Israel’s capital, famously, is a city of many cultures and creeds where tourists, pilgrims and locals jostle in the ancient streets. Over the last week or two, as the sun returned and people shed their outer layers, an interesting dynamic to this mix of cultures was revealed - tattoos.
Permanently marking the skin with ink is traditionally forbidden in Judaism in accordance with the biblical passage in Leviticus 19:28, “You shall not etch a tattoo on yourselves.”
The early Jews sought to differentiate themselves from the pagans among whom they lived who often wore tattoos, so blemishing or defacing the human body, which Jews believe to be made in God’s image, was not an option. Islam too discourages tattooing. Some believers view the practice as “haram,” an act forbidden by God.
Despite the fact that two out of the three monotheistic religions in Jerusalem ban tattoos, you don’t have to look far to find someone with ink on their skin in the Holy City. Some are pilgrims wishing to mark their journey to the city of Jesus’ ministry; others are young tourists with a fresh Hebrew stamp on their flesh that they probably can’t read. Many are simply locals who have chosen to decorate their skin for their own reasons.
There are certain patterns that can be found among people getting tattoos in Jerusalem as Israelis have a tendency to be uniformed in the way they choose designs, Daniel Tumanor, 22, from Everink Tattoo and Piercing, told The Media Line. Birds, for example, where the image of choice last year.
Many Israelis with tattoos are former ultra-Orthodox Jews who have struggled to conform to the strict rules and dress code of their community, Tumanor stated, citing his experience of the clients that come to the studio.
“Basically they rebel against their religion, they drop it, start getting tattoos and start having fun. Which is pretty sick,” Tumanor grinned, highlighting the many piercings covering his face.
It’s common for former ultra-Orthodox people to begin their foray into body art by getting religiously-oriented tattoos – tracts from the bible - and then, as they drift further away from their religion, going for whatever takes their fancy, Tumanor explained.
Among Jerusalem’s Muslims the taboo against tattoos might be even stronger, Tumanor suggested, explaining that only two had come to his studio to get tattooed in the last year. Those that do get ink seem to do so on the spur of the moment without thinking about the reaction from their community.
“They do it spontaneously, without a moment's thought. And then they get into a lot of trouble,” Tumanor said. So much so that the staff at Everink make a point of warning Muslim men about the long-term implications of a tattoo when they come in.
“Most Muslims consider tattoos a sin because it blemishes the body like a scar or a wound,” Sam Dalu, a Christian Palestinian tattoo artist, told The Media Line. That being said many men do have ink and just hide it, he added. The same can’t be said about Jerusalem’s female Muslims as the taboo for them is even stronger. “A lot of families believe that a tattoo is an abomination because it literally makes a girl a ‘prostitute,’ Dalu explained.
For Jerusalem’s Christian Arabs, tattoos are much more acceptable. “Most tattooed Christians have at least one cross, in order to show their religious pride,” Dalu said.
In fact, tattoo shops make good business around Easter when many pilgrims from across the world visit the city and choose to take home a permanent reminder of their time there. Religious visitors, especially those from Eastern-Orthodox sects of Christianity, often have crosses inscribed on their hands – a location on the body intentionally picked for people to see it. Pictures of Mary and Jesus are also popular. But not all people with tattoos in the Holy City can be lumped into one category or another.
Chaim Poko, a known tattoo artist among Jerusalemites with ink, told The Media Line he was less convinced that there are hard and fast trends among the city’s different communities on the subject of tattoos. “It’s different kinds of people, all ages, all religions, foreigners, tourists. Basically everyone,” he said, while working on his latest customer at Bizzart Studios. What is true is that there is still a lot of prejudice about tattoos and tattooed people in many countries and Jerusalem, a conservative city, is no different, he noted.
Such biases ignore developments in the tattoo industry in the last ten or fifteen years, the artist ventured, the buzz of the needle drowning out his words. “The tattoo industry all over the world is developing. If you open a tattoo magazine you can see the (improvement) in the quality of the tattoos and the equipment… it’s become an art,” Poko said.
His client, Tal Cohen, on his back with his sleeve rolled up to expose his bicep with the half complete colored design, seemed to agree.
“It doesn’t have a particular meaning. It’s just that I love Japanese culture and Japanese art and I want it on my body,” Cohen said. ‘What’s the meaning behind it?’ is one of the most common questions people with tattoos are asked, but for Cohen it’s an unnecessary one.
As Poko works another distinctive feature of Jerusalem’s tattoo scene is revealed. Talking to the other staff members at Bizzart Studios he flicks between Hebrew and Russian, not uncommon in studios in the city. At Everink Tattoo and Piercing, Russian hip-hop was just as likely to be playing as songs in English or Hebrew. Of the half a dozen studios working in Jerusalem, not all, but a disproportionate number, seem to have links to Israeli-Russians, citizens who immigrated to Israel in the 1990s.
The trade is not work suited to everyone. Tattooing comes with a major responsibility, both because of its permanence and because the canvas used is another person’s body. “It’s tough work. It's mind-breaking. You tattoo something on someone and then you have to sleep on it, knowing you've branded someone if you screwed up,” Daniel Tumanor said.
For people who get tattooed, the fact of having a personal and permanent statement branded into their flesh is a considerable part of the appeal. Among those living in Jerusalem, a city where the different social groups and religious sects can be identified by their clothing and the manner in which they wear their hair or beard, this is even truer.
“I enjoy the fact that I don't look like everyone else in this country,” Tumanor said, adding, “everyone here looks alike: they dress the same, they even wear the same jewelry.” Such efforts to be comfortable in your own skin can come at a price. Ask anybody with more than a couple of tattoos and they will tell you that getting ink done can be addictive. Tumanor himself admitted he’d lost count of the number of tattoos decorating his skin.