When I showed my Jewish grandparents my arm tattoo — a piece I spent years planning with my siblings — the first question my grandfather asked was how much removing it would cost.
In many Jewish communities around the world, body art is a taboo largely based on a commonly held (but false) belief that if you get a tattoo, you can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery. While this outlaw has no biblical precedent, for many, it’s as unkosher as eating pork. But in a time of increasing global anti-Semitism, a younger generation of Jewish tattooists is developing a new tradition and proudly inking their faith.
These artists are continuing a legacy of Jewish tattooing. As Marjorie Ingall wrote in Tablet, the American tattoo tradition was developed in New York City over 100 years ago by artists including Lewis “Lew the Jew” Alberts, Charlie Wagner, and Brooklyn Joe Lieber, among others. Arguably the most famous, Alberts was one of the first creators of the electric tattoo machine and flash designs, inspired by his background creating wallpaper.
While these men spearheaded a wave of tattoo popularity among elites and the working class, their Lower East Side businesses suffered blows during the Depression and World War II. Tattoos took on darker significance during the Holocaust when they were used to identify those entering concentration camps. Further, body art became associated with white supremacists and extremist hate groups marking themselves with Nazi symbolism and other racist insignia.
But, in recent decades, tattoos have become more socially acceptable, increasing in popularity. According to the Pew Research center, 38 percent of Millennials have at least one tattoo. For many young people in the global Jewish diaspora, tattoos are a way to explore religious traditions, generational trauma, and continued societal marginalization.
Gabriel Wolff has designed thousands of custom Hebrew calligraphy tattoo designs. With other calligraphers, he runs Hebrew Tattoos. The Berlin-based artist, who has lived in Jerusalem and Buenos Aires, has seen a significant rise in the last 10 to 20 years of Jews wanting tattoos. He says the increase is occurring primarily in North America and Europe, as opposed to the more socially conservative Israel.
But for Jewish adults who don’t wear yarmulkes or other religious garments, body art can be a signifier of identity. “Today it’s not an act of incredible rebellion against the status quo, the establishment, or Judaism,” he says. “It can become a self-confident way of marking yourself as Jew.”
A musician by training, Wolff wanted to creatively explore the importance of language in Judaism, as his grandfather was a Yiddish theater actor. He says people often commission tattoos in times of transition and mourning. “They don’t come to me with an idea for a tattoo,” he continues. “They say, ‘My kid died. My grandfather died,’ ‘I’m getting married, I found my love,’ or, ‘I lost my faith.’ People come with a story rather than a visual idea. The journey to the art, to the piece, is through understanding them.”
As the last generation who survived the Holocaust are passing away, tattoos are also a way for Jews to remember this history while not totally being defined by its trauma.
“Twenty years ago, it was still all about negating the Holocaust. We survived, so now your duty is to continue Jewish identity,” he says. “Today I have the feeling that we are much freer to choose how we want to be Jewish.”
Designing Jewish imagery is also a way for artists who were raised secular to connect with their heritage. Joey Nicholson, a tattoo artist based in Toronto at Lost Boys Tattoo, creates American traditional-style flash designs often featuring women praying over Shabbat candles and floral patterns from Passover Seder plates and other Judaica.
“A lot of people have shared personal stories with me about their grandparents surviving the Holocaust, modern day anti-Semitism, their experiences living as a queer person and also a Jewish person and how they’re trying to connect those two identities,” they say. “I find even though the images are important, what is more important is the ritual that comes with doing these tattoos.”
Nicholson says that, having spent more than a decade tattooing, negative associations with body art have shifted. While they started drawing Jewish-themed art for personal use, they were surprised by the demand for the designs.
“A lot of different types of people are getting into tattooing now, so obviously that’s going to disrupt the white, heteronormative patriarchal structures that are perpetuated even in tattooing,” they say. “People are becoming more vocal about what they will and will not accept in terms of tattoo imagery, the way they’re treated in tattoo shops, who gets to decide what in terms of our subculture.”
Still, outside of regions with large Jewish populations, Jewish tattoo artists are still defying stereotypes of their professional field and faith. Growing up in punk rock and hardcore scenes, Nashville-based artist Derrick Brimsy was drawn to American traditional style tattoos and works out of Electric Hand Tattoo. Brimsy attends a Conservative synagogue and says, “I don’t think people typically expect someone that looks like me in a tattoo shop, to see a somewhat religious Jewish person.”
Brimsy admits that the unease he feels in Jewish spaces for being heavily tattooed is self-inflicted. He has also expressed his Judaism with tattoos including the Ten Commandments and a menorah on his finger. Like many successful tattoo artists, Brimsy often travels for work, but many of the Jews he tattoos don’t want religious designs. “They’re just getting tattoos to have tattoos,” he says. “I feel like they probably are still a little uncomfortable with the idea of making a ‘Jewish tattoo.’”
Brimsy has inserted Judaism into his work, particularly through kabbalah, the ancient Jewish mystical interpretation of the Bible. “I have one design that’s a series of staircases coming out of a man’s head and in and out of these little doorways and it’s kind of trippy,” he continues.
What Brimsy describes is hardly new. Rabbi Marshal Klaven wrote his rabbinical thesis on tattoos in Jewish history. His research found a long history of tattoos in Jewish communities, concluding that “our sages did not support a general prohibition against all tattoos because they recognized in the changing world of the diaspora, where cultural norms competed with Jewish values, simple answers rarely suffice.”
In an era when more and more young people are turning away from religion, it might seem surprising that Jewish adults are increasingly getting tattooed. But, as a global resurgence of white nationalism threatens Jews as well as other religious and ethnic minorities, tattooing becomes a vehicle to assert one’s culture and faith.
“I believe that committing to something is an ability, a capability we kind of lost,” Wolff says. “I find that in many cases, it’s a stepping stone toward more commitment to one’s own Jewish identity and being visible to the outside, as well as a really essential and important part of it.”