The Israeli Calf That Started a Mass Tattoo Movement

Animal-rights group 269life launched in Israel last year and has already gone global. But some view the tattoos which mimic meat industry practices as a tasteless exploitation of Holocaust imagery.

On May 10, 2012, a calf was born on a farm close to Route 2. He was immediately separated from his mother, thrust alone into a cage and fattened with protein-rich feed. In the first few days of his life he was given the identifying number 269, and a ring bearing his three-digit and date of birth was inserted into his left ear. The calf stood out because of his white color against the background of the black-and-white calves around him. His right ear is adorned with a delicate black stain. His gaze is direct and inquisitive.

Calf 269 is earmarked for the meat industry. That means he is fattened for the first year of his life in a private cowshed set aside for this purpose, near the town of Azor ‏(outside Tel Aviv‏), to which he was taken after birth. There, along with other calves the same age, he is fed three times a day with cattle feed that makes him gain weight quickly.

By the time he was 6-months-old, Calf 269 was already a large, charismatic bull. Human society does not threaten him, but he is also not eager to get close to people. Masked Thais place food next to the openings in the cages and occasionally pass by with a rake to push it closer to the animals. Throughout the cowshed, tied dogs bark incessantly and dozens of opportunistic pigeons peck pleasurably at the animal feed.

This June, Calf 269 will be loaded onto a truck packed with other fattened calves and be transported to one of the slaughterhouses in the center of the country. He will emerge as a carcass of meat.

In the past few months, Calf 269 has become famous far and wide. Hundreds of people around the world are tattooing the animal’s ID number on their body, and ten of them have branded the number on their skin with white-hot steel ‏(as is done to calves‏).

Unexpectedly, the 269life movement − which was established to generate identification with an individual animal in the faceless food industry − has become one of the most-talked about and viral animal-rights groups in the world.

What began as a local Israeli activity has spread like wildfire across the world and the Internet. The 269life group is now active in more than 40 cities in a number of countries.

Its activists can be found in Australia, the United States, Britain, Germany, India, France, Croatia, China and elsewhere. In Iran, too, there is an active group which is in constant contact with the Israeli mother group.

Last November, 269life received support from an unexpected source. The well-known Australian philanthropist Philip Wollen, who for years was vice president of Citibank, responded with the following words to an article about 269life that had appeared on the vegan web portal Free from Harm:

“I have been following the vegan movement in Israel recently and am overjoyed ‏(and astonished‏) at the energy it has generated,” he wrote. “This poignant article put more steel in my backbone. It is not just trying to establish a system of animal rights. It also about exposing human wrongs. It gave me great comfort to know there are so many fine young people in the region who actually understand the truth. I salute you all.”

From abattoir to Damien Hirst

The 269life campaign was conceived and founded by Sasha Boojor, 27, from Tel Aviv. He oversees an array of activities worldwide, proffers advice, liaises and issues updates about forthcoming events. The movement is structured so that each member is invited to initiate and organize a range of local activities with the aim of raising awareness about the suffering of animals in the meat, dairy and egg industries − all with reference to Israel’s Calf 269.

Earlier this month, an Israeli group made the news after a protest action at several public fountains. In the predawn hours of March 5, activists placed the heads of a cow and three sheep on two fountains in Tel Aviv and two in Jaffa. They also dyed the water of the fountains red and spray-painted graffiti: “The slaughterhouses have become transparent” and “Free 269.”

The animal heads were taken from the refuse bins of abattoirs. The result could be seen as an activist performance, though also as an artistic installation inspired by the unforgettable intervention by the Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, “Green River” ‏(between 1998 and 2001, Eliasson dyed five rivers in five different countries green‏), or the cow head installations of the British artist Damien Hirst.

“We chose a food coloring, which is far more expensive than the other options, in order not to cause great damage to the fountains, other than the need to replace the water,” says Sivan ‏(not her real name‏), the initiator of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa action and one of those who carried it out.

Two days after that event, a fountain in Holon was also dyed and dead fish were thrown into it. The activists who carried out the action in Tel Aviv do not know who perpetrated the Holon intervention. They say it is a group that was formed independently without knowing personally the Tel Aviv group − indicating the viral potential of the movement. According to Sivan, even the activists were surprised by the buzz their actions generated and by the existence of the Holon group.

What was the purpose of the action?

Sivan: “The purpose of the 269life movement in general − and the fountain installations specifically − is to show that it is possible to execute activism on behalf of animals that is creative, courageous and bold.

“The bottom line is, ‘Look into the eyes of the food you are eating.’ True compassion begins on the plate. In terms of the veganism movement, it can be said that we have moved from the ‘talk’ stage to the ‘action’ stage. By now everyone knows what goes on in slaughterhouses, so the excuse of ignorance is no longer valid. All that remains now is to repeat what we did there, again and again and again.”

The activists were also surprised by the determination of the police to apprehend everyone involved in the action. A special investigation team, no less − the sort usually reserved for murders and other serious crimes − was established. “On the one hand, it’s disappointing that a special team is being set up, as though there is nothing more urgent to deal with,” Sivan says. “But on the other, it also makes us happy, because it means we touched a sensitive spot. The meat, dairy and egg industries are very powerful, and obviously it is in their interest to stop us from describing how they treat animals.”

Boojor adds that the special investigative team attests to the scale of the disconnection between people and the meat they eat. “You know,” he says, “a few meters from every fountain there is a supermarket filled with carcasses of those animals. I think it’s a bit over the top to set up a special police team for food coloring in fountains. It’s not clear why people are shocked by the sight of animal heads but are perfectly calm when they eat other animal organs. A television reporter interviewed a 13-year-old girl to show how appalled and frightened she was by the installation. But she probably has another slice of that same cow in her lunch bag. I am constantly amazed by the disconnection that people are capable of.”

“I am shocked anew every time I enter a supermarket or pass by a fish stand in the food markets, or when I see a commercial for meat,” Sivan adds. “For me, it is pornography. To be shocked by heads in fountains is pure hypocrisy − because, after all, people buy legs, tongues, gizzards, hearts and ribs of animals. So why does the head, of all things, disgust them?”

Are you afraid you will be arrested?

Sivan: “No, everything was taken into account in advance. If arrested, we will use it in order to promote animal rights.”

According to Boojor, the fountains action generated a tremendous response from members of the movement worldwide. “I updated our Facebook page about it, and since then it has spread on the web,” he says. “There were also media reports in Brazil, and the Singapore group informed us that they will carry out a similar action soon.”

The buzz was not confined to the Internet. Two weeks ago, a demonstration seeking to identify with animals was held in Tel Aviv, with about 400 people calling for an end to the abuse of animals and urging everyone to become vegan. Five police vehicles escorted the demonstrators, and some activists said that plainclothes detectives mingled with them, trying to collect information about the people behind the fountains action.

Provocative tattoos

The movement’s major activity is its “mass tattooing events,” in which dozens of people tattoo the number 269 in a prominent place on their body, in solidarity with the anonymous animals that are slaughtered every day to meet human food-consumption desires. One of the largest of these events took place on World Vegan Day ‏(November 1‏), when some 800 people in different parts of the world were tattooed.

A mass tattooing event also occurred in Israel on that wintry day. Activists gathered in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square and 28 of them − of various ages, professions and backgrounds − tattooed the symbolic number on their skin. Even though it was a staged event and done by willing participants, it was still a difficult spectacle to watch. Those waiting to be tattooed stood in deathly silence by the side, wearing white T-shirts bearing what looked like bloodstains. One after another, they were “taken” by tough-looking guards, “forcibly” seated on a chair and tattooed by one of the two volunteer tattooists, Na’ama Bar-Yosef and Amir Blum, who donated their energy and instruments for the highly unusual demonstration.

Bar-Yosef is continuing to help the group from her studio in Kfar Sava. Everyone who wants to be tattooed with “269” is invited to visit her studio and pay only the cost of the materials. Michal ‏(a 20-year-old who asked to be given a fictitious name for fear of arousing ire at her workplace‏) was unable to attend the Rabin Square event, so she went directly to Bar-Yosef’s studio. She chose to have the number tattooed on her ankle. It’s her first tattoo, but she looked calm and confident in the face of the irreversible act she was about to carry out. As a vegan and animal-rights activist, she heard about 269 from friends and decided to perpetuate the struggle on her body.

Bar-Yosef completes the job skillfully and recommends an antiseptic ointment for Michal to rub on the tattoo. Michal checks the list of ingredients on the packaging and politely declines. It turns out to contain animal elements − more precisely, from sheep. Bar-Yosef is worried about the healing process, but Michal promises to use a different − purely vegan − ointment.

The next international public tattooing event was scheduled for March 21, which is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. At least 37 groups from different cities, including Tel Aviv, registered for the event. In the meantime, local events are also occurring, such as the rescue of animals from factory farms or the holding of demonstrations.

The exact number of people with the 269 tattoo is unknown, but there are estimated to be about 1,000 worldwide. Hundreds of them have posted their photograph on the organization’s online Hall of Fame, along with a short text in which they share their personal experiences since being tattooed, along with their feelings and thoughts on the subject.

Some of the tattoos are small; others are large and conspicuous. Some are done on parts of the body normally hidden from view; others prefer blatant locations, such as the neck or the palm. One of the most interesting testimonies on the site was posted by an Israeli, Dror Cwerner, who had the number tattooed on the outer side of his right arm during the event in Tel Aviv:

“Since getting the tattoo,” he wrote, “my feelings have ranged between great pride and total hatred of people. Sometimes I look at my tattoo and try to imagine what the animals go through ... it’s hard to even put it into words. Many people ask me about the tattoo and when I explain, the responses are mostly positive. Most people understand and say ‘Well done.’ Some ask for more information. Others look at me as though I had told them I just came back from Auschwitz.

“In one case,” he continued, “a client who was sitting next to me in my tow truck asked about the tattoo. When I explained, he started to cry. I apologized and said I hadn’t intended to make him cry. He told me that he was crying because the number reminded him of what his grandmother had told him about the concentration camps. He asked for more information, and I referred him to all the sites and videos I know about. I also gave him my email address in case he had more questions. A week later, I received a message from him saying that he and his whole family had become vegans. It was worth having the tattoo done for that experience alone.”

Selma Lahteenmaki, a golden-haired, gentle-looking young woman from Finland, who had the number tattooed on the inner section of her arm, encircled with the words “Animal Liberation,” relates that her mother was furious when she saw the tattoo and said she looked like “a Christmas ham.” “That was exactly the response I was hoping for,” she says.

Holly Goheavy, a Los Angeles physician who tattooed the number on her arm, notes that one of her patients asked about the 269 tattoo. “She listened intently as I explained the origins of the movement, the food industry, and how this particular calf gives individuality to the billions of captive animals in agribusiness. She seemed disturbed, and at one point said that she was ‘sorry’ she had asked. I replied, ‘Please don’t be sorry. You allowed the animals to tell their story, and they rarely get that opportunity.’”

Those who choose to be tattooed are quite heterogeneous in terms of their activism and militancy. One of the toughest activists is Amanda Santosuosso, 19, from the United States. She had a large “269” tattooed conspicuously down the length of her neck, a location that’s hard to hide. “I like to think of myself as a walking message,” she wrote. “We’re flooded daily with so many messages and commercials, so it’s time we added a productive message to the existing overload. The tattoo is also meant to prove my life commitment to Animal Liberation.”

The Holocaust dilemma

Emily Barwick is another of the organization’s activists. The 28-year-old American artist seeks to induce people to think through her installations and performance art. One such event is a video of the branding of the number 269 on her body. The clip ‏(www.youtube.com/watch?v=4IHRP9Fiwoo‏) shows three people, dressed in black from head to foot, faces masked, transporting Barwick in a rickety wooden cart, lying under a tattered tarpaulin, along an abandoned rail line. They then remove Barwick, who is almost naked, from the cart and place her on the ground, shave her head and brand the number above her hip with white-hot steel as she writhes excruciatingly.

This is not Barwick’s first provocative artistic act. For her master’s graduate project in art at the University of Iowa, she worked for a long time as a stripper and gave the money she earned to other artists, “to make them think about where the money for the arts comes from,” she explained.

Asked about the extreme nature of the branding act, she replies with a question of her own: “Isn’t it more extreme to cut the aorta of somebody’s offspring while he hangs helpless and suffocates on his own blood, while his brother is watching and realizes the same fate awaits him in a moment? I think that the reality I turn the light on is much more extreme; my act is banal compared to the real thing it represents. I knowingly and totally voluntarily chose to be branded with a hot iron. I executed an act which was well planned and thoroughly researched. Admittedly, I felt pain, but right afterward I received medical treatment and went home safely.

“If people are so upset with my voluntary choice to get branded, how come they approve of imposing the same action on animals, by force? How is my momentary discomfort more abusive than the daily murder of millions of animals? In the single second of the hot iron branding my skin, 263 animals in the U.S.A. and 4,757 animals around the world were slaughtered. So who is the real extremist?”

The video notes that the event took place on January 27, 2013, the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust. Of the connection with the Holocaust, she says confidently, “I definitely wanted to tie the attitude toward animals in the meat, dairy and egg industries with the way the Nazis treated Jewish people in the Holocaust.” The video clip opens with a famous quotation by Isaac Bashevis Singer: “For the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.” The sensitive analogy to the Holocaust has not escaped the founders of the organization, either.

“We pondered a great deal about the connection with the Holocaust,” Boojor notes. “But in the end, we decided that the indifference to animals is so vast and intolerable that this is perhaps the only thing that can stir people to think critically and take action. We have to crack that indifference, and from our point of view the comparison to the Holocaust is one of the means for doing that.”

Another way is to manage a vibrant online community ‏(269life.com, in English and Hebrew‏) and maintain an active Facebook page. The many online members contribute skills to the movement in a variety of creative ways. One of them, a graphic designer from Italy named Carolina Bertolaso, designed stickers carrying a photograph of Calf 269 and the text, “Who are you going to eat today?” She offers the stickers to people in their native language, and has had a large response. Another activist, Camilla Ishoy Stalling, from Denmark, designed earrings resembling the ID tag of Calf 269.

In addition to individuals, both small and large animal-rights organizations are also joining the movement. Animal Friends Croatia has been active for about a decade and is constantly launching animal-related campaigns. The latest, which preceded the 269life movement, was against the fur industry and was joined by one of Croatia’s most popular singers, Boris Novkovic. The AFC spokesman, Brenard Pranolik, told me how he had learned about 269life: “We received an email with a photo of the branding event in Tel Aviv and asked to take part in the organization’s activities. We were very impressed by their seriousness and liked the idea of identifying with one individual in the industry and of uniting people from all over the world around him.”

A tattooing event for the Croatian organization took place on November 1 in Zagreb, with about 100 taking part. Two volunteer tattoo artists worked for eight hours, and vegan food was handed out to passersby.

“Like all the great liberation movements in history − the liberation of the slaves or the liberation of women, for example − the movement for the liberation of animals also began locally,” Pranolik says. “But with time it grew and crossed borders to become the international movement that it is today. We believe that cooperation at the global level is good for the animals, but must not forget that local actions generally achieve immediate results more easily. So it is necessary to work at both levels all the time.”

Giving the meal a face

Boojor, who immigrated to Israel from Moldova in the 1990s, has been a full-fledged vegan since his adolescence, after coming across an information sheet about the animal-based food industry. His job as a security guard makes it possible for him to hook up to his computer and spend most of the time dealing with the organization. Before founding 269life, he devoted his time to touring factory farms, editing video clips on the subject and manning animal-rights information booths. “I was engaged in conventional activism,” he says, “but over the years I discovered how ineffective it was.”

In his quest for other ways to take action on behalf of animals, he came up with the idea of identifying with a specific animal. He contacted the photographer Tamir Bar Yehuda, and together they began a search for the symbolic individual. After visiting a number of farms, they saw Calf 269 and were impressed by how photogenic he was. “We decided that he would be the one to represent the organization, based on the thought that an individual will stir greater solidarity than large numbers. He has a personality, feelings − he’s special. He gives the meal a face.”

Bar Yehuda, who became a vegetarian three years ago, became friends with Boojor following their collaboration on an artistic project. He now takes all their photographs of the calf and shoots the videos of the performances and installations in Israel.

One such clip, which has been viewed by tens of thousands of people on the Web, documents a branding event in Tel Aviv − a more intimate event, which preceded the mass tattooing. Against the urban background, Boojor and two other activists, Zohar Gorelik and Oleg Ozerov, are seen being taken “by force” by two black-clad people. They are made to lie on the ground and the number 269 is branded into their skin using white-hot steel heated in a burner. Boojor’s brand is on his hand, Gorelik’s on his chest and Ozerov’s on his shoulder. ‏(The video is available at 269life.com.‏)

The performance was staged with great precision and detail, in order to reliably emulate the branding of animals in the food industry.

Branding is done either by means of a hot burn, as in the case of the activists, or with a cold burn, using an iron that has been cooled with liquid nitrogen. Hot burning lasts several seconds and leaves a red or white scar on the skin of the animals ‏(or the activists‏); cold burning takes about a minute and leaves a black scar.

Immediately after the branding, the three activists went to ER and were treated for third-degree burns. Boojor relates that the burn healed and became a dry scar after about a month.

Weren’t you concerned that you or the others would change your mind at the last minute?

Boojor: “That was the last thing that concerned me. I was most concerned that something not under our control would go wrong. As for the people who did the branding, we went through a long process together and talked about it at length. It’s clear to me that it is hard to hurt someone else, especially friends and comrades in the struggle. The rehearsals we did with an unheated iron helped. Everyone knew exactly what would happen, and when, and what his role was.”

How do you answer the allegation that tattooing or branding the body are extreme acts undertaken to transmit a message?

“It is very easy for people to judge me and say that my actions are extreme and fanatical. Perhaps I myself would also think that, if I hadn’t visited slaughterhouses and seen animals writhing in helpless agony as they are slaughtered, spending their short, wretched lives in a cage the size of their body, howling in grief when they are separated from their mother or groaning with pain when they are branded.”

Sivan adds that, in her opinion, the fountains action received media coverage because the general public perceived it as being less extreme than tattooing the body. “Even the vegan community was warmly receptive to the fountain installations, because they represent something that is easier to identify with than a tattoo or a reminder of the Holocaust.”

Are there arguments within the vegan community about whether the branding and tattooing events are useful or counterproductive?

Sivan: “Of course. The subject is under constant discussion by vegans. It’s one thing to argue with a carnivore or a vegetarian about how tattooing is not an extreme act compared to the reality it represents. I’m already used to that. But you can’t imagine how tiring it is to argue about it with vegans.”

What about the use of violence to achieve the group’s goals? According to Boojor, a simple, cost-effective calculation prevents them from moving to more aggressive methods.

“If physical violence were an effective tactic to protect millions of defenseless creatures − who are assaulted every day by violent people armed with knives, electric prods, clubs and hammers − I would definitely resort to violence to protect them,” he says. “But because the law today protects that institutionalized violence, but not the violence that I could carry out for them, my use of violence would affect my ability to use more effective tactics to protect them.” 

Tomer Appelbaum