The Razzouk family has been inking religious pilgrims in the Middle East for 700 years.
In Jerusalem’s Old City today, you can find a uniquely obscure historical relic—the sole surviving pilgrimage tattoo business, Razzouk Ink. It’s a place where ancient artifacts meet contemporary machines, rich history intersects with modern technology. Twenty years ago, as a budding tattoo scholar, I first read about the adventures of Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land and the indelible souvenirs they had inscribed under their skin. I never expected to one day get the opportunity to follow in their footsteps and receive my own.
Just inside the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City, you can duck down the second side street to the left, as I did, finding respite from the beating sun and leaving the bustle of the crowded main square. A tiny shop, almost dwarfed by its prominent sign, lies across a quiet cobblestone road. If you didn’t know anything about the incredible, centuries-long history of the family who runs this particular shop, the sign’s tagline might cause you to do a double-take: “Tattoo With Heritage Since 1300” it reads.
For 700 years the Razzouk family has been tattooing marks of faith. Coptic Christians who settled in Jerusalem four generations ago, the family had learned the craft of tattooing in Egypt, where the devout wear similar inscriptions. Evidence of such tattoos dates back at least as far as the 8th century in Egypt and the 6th century in the Holy Land, where Procopius of Gaza wrote of tattooed Christians bearing designs of crosses and Christ’s name. Early tattoos self-identified indigenous Christians in the Middle East and Egypt. Later, as the faithful came to the Holy Land on pilgrimage, the practice expanded to offer these travelers permanent evidence of their devotion and peregrination.
Upon entering Razzouk Ink, you will discover a blend of stone walls and exposed beams lending antique character to the space, while the sterile tattoo parlor hides behind a wall. A museum-like case holds family antiques, and an exhibition of pictures on the walls offers glimpses into the family’s past.
Family lore dates the Razzouk’s involvement in this cultural practice to 1300, starting first in Egypt among Coptic (Orthodox) Christians and later in the Holy Land for Christians from a variety of backgrounds. “My ancestors were always in association with the church therefore it might be they learned this practice from there,” says Wassim Razzouk, the current family tattooer.
Pilgrims’ accounts dating to the late 16th century offer a glimpse into the era’s tattoo culture, and how purveyors such as the Razzouks must have tattooed back then, with sewing needles bound to the end of a wooden handle. Such accounts report designs that have become enduring pilgrimage tattoos, such as the Jerusalem cross—a motif consisting of a central, equal-arm symbol flanked by four smaller versions—along with images of Christ, Latin mottoes, dates in banners, and more.
A comprehensive description of the historical technique comes from Reverend Henry Maundrell, a chaplain for the English Levant Company’s office in Aleppo, Syria. In 1697, on the day before Easter, he witnessed the tattooing process in Jerusalem on a group of Christian pilgrims traveling with him. Maundrell writes:
The next morning nothing extraordinary pass’d, which gave many of the Pilgrims leisure to have their Arms mark’d with the usual ensigns of Jerusalem. The artists who undertake the operation do it in this manner. They have stamps in wood of any figure that you desire; which they first print off upon your Arm with powder of Charcoal; then taking two very fine Needles, ty’d close together, and dipping them often, like a pen in certain Ink, compounded as I was inform’d of Gunpowder, and Ox-Gall, they make with them small punctures all along the lines of the figure which they have printed, and then washing the part in Wine conclude the work. These punctures they make with great quickness and dexterity, and with scarce any smart, seldom piercing so deep as to draw blood.
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