JERUSALEM – A Jewish man who may have been drunk once asked him to tattoo “kosher” in Hebrew on his buttocks. His oldest client was a woman of 101. Members of the U.S. Secret Service often stop by to try his craft when in town.
He has also been a regular participant in Healing Ink, a project that provides free tattoos to cover the scars that survivors of terrorist attacks and Israeli soldiers have been wounded in combat.
But during the holy week and the days leading up to it, Wassim Razzouk’s tattoo parlor in Jerusalem’s Old Quarter is filled with some of his most trusted clients: Easter guests seeking an indelible reminder of their time in Jerusalem, “wanting a tattoo as a certificate of pilgrimage, Said Mr Razzouk.
One customer, Kathryn O’Brien, a 20-year-old student from Texas, was considering being colored with a picture depicting either the Last Supper or the crucifixion. Her friend Emily Rodriguez, 20, also from Texas, calmed down with a more contemporary impression and spelled the title of a popular Christian song, “Through & Through,” the black letter that rose up in her arm.
By getting his first tattoo, Steve Ferguson, an episcopal priest in the 70s, chose a Christian fish symbol that fused into a Star of David and a menorah, a design that would illustrate, he said, his affiliation with Israel and the Jewish people. .
Jerusalem has been particularly tense in recent days before the rare convergence this weekend with Easter, Easter and Ramadan, and in the midst of a wave of violence. These tensions flared up again on Friday when Palestinians threw stones at police, who responded with sound grenades and rubber bullets. More than 100 Palestinians and several Israeli officers were reported injured.
Since March 22, there have been four attacks in four Israeli cities involving five Arab assailants who have killed 14 people. About 20 Palestinians, according to Israeli authorities, have been killed by Israeli fire during the same period, most while committing or attempting to attack, or in clashes during Israeli counter-terrorism operations in the occupied West Bank.
The Old City, in predominantly Palestinian East Jerusalem, has long been a melting pot. Taken from Jordan during the Arab-Israeli War in 1967, the area was later annexed by Israel in a move that was never internationally recognized. Palestinian leaders covet it as the capital of a future state, and much of the world considers it occupied.
Mr. Razzouk’s small shop is something of a haven in the midst of all hostility, a symbol of religious and political tolerance.
“I have tattooed Christians, Palestinians, Ethiopians, Israelis – believe it or not, I have tattooed an Orthodox Jew with side locks,” said Mr. Razzouk, who identifies as a member of the Palestinian Christian minority. “I have tattooed nuns, atheists and bishops.”
As dusk fell on a recent evening, the ink machine in his shop was still buzzing as several customers gathered in the cobbled alley outside waiting for their turn.
While tattoos may only have moved into the global mainstream in the last few decades, the Razzouk family has been practicing the art form a little longer: 700 years or 27 generations, he said. He is the offspring of a long-honored family of tattooists, Coptic Christians who, as family history says, came on a pilgrimage from Egypt to the Holy Land hundreds of years ago and decided to stay in Jerusalem and establish shop.
Mr. Razzouk – with his long hair, Harley-Davidson biker jacket and passion for motorcycles – decided to follow the family tradition at the age of 33. His two sisters and cousins of his generation were not interested in becoming tattooists, he said, adding: “I knew, that if it were not for me, the tradition would disappear. “
His father, Anton, 82, taught him the craft after learning it from his father, Jacob or Yaqoub.
Tattooing is generally considered forbidden in both Islam and Judaism, and for many Jews, tattoos evoke disturbing memories of the figures etched in the arms of Holocaust victims. But tattooing is now wildly popular among Jewish Israeli hipsters, and Mr Razzouk said some young Palestinian Muslims now also wanted tattoos, influenced by the Russian prisons they have seen in movies.
He sends clients seeking more modern design to a studio he opened a few weeks ago in predominantly Jewish West Jerusalem. It caters mainly to the local market, which prefers more realism in body art, and is run by his wife, Gabrielle, and an employee he has trained.
“If anyone wants a Russian star or a gun or a Kalashnikov,” Mr Razzouk said, “it’s not appropriate to tattoo them along with a pilgrim in the ’70s who gets a cross.”
He opened the new store, which also offers piercings, to diversify after two difficult years of the pandemic. 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’re coming back.
While a tattoo artist may seem like an unlikely station on a pilgrimage route, the family business Razzouk has long been popular – under Ottoman, British, Jordanian and now more than half a century of Israeli rule.
The company is known for its continued use of Razzouks’ centuries-old, hand-carved wooden stamps as stencils to guide the tattoo artist’s hand. The most popular images remain variations of the Jerusalem Cross, an emblem on the Crusades, which is a cross on four straight 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 ritual on the journey to the Holy Land.
“Going in and being inspired by someone’s art is exciting,” Ms. O’Brien, the student from Texas who went with the Last Supper. “I saw something unique that I could not get anywhere else.”
Sir. Ferguson, the episcopal priest, went uplifted and described the experience as “a great tradition.”
Razzouk Tattoo in the Old Town occupies a two-bedroom, cave-like space with a stone-vaulted ceiling near the Jaffa Gate. Mr. Razzouk moved here about six years ago from his grandfather’s original studio deeper into the Christian quarter of the old town, which was up steep stairs and harder to reach.
Mr. Razzouk said that although he wanted to adapt the company to make it “bigger, more modern and more professional,” he added that he was committed to preserving the family heritage, which he called a “gift.”
Dozens of antique stamps are stored in a glass display case. A framed entry from the Guinness Book of Records 2022 declares Razzouk to be the world’s longest running tattoo company.
Customers can flip through two books, one with the traditional designs from the ancient stamps, another with other designs, including different types of crosses and religious symbols, and some more modern designs, such as “Love and Peace” in Arabic calligraphy.
A poster commemorates Mr. Razzouk’s role in Healing Ink, a project started in 2016 by the advocacy group Artists 4 Israel. His participation has drawn criticism from some loyal supporters of the Palestinian cause.
“My answer is always the same,” he said. “I tell them I do not need your judgment.” He added that Healing Ink “is a beautiful experience and one of the most humanitarian things we have done.”
He has known trauma up close. When he grew up as a teenager in the shadow of the first Palestinian intifada or uprising, Mr. Razzouk a friend who went out to throw stones at an Israeli settler bus and was killed shot.
Recently, a Jewish Israeli customer postponed an agreement. His girlfriend called to tell him he had been involved in a Palestinian stabbing. When he finally arrived, after a delay of several months, Mr Razzouk saw two scars on his upper body.
As for the man who wanted a “kosher” mark on the back, Mr Razzouk said he had checked that the customer was safe before starting work.
Mr. Razzouk has found his own way of transcending the 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 has trained the 28th generation of Razzouk tattooists: His sons – Anton at 21 and Nizar at 19 – work in the shop.