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To Tattoo or Not To

tattoo Illustration: Liora Blum

Why, you might ask, did I choose to write a story about tattoos? It began unexpectedly, when I discovered a tiny tattoo parlor seven minutes' walk from our home, tucked into an alleyway in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City. Razzouk is their name, the owners being Coptic Christians, originally from Egypt, whose ancestors started the business 700 years ago.

The Egyptian Coptic Church is the earliest Christian Church, dating to the 1st century CE. Around the year 310, Emperor Constantine the Great converted to Christianity. His mother, Queen Helena, considered by many to be a saint, came on pilgrimage to Palestine where she demolished a temple to Venus (or Jupiter), replacing it with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Since then it became a tradition for Coptic pilgrims to commemorate their visit by having a cross tattooed on their wrist.

But how did this practice of marking one's body with permanent images begin?

Scholars previously believed that it dated back to around 2,500 years ago, until 1992, when two hikers discovered the frozen body of a man near the Austrian/Italian border. 'Otzi the Iceman' proved to be the oldest perfectly preserved mummy ever found – 5,200 years old. Scars were visible on his torso as were fifty tattoo marks. Archaeologists speculate that these were an early form of medical treatment, being located approximately on acupuncture meridians, beneath which radiological images revealed muscle degeneration that would have caused him pain.

Over the millennia other mummified figures have been found with permanent designs – some plain, some elaborate, believed to serve as amulets, status symbols, declarations of love, religious beliefs or even forms of punishment.

The Greek Herodotus (c. 450 B.C.E) wrote "Scythians and Thracians from the Altai mountains, Central Asia, favored tattoos to mark their nobility. Not to have them was testimony of low birth". This was substantiated in 1948 when the 2,400-year-old body of a Scythian male was discovered frozen in Siberia – with limbs and torso covered in ornate images of mythical animals.

Accounts of Ancient Britons suggest they too were tattooed with "shapes of beasts" as a mark of high status. The Romans named this tribe "Picti," meaning "the painted people". Picts were the Celts who inhabited northern Britain during the Late British Bronze Age and Early Mediaeval periods. However, there is scarcely a part of the globe where people did not decorate their bodies.

From 1768 to 1771 the British explorer Sir Captain Cook was the first to discover Australia, New Zealand and the Hawaiian islands. He was accompanied by Sir Joseph Banks, the flamboyant naturalist who wrote the first European account of tattooing, explaining that the word 'tattoo' derived from the Tahitian 'tatau', meaning to mark.

Banks and many of Cook's crew were the first Europeans to acquire Polynesian tattoos. They adopted the technique from local artists, practised it on board ship and then some later retired to establish tattoo parlors in European ports. The trend to display body art spread rapidly to the British Navy, with sailors returning home with tattoos as souvenirs of their voyages. It was said "a sailor without a tattoo was like a ship without grog (rum)". This fashion was also taken up by men in risky occupations such as coal mining, where a popular design was a miner's lamp for good luck.

Other cultures throughout Africa created dots on the faces of Algerian Berber women, facial tattoos on men in Niger and small crosses on the inner forearms of Egypt's Christian Copts. Procopius of Gaza wrote about this in the 5th century, and from 1095, after the arrival of the Crusaders to the Holy Land, it was common practice for them to display such tattoos.

Which takes us back to Razzouk. Their shop sign read "Tattoo with Heritage since 1300" and it was here that I met Wassim, who told me: "We are Copts from Egypt where there is a tradition of tattooing Christians, and I, as the 48th generation, am following in the footsteps of my many ancestors who performed this service."

His great-grandfather Jirius left Egypt in the 19th century to settle in Jerusalem. He brought with him his expertise and 150 hand-carved wooden blocks of traditional designs, some dating back to 1749. It is these stencils that make their work so unique.

His son Yacoub then took over and for 55 years tattooed some 60,000 people, including Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. Yacoub handed over to his son Anton who, before he retired, trained his son Wassim, who had initially chosen a different career but readily accepted the obligation to continue the family tradition.He in turn has introduced his son, Anton, into the business.

Very few families can trace their forebears back so far. To hear how they have all accepted the privilege and responsibility of preserving this heritage and ensuring its continuity was deeply moving.

But not everyone approves of the practice of body decoration.Judaism forbids it – see Leviticus 19.26, when tattoos were associated with pagan worship. Despite this, two interesting developments have emerged in Israel.

Today, some descendants of deceased Holocaust survivors are tattooing their relative's concentration camp number on their own arms. This they do to honor them and 'never to forget' their suffering, particularly as the number of survivors with first-hand accounts diminishes each year. In today's climate of increasing antisemitism, the importance of encouraging people to remember cannot be underestimated.

A second project in Israel is Healing Ink, where groups of Israelis, physically and mentally scarred in shootings, suicide bombings and military operations, are given free tattoos. Wassim is one of the artists who volunteers.He said, "I am not a doctor but helping others through my work is very special". He treated Aviv, injured during his army duty in Lebanon. A tank in his platoon was hit by a mortar and, whilst going to rescue the soldiers, his vehicle was also hit. Aviv suffered severe burns to his neck, arms and hands and shrapnel wounds. He suffers from PTSD but works to help other soldiers similarly affected.

In 2019, four Israeli tattoo artists travelled to Virginia Beach to work with survivors of a mass shooting when 12 were killed and many others injured. They heard tragic stories but saw how having tattoos could be an emotional and therapeutic process, aiding victims to deal with their trauma and move forward.

For years tattoos were associated with common folk such as sailors, prisoners and later football hooligans. In Victorian times, working class girls would acquire tattoos and perform in circuses and sideshows.In late 19th century America they could earn $100-200 weekly, whereas teachers made $7 and male factory workers brought home $9. Far from being considered exhibitionists, these girls were courageous in finding the means to escape poverty and provide for their families.

For some people, however, this low class image still prevails. When I began this story I was told "It's only yobbos who do this"! But it may surprise you to know that many famous world leaders had tattoos. Sir Winston Churchill, King George V, King Edward VII, King Alexander of Yugoslavia, Tzar Nicholas II, Archduke Ferdinand, Presidents Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson, Thomas Edison, George Orwell and many others, none of whom could remotely be considered part of "the great unwashed".

To add to this illustrious list, in recent years many celebrities have happily displayed their tattoos – a trend that has spread widely, to the extent that it seems that nowadays almost everyone has one. However, despite the fact that they are so commonplace, I have to declare that I have never been a candidate for ornamentation of any kind, whether it be fashion, jewelry or tattoos. But the main reason I chose not to venture down this path is because I have a lifelong fear of needles.

I will do anything to avoid dental injections, even preferring the drill. Aged 60, it took me several visits to the pharmacist to have my ears pierced, as on all but the last occasion I fled from the shop. When I took my son David, aged six, to hospital with an injured knee, he was injected but it was I who passed out, only to wake and find him patting my hand and gently saying, "Don't worry Mummy – it's alright!" And as for acupuncture, after ten minutes' treatment I had palpitations and a panic attack. I got up from the bed looking like some monster from a science fiction film covered in needles demanding they be removed – they were, and I never returned.

For some reason tattoos generate hostile reactions from some. My view is that if people choose to adorn themselves in this way, why not? It is a personal choice which harms no one else. Perhaps their critics should turn their attention to other activities such as smoking, taking drugs and drinking, which, when taken to extremes, can impact very seriously on others, such as the early and tragic death of a good friend of mine by a drunken driver. 



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Friday, 19 July 2024

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