge of great art when I see it, with mixed results. But tattoos are the one exception. I can stare at a tattoo (not in a weird way… at least I think?) the way some people can stare at the Mona Lisa. And I think it’s because, though I’m not an artist, I am a storyteller. And to me, every tattoo is really a story. They’re more than a “permanent mark of temporary insanity” (as some in the older generations of my family used to tell me). They are a time capsule of a moment – a memory, a trip, a person, a feeling – felt so strongly that the wearer agrees to have them encapsulated in an image and branded onto their bodies. Forever. Well, it’s either that or Marvin the Martian was having a moment in the 90s. Or both. Anyway. 

My fascination with tattoos began with my grandfather. He had one, singular tattoo on his forearm – a Navy anchor. He was in World War 2 in the Pacific, stationed on the USS Bunker Hill. Like many veterans, his war experience wasn’t something he shared much about to most people until the end of his life. But growing up, his tattoo had been the entry point for me to unlock a piece of that chapter of his life. I wanted to know where he got it (“on the ship”). By who (“one of the other guys”). And whether it hurt (“a little”). But his reticence to share soon began to soften and eventually we were talking about what life was like on the ship, what they did for fun, what they ate… and eventually The Hard Stuff. By then, his tattoo had warped and bled with age. But that only made it more fascinating for me. He’d gotten it as a young man who wasn’t sure he’d ever get the chance to be an old man. So the fact that this tattoo was blurred and faded added an entire layer to its story and deepened its meaning in my eyes.

So yeah, I’m a person obsessed with (though somehow devoid of) tattoos. So when the hosts of Passport came back and shared a bit about Razzouk Tattoo, I had to know more. 

Now, my first reaction when I heard that there was a 700-year-old tattoo shop in Old Jerusalem was, “I thought Jewish people weren’t supposed to get tattoos.” So that’s the first thing to get straight about Razzouk Tattoo – the tattoos they’re giving are Coptic Christian tattoos (more on that later). And Wassim and his sons are generation 27 and 28, respectively, of Razzouk family tattoo artists to bestow them. 

As the story goes, Wassim’s ancestors – who were Coptic Christians – visited Israel in the 18th century and liked it so much they decided to stay. They brought with them hundreds of years of Razzouk family tattooing heritage – along with 150 beautiful, hand-carved wooden blocks. Upon moving to Israel, they began tattooing pilgrims by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during Easter and the Razzouk family reputation in Jerusalem was born and has been handed down, father to son, ever since.

Many of those beautiful wooden blocks, which serve as the stencil for Razzouk tattoos, are still in use today at the shop. The blocks typically depict simple line drawings of things like Jerusalem crosses, Crusaders, Christian flags, religious pilgrims on horseback, Latin sayings, and the like. But of course, just like my grandfather’s Navy anchor – the power these tattoos have doesn’t come from fancy subject matter or intricate inkwork. It’s about the story they tell. People go to the Razzouk family today for the same reason they have for hundreds of years – because a Razzouk tattoo is a sacred mark of a person’s time in Jerusalem. And there’s something magical about knowing that the artwork you’re about to have permanently inscribed on your body is the same artwork that someone hundreds of years ago did as well. I wanted to know more about these tattoos and the history is fascinating. 

Coptic Christians trace their heritage back to Egypt in the year 42 AD. So, you know, pretty early on in the Christian timeline. They claim the author of the Gospel of Mark as their first bishop. And today, Egypt is still home to the largest Christian population in the Middle East and North Africa – the Copts. As with many early Christians, it seems as soon as the Coptic community had been established, they began to be persecuted. While the world around them was conquered and then embraced the Roman Empire and later Islam, the Copts held on tightly to their faith. And they were often oppressed, arrested, tortured, and even killed as a result. And it was in the midst of this persecution that the tradition of Coptic tattooing began. The tattoos served two purposes early on.

First, they were a mark of defiance. No matter what oppression or persecution might come their way, they wanted to show they were unwilling to deny their faith. As such, these religious marks were often done on the face – so you literally wore your Christianity on your face. There are also stories of Coptic families having their young sons stolen by whatever Empire was in charge at the time to turn into soldiers. The families hoped that the tattoos would serve as a reminder to their children forever of what their true heritage was. And as such, Coptic tattoos weren’t just for grown-ups. Even infants were- and still are – regularly tattooed. 

And second, the tattoos were a permanent version of a club stamp. Traditionally, they would get a Coptic Cross on the inner right wrist. And these crosses needed to be shown before entering any church. They were meant to keep non-believers and people who might wish the Copts harm from getting into their places of worship. To this day, getting a Coptic or Jerusalem cross on the inner right wrist is a popular choice at Razzouk Tattoo. The mark takes only 10 or 15 minutes to make, but it carries within it thousands of years of history. 

And sometimes, the weight of all that history can be too much. 

Wassim’s father, Anton, spent over half a century tattooing tens of thousands of pilgrims. He had had patrons fly him all over the world for the privilege of saying they had an original Razzouk tattoo. Wassim’s grandfather Yacoub was known as “Hagop” or “The Tattooist” and was supposedly the first tattooist in Israel to use an electric tattoo machine (it was powered by a car battery!). He also tattooed the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, in the 1930s. Big shoes to fill. 

But when Wassim Razzouk was growing up, he wanted nothing to do with the family business. 

The legend of 26 generations didn’t call to him, it weighed on him. Wassim’s father tried everything he could to get Wassim into the family business, but Wassim was busy doing other things. But he was always around. He’d grown up watching his grandfather and father tattoo. And one day, something changed for Wassim. He was reading an interview his father had done and in the article, his father mentioned how sad he was that the family’s tradition would end with him. And something clicked for Wassim. He thought about the generations of Razzouk’s who’d handed their art down for centuries and the centuries of pilgrims who had come to his family to have the memory of their trip and their faith put in ink forever. It was Wassim’s ‘aha’ moment and in 2007, he joined his father Anton in the shop and eventually took it over. 

In the 13 years since, Wassim also took steps to expand Razzouk’s reach and cement its staying power by training a small group of hand-picked tattoo artists around the world to be official ambassadors for Razzouk. Today you can get an official Razzouk tattoo from a Razzouk trained artist in places like Loreto, Italy, Saint-Cheély-d’Apcher, France, and Franklin, TN.

Anton

Wassim

Nizar

For now, it looks like the Razzouk family heritage will live on. Wassim’s son Nizar started working beside him in 2015, and his other son Anton followed in 2019. Wassim’s wife Gabrielle is also part of the Razzouk family team – and she’s got some tall shoulders to stand on there, too. Though much has been made about the father-to-son lineage of Razzouk, there have been Razzouk women tattooing there for generations, as well. 

Every tattoo tells a story. And the Razzouk family story is a long and fascinating one. The tattoos are simple – but the meaning they hold his deep.

Image Credits:
Banner image: Jerusalem at Night, photo by Bryan Katz via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Tattoo Needle, photo by Andrej Lišakov, on Unsplash
Razzouk Tattoo, photo by Djampa (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Peace & Family, photo by Rachael Christine Cunningham via Instagram
Razzouk Tattoos, photo by @jonatatuaggilauretani via Instagram
“Femme Féllah et son enfant” Léon Bonnant 1869
Anton, Wassim, and Nizar Razzouk, photos via razzouktattoo.com

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© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.
© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.