Tattoo crazy Israelis
As the country's tattoo culture grows more sophisticated, questions of safety, ethics and Jewish law come into play.
Photo: Ariel Jerozolimski
The piercing buzz of tattooing equipment drowns a classroom at Eve Center cosmetics school every Tuesday evening. The walls of the brightly lit room are lined with beds, upon which lie customers confident enough to let student tattoo artists permanently mark their bodies.
At the end of January, students of the seventh tattooing class to be run at Eve Center tattooed customers for the last time under the auspices of their training. These tattoos were part of their final assessments, which also included a theoretical exam, before students were eligible to receive certificates of course completion. This is the only tattoo course offered by a school in Israel, according to Eve Center Manager Idith Gour.
Gour aimed to provide aspiring tattoo artists with a professional program that emphasized European standards of hygiene and safety. She tells Metro that these standards have become more stringent, and that tattoo artists learning through apprenticeships might not receive up-to-date training.
Since Israel currently has no regulations pertaining to tattoo training, Gour turned to the European Union's tattoo standards for guidance. EU rules cover such areas as monitoring the production and expiry dates of needles and colors, professional conduct and scanning clients for health issues or whether they are on regular medication. In planning the curriculum, she sought assistance from the German micro-pigmentation (also known as "permanent make-up") company, Golden Eye - which manufactures colors and equipment and wrote the EU's micro-pigmentation regulations - and the German tattoo company Tatcon.
Students at the school study for 125 hours for approximately six months. They learn about the history of tattoos, the differences between tattoo and micro-pigmentation, anatomy (primarily skin care during the tattoo process and after it is completed), customer relations and workplace safety and hygiene. Practical training includes instruction about equipment, pigments, and how and when to use various needles.
Before moving on to human skin, students practice on silicon pads, getting comfortable working with the equipment and learning techniques for drawing lines, shading, coloring in pictures and creating patterns. They take images from catalogues or magazines, or design their own, trace the outlines onto copy paper and transfer the image from the copy paper to the silicon pad. They then tattoo the image onto the silicon pad and finish by coloring it in or shading it. After seven to 10 classes, students begin working on human skin. They invite their friends and acquaintances to be tattooed for NIS 100 - a considerable discount off the going market rate.
Student Aviv Zayde, 39, had done about 35 tattoos by his final class, both in the classroom and at home. He confides that the first time was scary, but now he works with more confidence. "I never had any customers who didn't like my work. Let's hope it stays that way," says Zayde, a police officer who studied graphic art in Kiryat Gat and has been drawing since childhood.
"I chose to do the course here because I don't think anywhere else in Israel gives a certificate. This place is a school, not some tattoo studio where you learn off a tattooist," Zayde says.
Florence Shalit heads the tattoo course and also teaches the micro-pigmentation class. She was a tattoo artist for four years, and feels that something was wrong with the way she was taught to tattoo. "The old-fashioned way was to watch the master. Don't touch, don't ask, just clean. Then, later on, start doing small jobs," she says. Shalit had taught micro-pigmentation at Eve Center for six years when the school offered her the position of tattoo teacher. She accepted, envisioning "putting tattoo art back into its place." She believes tattooing should be considered a paramedical service: "We touch human skin with a needle. We deal with blood and bodily fluids."
Many of the students at Eve Center come from the art world. Most say they love drawing, and although Shalit asks to see some of their artwork, applicants need not pass any drawing tests to be accepted. After attending a trial lesson, students have an interview with the school's management and can enroll.
Restaurant owner Eitan Baraban, 41, decided to take the course because he loves art. Baraban does not have any tattoos, nor does he seem intent on getting any in the immediate future. "You don't have to have tattoos to tattoo others," he said. Baraban has been in the practical stage of his classes for just over a month, working on silicon pads. But he already has friends lined up to be his first clients.
The students' training addresses which parts of the tattoo equipment are single-use and must be disposed of after every client and how to properly sterilize those parts of the machinery that are reused. Two machines are used to clean the non-disposable stainless steel equipment: the first removes the colors, plasma and bodily fluids. The second cleans away microbes, viruses and other remaining impurities. Shalit reminds students that thorough sterilization is not just a matter of meeting health standards, but of being able to "stand in front of your client with integrity." Shalit says the students also learn about appropriate dress, accident prevention and personal hygiene.
Another area she claims to emphasize is screening the tattoo products. "I teach them not to just take all the colors they see [on the market], but rather to carefully check the exact contents of the colors they buy" and ensure that the client is not allergic to the pigments in the products they intend to use.
When it comes to customer-client relations, Shalit says students are "in their own world when they start studying - they're used to drawing on paper and canvas and not used to working with people."
She encourages them to interact with clients, to share with them. "[Tattoo artists] must make sure the client is sure they want the particular tattoo and aren't just acting on a whim," notes Shalit. "They must advise their clients not to get what they think looks good on other people, but to choose their own design, something that suits them personally."
"Not every type of tattoo is suitable," she said. Some customers may request inappropriate tattoos in inappropriate places. "There are people who want tattoos of [supermarket] barcodes or of genitalia... I teach my students that they have to know when to say 'no' and not do unacceptable tattoos for the money. They must have ethical standards," says Shalit.
Shalit says it's very rare for a student not to do a good job. "They're so sensitive and ready by the time they work on human skin," she praises. Their hands shake a bit and sometimes they need to go over lines again if they went too fast, causing the line to appear as dots. If her students perform any unsatisfactory work, Shalit steps in to correct the tattoo.
However, not everyone in the tattoo community sees the Eve Center course as the best training option. "I don't think it's possible to learn to tattoo in a school," opines Roey Pentagram, 32, who has been a tattoo artist since 1998 and opened his own tattoo studio in Tel Aviv last June. "Tattooing needs to be taught one-on-one. Exactly like driving - you can't learn to drive in a class of [multiple] students."
Pentagram tells Metro, contradicting Gour, that Eve Center's tattoo course is not the first of its kind in Israel. "There was another course that closed not long after it opened. People complained and asked for their money back because nothing came out of their having studied there. They said it was a waste of time. I even met someone who said that when he goes to a tattoo studio searching for work, he's afraid to tell [potential employers] that he studied at a school because itâ€¦ causes the owners to refuse to employ him."
Pentagram apprenticed full-time for eight months at the Moreno tattoo studio. "At that time, there weren't many tattoo studios in Israelâ€¦ and it was regarded as a good one, so there was a lot of work. That gave me an opportunity to progress very quickly." For the first two to three months, all he did was learn theory. His first work on customers was small, uncomplicated tattoos, like flowers or hearts. At the end of the eight months, he estimates, he had done some 500 tattoos.
"I am sure that private [tattooers] do a really good job," says Gour, "but when they learned to tattoo all the details, rules and requirements were totally different than they are today. Viruses that weren't considered in the past are taken very seriously these days. Along with [updated knowledge on medical risks], the rules and regulations throughout the world regarding tattooing have also changed."
Pentagram keeps his hygiene and sanitization knowledge up to date by visiting tattoo Web sites like bmezine.com and attending tattoo conventions in Europe at least once a year. He also consults with a medical professional about sanitization equipment. Other than that, Pentagram believes most sanitization issues are a matter of common sense.
But both Pentagram and Shalit agree that tattoo culture in Israel is developing, Shalit notes that tattoos are less taboo than they were in the past and are no longer considered "freaky." She says this may be because there is less concern about the hygiene and sterility of tattoo studios, or perhaps because tattoos have become trendy. According to Pentagram, tattoos became popular in Israel seven or eight years ago. "Today, it's hard to find people [in Israel] who don't have tattoos," he says.
Shalit's customers are mainly aged in their 20s. But she also sees adults in their 40s to 60s. "I think [tattoos are] accepted in Israel," she says. She says men make up the majority of both tattoo customers and tattoo students. Men are mostly attracted to tribal patterns, dragons, "dead things" and strong images. Men tend to get larger tattoos than women, for example over an entire shoulder and arm, and tend to prefer black tattoos or simple red or blue coloring. Women tend to prefer small tattoos of dolphins, butterflies, mermaids, and images with shadowing, as well as thin and fine tribal patterns. Shalit has noticed a change in the female market - in the past, women would get one tattoo on their chest or back, but she now sees women with numerous and bigger tattoos. Women, she notes, tend to favor colors - both bright and subtle - more than men.
The debate of how acceptable tattoos are in Israel inevitably raises the question of how appropriate it is for a tattoo school to operate in the Jewish state when halacha expressly forbids tattoos. The prohibition of tattooing is based on the biblical verse: "You shall not make a cut in your flesh for the dead and a tattoo shall you not place upon yourselves. I am Hashem." (Leviticus 19:28). Rabbi Yonason Wiener, a rabbi at the Ohr Somayach and Haran yeshivas and a teacher at Hora'ah Shearis Yisroel in Jerusalem, explains:
"The Rambam (Maimonides) explains that the prohibition against tattoos originates as a Jewish response to paganism. Since it was a common practice for ancient pagans to tattoo themselves, Judaism prohibited tattoos entirely in order to disassociate itself from other religions. But [Maimonides] concludes that regardless of intent, the act of tattooing is prohibited.
Another explanation for the prohibition against tattoos is based on the Jewish concept that humans were created in the image of God (B'Tzelem Elokim). Since the human body is a holy vessel, we are expected to care for our body, which forbids harming or mutilating it."
Wiener addresses a widely-held myth that a Jewish person who has a tattoo is not permitted to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. "Despite the prohibition, there's no reason to prevent a person with a tattoo from receiving a Jewish burial," he states.
Interestingly, observant women have come to Shalit for micro-pigmentation. When she reminded them that micro-pigmentation is a form of tattoo and that tattoos are forbidden by halacha, the customers claimed their rabbi had permitted them to get permanent make-up because their intention was to make themselves beautiful for their husbands.
Wiener says permanent make-up poses a halachic problem. "There is an extensive halachic discussion regarding what is considered a tattoo - [whether it's] only letters or even a shape or line. Also, there is a difference of opinion on how permanent a tattoo has to be to be prohibited. Even though halacha might allow permanent make-up, it is highly likely that rabbinic law prohibits it," he explains. He adds that Judaism's perception of beauty is "more than skin deep."