Razzook Ink Tattoos | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

St. George and the Dragon tattoo motif as tattooed from a stencil block that dates to 200 or 300 years ago. (Photo: Anna Felicity Friedman via Atlas Obscura)

Aleppo, Syria, has recently been in the news for all the wrong kinds of reasons. Back in 1697, however, on the day before Easter, Reverend Henry Maundrell, a chaplain for the English Levant Company’s office in Aleppo, witnessed the tattooing process in Jerusalem on a group of Christian pilgrims traveling with him and wrote about it:

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.

The process took place in a small shop inside the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City. A neighboring shop is currently occupied by the Razzouks – a family who has been inking pilgrims since the 1300s. Today, Razzouk Ink is the only surviving tattoo shop for Medieval pilgrims. It is some 7 centuries old.

Pilgrim Tattoos

Razzook Ink Tattoos | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

“Tattooed Christians bearing designs of crosses and Christ’s name”. The classic Jerusalem Cross motif has looked like this since at least the early 1600s. (Photo: Anna Felicity Friedman via Atlas Obscura)

As reported by Anna Felicity Friedman in Atlas Obscura, the Razzouks are a family of Coptic Christians who settled in Jerusalem four generations ago. They 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.

Pilgrims’ accounts dating to the late 16th century offer a glimpse into the era’s tattoo culture, and how purveyors such as the Razzouks 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.

Razzouk Ink

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.

Jirius, great-grandfather to the current generation of family tattooers at Razzouk Ink, settled in Jerusalem’s Old City in the late 19th century, bringing knowledge of tattooing and a set of antique stencil blocks that bore the traditional designs, one dating as far back as 1749. But during the Israeli War of Independence in 1947, many people of Palestinian heritage fled their homes, along with Coptic Christians. The Razzouks left for neighboring Jordan and pilgrimage tattooing became a dying art. After the conflict cooled off, the Razzouks returned to Jerusalem, where they alone became the primary custodians of this craft. “After 1948, [Jirius’ son] Yacoub was the only tattooer left in Israel,” says Anton of his father, a situation that lasted until the 1960s.

Razzook Ink Tattoos | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Wassim Razzouk (Photo: Anna Felicity Friedman via Atlas Obscura)

Yacoub became the sole practitioner of this service for the Coptic pilgrims who trekked to the Holy Land, particularly at Easter, to worship and mark their faith. Anton relates the story of one man whose arms were covered in dates—each representing a consecutive year of pilgrimage from the 1930s on.

The family carried on. Anton took over tattooing from his father, with a steady enough stream of customers. His own son, Wassim, set about learning the business from his father and arranged for mentorship by modern tattooers on new techniques and contemporary health and safety standards. In this post-AIDS era, gone are days of being able to use the same tattoo needles used over and over for a year or more, or staunching bleeding with bandages lifted from one customer and applied to the next.

Wassim revitalized and reinvented the business, expanding beyond traditional pilgrimage tattoos to other genres. His wife Gabrielle joined him, and they work side by side. The family hopes that at least one of their children will follow in their footsteps, but seem disinclined to pressure any of them to do so, a testament to their faith in the power of heritage and a call to service that will likely emerge on its own.

Modern designs aside, the pilgrimage tattoos are what compel people to travel hundreds, even thousands of miles to the Razzouks’ shop. Where else on Earth can one get a traditional Christian design rendered from stencil blocks dating to 300 years ago, from a family that’s been at it for the past 7 centuries?

Check out the full post on Atlas Obscura.