Buried in a maze of alleyways in the Old City of Jerusalem near Jaffa Gate stands a small shop with a sign that reads, “Razzouk Tattoo: Tattoo with Heritage Since 1300.”
The Razzouk family has been tattooing for 700 years. When the family moved to Israel from Egypt, they brought their tattooing tradition with them. Ever since then, the Razzouks have been providing tattoos for Christians in Israel as certificates of their pilgrimage.
Anton Razzouk, who worked as a tattoo artist for 50 years, said when one of his ancestors visited Israel in the eighteenth century, he loved it so much that he decided to stay. He began tattooing customers by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre around Easter, and became famous for his work.
“From father to son, this art kept going,” Anton says.
Pieces of old equipment in glass cases line the walls of the small entry room in the Razzouk shop. Black and white pictures, including a photo from 1950 of Anton’s father Jacob, in which the tattooer smiles and shows off his instruments, chronicle family history. On a counter sits a book of Christian tattoo designs, including crosses and illustrations of Jesus and Mary.
Tattoo Designs Hundreds of Years Old
While their technology has been modernized, many of the designs Razzouk Ink offers date back hundreds of years. When Jacob’s father came to Israel, he brought more than 150 wooden blocks that had belonged to the Razzouk family for generations. Each block is hand-carved and features traditional tattoo designs, mainly of Coptic Christianity, a denomination that began in Egypt and claims the author of the Gospel of Mark as their first bishop.
“My father used to use the wooden blocks as stencil,” Anton said. “He wouldn’t have to show the pilgrims a book. If you showed him which of the wooden blocks you wanted, he would put some ink on it, print it on the hand, and follow with his hand or with his electric machine.”
These blocks and the designs are part of what make Razzouk Ink so unique. “There’s nowhere else on Earth where one can get a traditional Christian design rendered from stencil blocks of such antiquity,” according to Atlas Obscura.
Anton’s father, Jacob, worked as a tattoo artist for 55 years, and Anton estimates he tattooed around 60,000 people. Jacob’s career was filled with memorable clients, including Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and a 20-day-old Egyptian baby.
How and Why One Tattoos a Baby
Anton described a group of Egyptian pilgrims who visited Israel for about a month in the 1960s. A pregnant woman and her husband received tattoos from Jacob, and the woman later gave birth to a son while still in Israel. When it was time to fly home, their flight was delayed by three hours, and their friends encouraged her to return to the tattoo shop and have her son tattooed while they waited.
“They said, ‘God has created this chance for you to go back to the Old City, make this tattoo for the baby, and come back,’” Anton said. “I was helping my father in a big room in the Old City where he was working. She broke the queue and my father said, ‘What are you doing here?’ He remembered her.”
When the woman explained that she wanted her child to receive a tattoo, Jacob at first objected, but eventually gave in. The woman requested an image of Jesus’ resurrection, but Jacob convinced her that a small tattoo of a cross would fit better on the child’s hand.
About 15 years ago, an Egyptian family came to his tattoo shop and asked if Anton if he was Jacob. When he explained Jacob had passed away but he was Jacob’s son, the family asked if he knew about a 20-day-old baby who had been tattooed. Anton soon discovered the boy was the family’s neighbor. As he had grown, his tattoo had remained and grown as well. He had insisted that his neighbors visit the Razzouk and report on his tattoo.
Tattoos of Religious and Cultural Significance
The Razzouk family continues to provide a service for Christian pilgrims that Jacob’s ancestors began while living in Egypt. Tattoos have long held significance for Coptic Christians like the Razzouks. A small Coptic cross would identify Christians in Egypt, and was sometimes necessary for entry into a church.
“Coptic Christians in Egypt are usually tattooed with a small Coptic cross on the inner right wrist to distinguish Christians from non-Christians,” said Wassim Razzouk, the son of Anton and current owner of Razzouk Ink. “It’s a practice that is done usually at the church. Copts would go to the church or take their children and have them tattooed with a small cross on their wrist.”
Such tattoos would allowed Copts to be marked permanently as Christians and to be buried as such after death. Today, many pilgrims continue to receive the Coptic cross as a tattoo in light of the persecution that modern Coptic Christians in Egypt face. Wassim said many people have requested this tattoo recently, in solidarity with the persecution Coptic Christians face. For instance, a church in Alexandria was bombed in 2011, and in 2015, ISIS beheaded 21 Coptic Christians in Libya.
Seth King, a church youth leader from Alabama, visited Razzouk Ink, where he got a tattoo of a Coptic cross. He said that he chose this design because it was once required for entry into church during times of persecution.
“This tattoo was created as a reminder of identity that is found in being a follower of Jesus Christ,” King said. “It acts as a reminder of perseverance and hope for the church, which includes me.”
A Tradition of Centuries that Almost Died
Before his retirement, Anton took his son to a hotel in Bethlehem to tattoo an Ethiopian family. Speaking Arabic, Anton informed Wassim that he was too tired to continue the process. One of their customers understood and objected, but Anton convinced her to give Wassim a chance.
“When he made the faces of the Virgin Mary and the child, she was astonished,” Anton said. “When the job was finished, on the way back to Jerusalem, I said to Wassim, ‘You did it. Now it’s going to be you. My father chose me out of three brothers to continue the heritage of Razzouk Tattoo. Now I pick you as the one who is going to continue this heritage.’”
Wassim said that he once held no interest in continuing the Razzouk business, until he read an article describing his family’s heritage. He realized how important their history was to so many people and decided to carry on the tradition.
“Only 10 years ago, I decided to continue the family tradition. I never really thought of it this way,” Wassim said. “I thought, ‘Wow, this really is important.’ My father used to tell me about it and how I should continue doing, it but I was never really interested.”
Wassim said that his sense of awe at the significance that others see in his family’s history has stuck with him.
“It’s glorifying,” he said. “I feel how important it is, how beautiful it is that people appreciate the history and they come from all over the world looking for us.”
Wassim’s customers consist both of tattoo collectors and first-timers. He said he hears every day from people who never thought they would get tattoos, but changed their minds when they heard about the history of the shop.
Anton received his first tattoo— a cross and the year 1948— from his father at the age of eight. Last year, Wassim added a “2017” below the cross. Anton said he hopes that this year, his grandson will add a “2018” as well.
“Then I will be one unique person in the world who has been tattooed by his father, by his son, and by his grandson,” Anton said. “This is the Razzouk family heritage of tattoo.”