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Jerusalem’s Old City is home to a family that has been tattooing Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land for 500 years.
“The Old City of Jerusalem is a special place. It’s busy, it’s noisy. There’s a lot of energy,” explains Wassim Razzouk. A devout Coptic Christian, he is the owner of one of the oldest tattoo parlours in the world – Razzouk Ink – located on a quiet cobblestone street just inside Jaffa Gate in the Old City.
Its history dates back 700 years ago, to Egypt, before his great grandfather Jirius settled in Jerusalem in the late 19th century, bringing with him antique stencil blocks bearing traditional designs. This is why the 500-year-old stencil of a Jerusalem cross used at Razzouk Ink is cherished as an invaluable heirloom. “The stamp means a lot to me as it has touched so many people in its life,” says Wassim.
At present, Israel is home to just over 1,000 Coptic Christians, one of the earliest Christian populations in the Middle East, whose origins can be traced back to Northeast Africa and predominantly modern Egypt.
Razzouk’s favourite place in Jerusalem is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City, a major pilgrimage site for Christians around the world. “It is a special place for me in the Old City of Jerusalem. It’s a glorious place and you can feel the peace inside the church,” he says.
Jerusalem holds a special place within Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Religious sites sacred to the three faiths can be found across the city, especially within the walled area of the Old City. Today, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is shared by five different Christian communities: Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Coptic, Syrian Orthodox and Armenian. Many Christians believe that the site, which was built in the fourth century, marks the place where Jesus was crucified and buried, and where he was later resurrected.
Over the past centuries, the church’s pillars have been inscribed with hundreds of Christian crosses by pilgrims who marked their visit to the holy city. When this custom was banned, the followers started tattooing themselves instead.
Razzouk learned the art of tattooing from his father, Anton, who learned it from his father, Yacoub, who was taught by Jirius. In North Africa, the tradition of tattooing small crosses on the inside of the wrists dates back to the seventh century. Following the Arab invasion of Egypt, members of the Coptic community were tattooed to distinguish themselves from the conquerors. These tattoos began as a mark of persecution, but eventually became a part of the Egyptian-Christian identity.
From there, the tradition spread to various Eastern Christian communities, such as the Ethiopian and Armenian churches, and to this day many Coptic churches ask to see the cross before allowing followers to enter. With his wooden tattoo stencil and ink, Jirius Razzouk played a vital role in continuing this tradition, and when he came to Jerusalem, he brought the custom with him.
Although he has been tattooing for 12 years, Wassim Razzouk wasn’t always prepared to continue the family tradition. Growing up, he never saw himself as a tattoo artist, and instead spent his days riding across the city on his Harley-Davidson. Even today, it is on his bike that he feels “free and more connected to God”.
It was his father’s dismay over the possible end to the family tradition following his death that was too much for Wassim to bear. Soon after, he began to explore the art with his father until he finally felt at home at the shop and was able to pass on his teachings to his teenage son Nizar. “I watched the reactions of the people after they got their tattoo and it really affected me. I have been blessed by all this energy from these people,” says Wassim.
He continues to learn from modern tattoo artists to expand his knowledge and bring new techniques to the shop. His father, now retired, says, “I hope he keeps going. The family legacy should continue.”
After Wassim, his son will become the 28th generation of tattoo artists at Razzouk Ink. “You’re welcome to come here any time. I’m here for another 80 years and my son for another 80 years,” says Nizar.