It would be a golden opportunity for Prince William to embody both the hip and historic – and reclaim the limelight from younger brother Harry, following the latter’s royal wedding to Meghan Markle last month.
The Duke of Cambridge is preparing for a solo Middle East tour in late June, when he is set to visit Israel, Jordan and the West Bank. So why not shed the image of the staid older brother and do something daring – like returning home to Kensington Palace with a unique souvenir in the form of a tattoo?
While tattoos are usually seen as an act of youthful rebellion, William would actually be following in a royal tradition: Three British princes – two of them future kings – got “Jerusalem cross” tattoos to commemorate their pilgrimages to the Holy City in the 19th century.
If the prince is willing to be inked, Wassim Razzouk – whose Coptic Christian family very likely tattooed William’s royal ancestors – is ready to do the job.
Standing in his tiny shop just inside Jaffa Gate, in the Christian Quarter of the Old City, Razzouk spends his days tattooing pilgrims who want to memorialize their trip to the Holy Land. He uses stencils of religious symbols on wooden block stamps, the oldest of which dates back some 500 years. One may well have been used to tattoo the British princes, he states.
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“Honestly, I think William should get a tattoo,” says Razzouk, 45. “It would link the past and the present, and it would be a beautiful historical moment for this tradition to repeat itself this way.”
And, he adds, “It would be a great honor” for him as a tattooist.
Tattoo or no tattoo, William’s trip is undeniably historic, marking the first formal state visit by a member of the British royal family to the State of Israel. His visit will begin in Amman on June 24 and end in Jerusalem four days later. Israel has long dreamed of such a visit and lobbied intensively for one – most recently when it hoped a royal would visit Israel to mark the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration last November.
While members of the royal family have traveled to Israel, their visits have been clearly defined as private affairs, with the exception of attendances at state funerals. William’s father, Charles, Prince of Wales, attended the funerals of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 and, more recently, former President Shimon Peres in 2016.
After Peres’ funeral on Mount Herzl, Charles quietly made his way to the Mount of Olives. There, he paid a secret visit to the East Jerusalem grave of his paternal grandmother, Princess Alice of Battenberg – a side trip that was only revealed to the public later.
Charles’ father, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, had himself visited his mother’s grave in 1994. Philip also visited Yad Vashem at the time for a ceremony in which his mother was named a Righteous Among the Nations after saving the family of a Jewish member of the Greek parliament during the Holocaust.
Of course, neither Philip nor Charles got tattoos on their visits. But as William’s trip draws nearer, British pro-Israel organization Bicom has prompted press speculation by pointing out that other royals did so in the past, and suggesting that William might want to revive the tradition by stopping by Razzouk Tattoo. The board outside the shop should at least make the prince feel at home: “Tattoos with Colour.”
The tattoo tradition began with the first royal pilgrimage to the Holy Land, made in 1862 by Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII), as part of a four-month tour of Egypt and the Ottoman empire.
History books recount how, after visiting the holy sights of Bethlehem and Jerusalem, the prince received a tattoo on his arm of the five crosses and three crowns of Jerusalem to memorialize his visit. Exactly 20 years later, two of the prince’s children, Prince Albert Victor and Prince George (who would subsequently become King George V), made the same trip. They retraced their father’s footsteps and also got the same tattoo.
Razzouk says there is no proof of the exact tattoo the three princes received, or who gave it to them. But he is fairly certain it was some version of the Jerusalem cross, and that there is a very good chance it was a Razzouk who did the inking.
The Razzouks are Coptic Christians who date their family’s expertise in tattooing to the start of the 14th century (the sign on Wassim’s shop reads “Since 1300”). The Coptic Christian tattoo tradition began with a small cross on the inside of the wrists, which was used as a form of identification that granted the bearer access to churches and to distinguish those in Egypt who had not converted to the rapidly spreading religion of Islam.
It was around 1750 that the family came to Ottoman Palestine on a pilgrimage – and decided to stay.
Presumably, they saw a business opportunity. Holy Land tattoos flourished after the Crusades began in 1095, and the practice of tattooing pilgrims expanded to include European visitors as a form of proof that they had made the journey to Jerusalem.
“Tattoos are a tradition, it’s not just ink on the skin,” explains Razzouk. The majority of Christians to whom he gives tattoos come from Europe, with some asking for recreations of tattoos that are part of a family tradition – ones they know their grandparents or great-grandparents also had.
Razzouk explains that when customers choose their tattoos from the centuries-old stencils, it makes getting tattooed a particularly meaningful experience. “People are very excited to experience this historic practice of getting a tattoo from a wooden stamp that has touched thousands of pilgrims, and to get a blessing from it,” he says.
The only royal Razzouk knows his family tattooed for sure was Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, who received a tattoo from Wassim’s grandfather, Yacoub Razzouk. The latter was the first tattoo artist in the Holy Land to use an electric tattoo machine, and the first to use color (hence the sign outside the shop).
The family tradition
Unlike Wassim, neither his grandfather nor father, Anton, made tattooing a full-time profession. His grandfather worked as a carpenter and maintained the family’s tattoo tradition on the side. Anton owned a souvenir shop that had a corner for tattoos. Other family members, including women, had tattoo parlors in their homes.
Wassim was an unlikely candidate to take the family tradition to the next level, since he had little interest in the family tradition growing up. Yet he was the one who incorporated modern techniques and equipment, and opened a shop solely dedicated to tattoos – both religious and nonreligious.
“My father was always mentioning it to me and saying, ‘You should consider tattooing, it’s the tradition of the family and it’s a good profession,’” he recounts. “But I wasn’t interested.”
Wassim studied and traveled, and his passion took him in a different direction: motorcycles. Indeed, his dream had always been to open a business around motorcycles and classic cars. On his own arm, the Jerusalem cross and other Christian tattoos sit alongside massive Harley Davidson designs. “My two religions,” he jokes.
Ten years ago, though, he went online and found an interview in which his father discussed the tattoo tradition. Anton noted wistfully that he would be the last generation of tattoo artist in the family, since none of his children wanted to pursue it. Suddenly, Wassim says, “It hit me – that all of these centuries of tradition could be lost.” His perspective changed, he and his wife Gabrielle mastered the art of tattooing and, two years ago, Razzouk Tattoo was born.
The hipster-driven revival in tattoos, including in Israel, has turned his shop – now a popular stop on Old City tours – into a thriving business. And, unlike his father, Wassim doesn’t worry about its future: One of his teenage sons already has a passion for the art and is already inking friends.
While a tattooing legacy isn’t exactly the British royal throne, Wassim knows about balancing personal ambitions and desires with the irresistible pull of tradition and family obligation. Presumably, he and Prince William would have a great deal to talk about if the future king chooses to stop by and let Jerusalem leave its mark on him.