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One sign of the mainstreaming of tattoos here is the Israel Tattoo Convention; last year the first annual convention drew about 1,000 people. At the second one last weekend in Tel Aviv, nearly 4,000 Israelis showed up to give or get tattoos, or to just take a peek.
Shay Daudi, the owner of a Tel Aviv tattoo parlor and cofounder of the convention, hopes the event will help make Israel an international center of tattoo culture.
“A lot of people in Israel are not religious and they like tattoos,” he says. Referring to the country’s tattoo enthusiasts, most of whom aren’t observant Jews, he notes, “We don’t care about religion.”
Religion aside, a frequent problem is addressing the subject with Americans. Tell an American Jew you might get a tattoo and the conversation can get morbid.
“Will you be able to be buried in a Jewish cemetery?” one might ask. If you ask an Israeli with a tattoo that question, expect to be considered an ignoramus.
“It’s the stupidest question,” says Song. “People who ask these questions aren’t religious people, because religious people just know it isn’t true.”
While Jewish law prohibits permanent body art – because it was a pagan practice – it doesn’t forbid Jews with tattoos from being buried in Jewish cemeteries. “It sounds like something Jewish parents told their kids to prevent them from getting a tattoo,” said a source at the Chief Rabbinate who asked not to be named.
The Nazi factor
Still, despite the move into the mainstream, tattoos can be a challenge in Israel. “I know a lot of people who have problems getting jobs … or problems with their families,” says Daudi, who owns one of Tel Aviv’s 19 tattoo parlors.
Song says she has been turned down for many jobs because of her inked-up body. After several interviews, prospective employers told her she was great for the position but her vibe was wrong.
Perets, 21, has had a difficult relationship with her parents since she got her first tattoo at the age of 18. After one tattoo, they kicked her out of the house, she says. After another, they visited the studio of the artist and told him they’d break his fingers if he tattooed their daughter again.
“My mom says it’s against the Jewish culture, but she’s not religious at all,” says Perets, whose mother often tells her she can’t bear to look at her. “When you have a mother who tells you that you can do anything that makes you happy, and then she tells you that you shouldn’t do that thing that makes you most happy, that becomes really hard and confusing.”
There’s one more hurdle preventing tattoos from being fully accepted in Israel. For many Jews, especially the older generation, tattoos represent the Holocaust, not art. The Nazi branded tattoos on the arms of Jewish concentration camp inmates.
“Tattooing during the Holocaust was an enormous instrument of degradation,” says Michael Berenbaum, a rabbi and Holocaust scholar who played a key role in the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Survivors were always told that you no longer have a name, your name is now your number. And they found tattoos to be one of the indelible marks of depersonalization.”
Tattoos were also celebrated by their abusers. “When you were sworn in as part of the SS, you were tattooed with the mark of the SS,” notes Berenbaum.
Yet for younger Israelis, the Holocaust is more distant; the younger generation doesn’t associate tattoos with concentration camps. To Daudi, the fact that Israelis are embracing tattoos to express their identity is the perfect response to the weaponization of tattoos against an earlier generation of Jews.
One day, when a Holocaust survivor entered Daudi’s tattoo shop, she showed him the numbers on her arm and asked him how he could do what he does. He didn’t know what to say, but then he told her to look at it in a different light.
“You got it by force, and for a bad reason, and now your grandchildren choose to do it and they love it,” Daudi says he told the woman. “It’s like closure from a bad thing to a good thing.”