Identity Ink—Makeshift
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For Egypt’s Coptic Christians, tattoos received as infants are a symbol of membership

— Identity Ink

At a tiny stall outside St. Samaan cathedral in Cairo, Gerges Ghobrial—or George—readies his home-rigged tattoo gun and leans over a terrified three-year-old boy. The artist etches a small cross onto the underside of the toddler’s wrist while the boy sobs into his father’s arms. Within seconds, George is finished, and another child steps up to the chair.

For young Coptic Christians across Egypt, being branded with the symbol of Jesus is a rite of passage, one that intertwines ideas of religious identity with divine protection and reflections on Jesus’s crucifixion. The centuries-old tradition of tattooing has evolved throughout the eras. But the custom itself remains central to Coptic culture and has survived the generations as an identifying marker in a predominantly Muslim society.

“It’s important to show the cross as it’s an example of Christ and also to show our identity as Christians”—even from a young age, says Nisareen, whose five-year-old son Felobatir just got his second tattoo. He received his first cross as an infant, but it faded from his skin as he grew. Nisareen’s husband and older sons gathered proudly at George’s booth to cheer on a crying Felobatir.

The atmosphere is festive on the terrace in front of St. Samaan. Before and after mass, churchgoers mingle outside the stunning church carved into the foothills of the Mokattam Mountain, chatting over tea, playing soccer, and pausing to watch other Copts get tattoos on their thumbs or just south of their thumbs.

The Coptic community descends from Egypt’s original Christians, who formed the country’s largest religious group from the fifth to ninth centuries. Through the practice of tattooing—long used in ancient cultures—they adopted and spread their own symbols. In the 10th century, when Islam became Egypt’s predominant faith, tattoos helped distinguish Christians from the Muslim masses.

“It was a way to decipher who amongst the dead was Christian, so they could be buried in their respective communities,” explains Demetrius, a bishop at the Institute for Coptic Studies in Cairo. Parents had their children tattooed to ensure they maintained their Christian roots and to sustain community ties.

In the early days, before the advent of metal needles, tattooers used a primitive version of the poke-and-stick technique. “They would take the end of a palm leaf,” George says, holding up a frond and showing its pointy stalk. “They dipped it in a mixture of molokheya (a spinach-like plant) and ash—which they used as ink—with a bit of milk to soften the skin.”

George brought a similar spirit of resourcefulness in crafting his own modern tools. In the late 1980s, he began taking apart children’s toys to learn how to make small motors. Soon he designed his first prototype for a tattoo gun: a three-by-three-inch wooden box with a motor inside and a needle on the end. Today, the model is mostly a showpiece at his St. Samaan kiosk, used to attract customers with its loud, distinctive rumble.

In 1999, he built his second model, which he still regularly employs, and he has continued to prototype new guns, including a cordless version. Inside his kiosk, he shuffles the bottles of ink, tea cups, and electric kettle that clutter his worktable and holds up his third and latest. It resembles the leather casing used to hold a basic Nokia mobile phone, with a plug glued to the case’s bottom side. “I just charge it and use it. No wires,” he says. What type of motor does it use? “This one is a secret,” he replies with a smile.

By day, George is an electrical engineer. He works as a tattoo artist only on Thursdays, Fridays, Sundays, and during major Christian feasts. “I always loved the arts,” he says, “and I learned some techniques from my father, who used to tattoo in his community as a hobby.”

For Copts, receiving a cross tattoo is not as spiritually significant as the Christian ritual of being baptized, which symbolizes the washing away of sins. But the ink etchings do carry certain religious weight.

A young boy receives a tiny cross tattoo, a rite of passage for most Coptic Christians.

A young boy receives a tiny cross tattoo, a rite of passage for most Coptic Christians.

“It’s very personal”, says Ezzak, a man in his mid-twenties standing near George’s kiosk. “It’s not just cultural, but also a small pain, although incomparable, to remember that Jesus suffered for us.” Suhair, the mother of three small children, who all have tattoos, echoes this feeling. “I had it done to my children to protect them and remind them that Christ is always with them,” she explains.

In recent years, being a Copt in Egypt has become increasingly difficult.The Egyptian state has long turned a blind eye to sectarian aggressions in the country, and political leaders have been reluctant to protect Christians from discrimination and attacks. Amid the latest uptick in intimidation, kidnappings, and violence against Copts, police have provided meager protection and inadequate investigations into crimes.

The majority of Copts had hoped that the ouster of former Islamist president Mohammed Morsi in July 2013 would lead to a more inclusive, secular Egypt. But a month later, security forces cracked down on pro-Morsi demonstrators, which sparked resentment among Islamists and spurred a heavy wave of attacks against Copts. Nearly 50 churches were looted or burned, and Coptic businesses and institutions were heavily damaged. Egypt’s current regime had promised to restore the structures; over a year later, the majority of the damaged churches and buildings remain in ruin.The continuous sidelining of Coptic concerns has reinforced the idea of a tight-knit community and reinvigorated the importance of not only conserving their identity but also affirming it.

Back at George’s stall, the whirring hum of the tattoo gun resumes. A man in his early thirties sits, leaning his elbows over the ledge of the kiosk, with his shirt pulled up around his shoulders as he prepares to have the image of a saint etched into his back.

George’s small booth only has two solid walls, one of which is lined with metal engravings of Christian icons nailed into wooden blocks. These stamps are used as outlines for larger tattoos; during the inking process, George presses the stamp into an inkpad and transfers it to the skin of an awaiting customer. At more conventional tattoo parlors, by contrast, the artists typically use paper stencils to sketch the image directly on the skin. “I designed them all myself,” George explains, pointing to the images of Jesus, saints, and an assortment of crosses. The bigger tattoos are typically reserved for teenage boys and men.

Makarios Nassar, a young Coptic journalist, says he was enthusiastic when he got a large cross tattoo on his forearm at 16. His attitude toward the arm inking, however, has since shifted, with a sense of isolation replacing his former excitement. “I don’t like it anymore, because it’s always giving me trouble,” he says. “When I go to make appointments, or when I try to get a job, I feel people are judging me, and I feel persecuted in a way.” He points to his tiny wrist tattoo and his larger tattoos. The latter, he says, is “aesthetic” and “unnecessary”, while the small cross is part of his “Coptic cultural identity”. For him, the cross is still a source of pride and shows his commitment to the community.

IdentityInk3 TATTOO-IT-YOURSELFGeorge explains how to craft an inker on the cheap:1. Use the reel of a cassette tape player for the motor. Wrap it in tape and attach to an electrical cable

2. Weld the reel to a thin L-shaped piece of metal. Fasten a nut and bolt to the short side of the L

3. Open up a ballpoint pen and take the tiny piece that holds the pen tip. Secure it to the bolt

4. Insert a fresh, clean sewing needle into the holder to carry the tattoo ink

5. Fasten a plastic case to the ridges of the bolt, stabilizing the soon-to-be pulsating needle

 

BODILY ICONSTattoos are used to commemorate important events around the world:
IdentityInk4 India
Henna, or mehndi in India, is applied to women’s (and increasingly men’s) hands and feet before weddings and Hindu festivals. Originating in Egypt, the ink has been used for thousands of years to promote luck, health, and sensuality. These tattoos are temporary, lasting one to three weeks.

 

IdentityInk5 Borneo
The Dyak people of Borneo are known historically for their practice of headhunting, or decapitation, as a symbol of power. Tattoos commemorated their headhunting expeditions, and some Dyaks today continue to bear similar markings as a modern interpretation.

 

IdentityInk6 United States
Teardrop tattoos may indicate the number of years a wearer has spent in prison or, alternatively, that the wearer has committed murder. They are a form of criminal tattoo used to record personal history. Wearers’ partners occasionally bear a tear in solidarity.

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