Tattooing is an art that the Razzouk family brought with them to Palestine five centuries ago bringing it with them from Egypt. The family came to the Holy Land for pilgrimage but then stayed for trade and for the Tattooing tradition that had existed, and since this art has been in the family for 700 hundred years starting in Egypt, the family started tattooing pilgrims for a living.
Our ancestors used tattoos to mark Christian Copts in Egypt with a small cross on the inside of the wrist to grant them access to churches. Those without it would have difficulty entering the church; therefore, and from a very young age (sometimes even a few months old) Christians would tattoo their children with the cross identifying them as Copts.
Read on to learn more about this stunning history from the current owner of the Razzouk Tattoo shop, Wassim, the 27th generation of the family members that have been practicing this profession and the tradition of offering tattoos to visitors to the Old City of Jerusalem.
“My grandfather, Jacob Razzouk (known also as Hagop or “the tattooist”), was the first tattoo artist in this country to use an electric tattoo machine (which was powered by a car battery) and the first to use color as well. Many artists have learned from him and he has been mentioned in many books and magazines that discuss the history of tattooing (especially religious and Christian tattoos).
He had learned the art from his father who learned it from his father and the ancestors who came from Egypt and brought with them the wooden hand-carved stamps that act as stencils for the religious designs of motifs inspired from the bible such as the crucifixion, the ascension, the Madonna, etc… Pilgrims would stand in line waiting for their turn to be tattooed with either a cross or another design of their choice with the date as certification to their pilgrimage to the Holy Land and as a souvenir. Many Pilgrims would visit another time in a different year and have the date of that year added to the tattoo.
My Father, Anton Razzouk, speaks of a man who had visited Palestine for decades on a yearly basis bringing other pilgrims with him from Egypt every year, and every year he would bring his groups to be tattooed and, of course, get tattooed with the year again, he ended up having tens of tattooed dates on his arms. Another story that my father is proud of is about the fact that his father, Jacob, had tattooed the Emperor of Ethiopia in the 1930’s, he wanted to be tattooed only by the original artist from the original family. One of the interesting recent stories is that my father was contacted by an Armenian American doctor who invited him to the USA to have him put an original tattoo for him (probably cost him more than a hundred tattoos!), but for him, the authenticity and the heritage was all that mattered.
My father (Anton Razzouk) taught me as his father (Yacoub Razzouk) had taught him, and I have decided to carry over the tradition and the heritage, now my two sons are also practicing this profession that will hopefully remain in the family for many centuries to come.”
“In the old City of Jerusalem one afternoon in 1956 I discovered a collection of woodblocks which struck me as unique in character.” So begins John Carswell’s compellingly simple account of his discovery of the remnants of a centuries old tradition of tattooing in the Holy Land that goes back in written records to at least the 1600s and quite possibly much earlier. In the tattoo/coffin-making shop of tattooer/coffin-maker Jacob Razzouk, Carswell recorded the designs of 168 wood blocks that were carved with various, mostly Coptic Christian, tattoo designs. The blocks and the trade had been in Razzouk’s family for generations.
Customers looked at the blocks and picked their design. The tattooer would then use the block to stamp an ink impression on their skin, using it as a guide for tattooing. A cross of equal lengths on the inside of the right wrist or on the back of the hand, between the base of the thumb and the index finger, was not an uncommon way for pilgrims to commemorate their journey to Jerusalem.
Several accounts of tattooing in Palestine can be found in travel journals of Christian pilgrims and the practice continued well into the twentieth century. In 1956, a professional tattooist, Jacob Razzouk was using tattoo designs carved on woodblocks that had been handed down from father to son in his family since the seventeenth century.
. The blocks he used were copied and published in Carswell’s book Coptic Tattoo Designs, printed in a limited edition of 200 copies in 1956. The book contains reproductions of 184 prints together with descriptions of the traditions and symbolism associated with each design. There are only three definite dates in the collection of woodblocks and one is Armenian and dates to 1749, the other is the Resurrection dating to 1912 and a third to 1910.
History of Stencils
Some of the earliest known stencils are the felt pads from the Scynthians tombs. The people of Borneo, and the Coptic people used carved blocks of wood to create stencils. Jacob Razzouk was a Coptic tattooist and coffin maker whose ancestors settled in Jerusalem in the 5 centuries ago and who passed down stencil blocks to him. Carved in heavy relief these blocks would be inked lightly and then the image could be transferred onto the skin for tattooing.
Jerusalem Cross Tattoo: The symbol of the Jerusalem cross has a long history in the world of Christendom as well as the world of tattooing.
Sometimes described as a cross potent between four crosslets or a cross of equal arms, each terminating in a cross bar, there is no mistaking this distinctive and squarish cross symbol out of the dozens of types that have been used in tattoos. Its earliest appearance as a symbol seems to have occurred, not surprisingly, during the first Crusade (1096), in the coat of arms of Godfrey of Bouillon, the first Latin ruler of Jerusalem. Dead by the age of only forty, the tall, handsome, and fair-haired descendant of Charlemagne found his way quickly into legend, idolized as the “perfect Christian knight.” In the nearly one thousand years since then, the Jerusalem cross has been associated with Christian crusades, heroism, and knights, but especially with Jerusalem, especially when it comes to tattoos.
“In the old City of Jerusalem one afternoon in 1956 I discovered a collection of woodblocks which struck me as unique in character.” So begins John Carswell’s compellingly simple account of his discovery of the remnants of a centuries old tradition of tattooing in the Holy Land that goes back in written records to at least the 1600s and quite possibly much earlier. In the tattoo/coffin-making shop of tattooer/coffin-maker Jacob Razzouk, Carswell recorded the designs of 168 wood blocks that were carved with various, mostly Coptic Christian, tattoo designs. Prominent among them is, of course, the Jerusalem cross. Pilgrims to the Holy City have likely used it for centuries in order to commemorate their journeys – even pilgrims such as King Edward VII of England and King Frederik IX of Denmark.”
One of the most famous of Christian types of tattoos, however, is still in use today – that of the pilgrimage tattoo.
At least as early as the 1500s, visitors to the Holy Land (including crusaders) often acquired a Christian tattoo symbol to commemorate their visit, particularly the Jerusalem Cross. Some of the most well known and best documented examples of pilgrimage tattoos comes from John Carswell’s book of Coptic Christian tattoo designs.
In this more elaborate example, the cross of the equal lengths has a similar cross in each of its quarters, a symbol known as the Jerusalem Cross.
Above it are three crowns and a star with its lowest point extending downward. Below are two branches joined by a bow. This tattoo was probably used to commemorate a pilgrimage to Bethlehem with the start on top, three crowns under it representing the holy trinity, an olive branch for life and hope, the palm branch for joy and happiness. These tattoo blocks, passed down through generations, retain the unaffected, straightforward, and distilled designs that even today manage to exert their charm. But tattooing and coffin-making? Pilgrimage tattooing peaked at Easter and the rest of the year Razzouk had to make a living somehow – no association between the two occupations apparently.
Today, Christians of all denominations are at work imbedding in their skins the symbols of their religion.
From the same symbols used by early Christians to full blown scenes of the crucifixion, the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe, crosses with a Celtic flavor, or the classic Americana tattoo of the Rock of Ages. There seems to be no end to the varieties and styles and the different combinations that are possible. With a history of tattooing that stretches back for approximately two millennia, that variety and popularity is to be expected.
The four generations of the last century
Top Left: Jiries Razzouk
Top Right: Jacob, son of Jiries
Bottom Left: Anton, son of Jacob
Bottom Right: Wassim, son of Anton who is currently running the business alongside his two sons, Anton and Nizar, the 28th generation.
Feb 10, 1972