A family legacy, written in ink
Wassim Razzouk, 43, is a tattoo artist descending from a centuries-long line in the trade: 700 years to be exact.
“We are Copts, we come from Egypt, and in Egypt there is a tradition of tattooing Christians, and my great, great ancestors were some of those tattooing the Christian Copts,” he told me.
The first evidence of a Christian tattoo tradition traces back to the Holy Land and Egypt as early as the 6th or 7th Century. From there, the tradition spread throughout Eastern Christian communities such as the Ethiopian, Armenian, Syriac and Maronite Churches. To this day, many Coptic Churches require a tattoo of a cross or other proof of Christian faith to enter a church. (Tattoo traditions among groups such as Celtic and Croatian Catholics emerged separately and at a later date.)
With the advent of the Crusades beginning in 1095, the existing practice of tattooing pilgrims to the Holy Land expanded to the European visitors. Numerous accounts dating back to the 1600s describe Christian pilgrims taking part in already long-existing customs of receiving a tattoo upon completing a visit to the Holy City – a custom that survives to this day.
While in the tattoo parlor, I witnessed the Razzouk family help a Roman Catholic bishop from Europe plan a tattoo he hopes to receive once he completes a personal pilgrimage later this year. Only weeks prior, Theophilos, the Coptic Bishop of the Red Sea, came to the Razzouk Family receive a pilgrimage tattoo. Other patrons of the Razzouk family have included Christian leaders of Ethiopia, persecuted Christians, and Christian pilgrims of all denominations from around the globe.
The Razzouk family themselves placed their roots in Jerusalem as pilgrims. After many pilgrimages and several generations of tattooing pilgrims and Christians of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, the Razzouk family relocated permanently to the Holy City around 1750.
“A lot of them decided to come to the Holy Land as pilgrims themselves and decided to stay,” Wassim said. “For the past 500 years, we’ve been tattooing pilgrims in the Holy Land, and it’s been passed down from father to son.”
Artifacts and application
The walls of the shop bear witness to this family legacy. Alongside framed newspaper clippings highlighting the work of Wassim and his father, Anton, are shadow boxes with pictures of the Razzouk tattoo artists that preceded them: Wassim’s grandfather, Yacoub, and great-grandfather, Jirius. And artifacts like an early tattoo machine and a traditional hand tool for manually applying tattoo ink are preserved behind glass.
Historically, Christian tattoo artists created their own inks and used stamps to apply images to the skin, before tracing over them with the tattoo implements. While Wassim does not use the old family ink recipe of soot and wine – using instead sterile inks produced specifically for tattoo application – many of the family's 168 historic wooden stamps are still in use today.
In ages past, the tattooist would use the carved wooden stamp directly upon the pilgrim’s skin, and then use it as a guide for the traditional tattoo instruments. Today, Wassim stamps the design onto transfer paper, which is then applied to the skin for tracing, similar to the process for more contemporary design transfers.
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Over the course of my interview with Wassim, nearly every customer used one of these ancient artifacts as part of their tattoo design. Two women from western Armenia – lands now controlled by eastern Turkey – came in and explained that they had just completed their pilgrimage to the Holy Land and wanted to get a traditional pilgrim’s tattoo with no alterations.
They both picked a stamp of the traditional Armenian Cross, a small crucifix that incorporates delicate floral design elements. Razzouk’s work was finished by adding the year “2017” underneath the image of the cross to commemorate the year of their pilgrimage. If they ever return, Wassim explained, the year of each additional pilgrimage will be added underneath.
After the women left, I was shown a drawer filled with dozens of the carved wooden stamps, each holding a unique design. Several stamps were based upon the Jerusalem cross: a cross with arms of equal lengths, with smaller crosses in each of its quarters. Others offered representations of the Virgin Mary, St. Michael the Archangel, the Resurrection, lambs, roses, or the star of Bethlehem. Each of them held deep Christian symbolism and a story behind its meaning.
Most of these wooden blocks, carved from olive and cedar wood, are believed to date back to the 17th century, before the Razzouk family relocated permanently to Jerusalem. However, since only two of the stamps have confirmed dates of carving – from 1749 and 1912 – it’s difficult to say for sure. However, Wassim’s mother, Hilda, told me that it’s believed many of the blocks may date back at least 500, maybe 600 years, to the Razzouk family’s early days of tattooing in the Holy Land.
Saving a centuries-old tradition