Wandering around Tel Aviv’s Florentin neighborhood the day of the third annual Israel Tattoo Convention, I figured I would encounter a trail of tattooed people who would lead me there. But inked Israelis were on every street corner and coffee shop; I couldn’t quite determine whom to follow.
“In Tel Aviv, in the south, every person has a tattoo, at least one,” Hila Adar, a tattoo-artist-in-training, told me when I finally made it to the convention, in a nightclub next to Baby Dolls, a Florentin strip club.
A few decades ago, it was uncommon to see tattoos in Israel. Broadly speaking, Israeli Jews were known for their spartan aesthetic, left over from the kibbutz era that placed communal identity above individual expression. There was also a deep stigma against the practice. The first Israelis with tattoos were Holocaust survivors branded with identification numbers in concentration camps. Jewish law prohibits tattooing, as a desecration of the human form, though the widely-held notion that inked Jews can’t be buried in Jewish cemeteries is actually a myth.
Tattooing became popular in the United States and Europe in the 1970s with the ascendance of punk culture. It wasn’t until the 1990s that it became a “mass trend in Israel,” Haifa University professor Oz Almog wrote in a 2000 study of the topic. The reason isn’t totally clear. Almog suggests a number of factors: distance from the Holocaust, the rise in hippie music festivals in the Israeli desert, Israelis’ post-army trips to the Far East and the country’s capitalist appetite for American pop culture. What’s clear is that while tattooing is still taboo in some parts of Israel, in Tel Aviv — the “holy bastion of freedom in Israel,” as one convention-goer described it — it is not only accepted, but also celebrated.
Yet judging from the conference, tattoo culture in Israel is in some ways stuck in the 1990s. After passing through a metal detector (this is Israel, after all), I entered a pitch-black hallway where ushers were ripping tickets with an illustration of former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir tattooing a cupcake on the bicep of Zionist founder Theodor Herzl. The entryway opened into a dimly lit club filled with cigarette smoke and incense. I walked by a man with Marilyn Manson-style contact lenses that whited out all but his pupils. Slow heavy metal was playing on the sound system.
“Do you recognize this band?” I overheard a woman with a bleached pixie haircut ask her companion. “It’s Tool. I’ve seen them twice.”
In the club’s large backyard, dozens of tattoo artists set up booths to showcase their work in three-ring binders and on the backs and arms of customers who had signed up to get inked. It seemed there was no typical Israeli tattoo, but a range of themes and styles. One man was getting an angel with enormous breasts and wings etched onto his back. A topless woman with her nipples covered in black tape was getting what looked like a torso-wide chandelier. I walked to the rear of the yard, where a group of people had gathered to watch a man swing from a pair of meat hooks speared through his back. I couldn’t stomach the stunt and turned away.
When I regained my appetite I went to the concession area for a piece of jachnun, a Yemenite rolled puff pastry popular in Israel. Nearby I met Alva Szpic, the 32-year-old co-producer of the event. She was in all black with green toenail polish, and had a number of tattoos herself: a dog’s paw print against a watercolor splash, an illustration of her old Amsterdam neighborhood and a manga cartoon. Though the convention seemed like a hit to me, Szpic had a more sober assessment.
“It’s not so easy to organize something like this in Israel,” she said. “People don’t support tattoos here.”
She said she had wanted to book the event at a convention center, but no one was willing to take it, so that’s why we were at a nightclub. To her, it was evidence of how the decades-old stigma against tattooing has prohibited the scene from truly taking root in Israel. Though the Ministry of Health regulates parlors, tattoo artists aren’t formally licensed, meaning anyone can tattoo. And she said there are no professional organizations for tattoo artists in Israel.
“I guess it’s a conservative country? Primitive a little bit.”
Szpic said she hoped to showcase Israeli tattooing on the international level, which is why she brought 15 European artists into the event. While we were talking, a Viennese woman and a German woman interrupted our conversation to ask for antihistamines. One of them was having an allergic reaction, likely prompted by a tattoo she had just gotten. Szpic disappeared to get the medicine. When she returned she told me about the guest of honor, Magneto, a Berliner who is covered from head to toe in tattoos; even his eyeballs are inked. He makes his living at conventions by posing for pictures. I had spotted him wandering around the convention earlier and didn’t think that he was Israeli. I was right.
“We invited him specially,” Szpic said.
I also met with Snir Zelman, a veteran Israeli tattoo artist who is opening a studio in Barcelona. He said that he received pushback from “everyone” about his decision to become a tattoo artist. “Most of the country isn’t so free-minded,” he said. “People say we can’t do it because we’re Jews. It corrupts the people of God.” He started to crack up laughing.
He was on a break from working on a large arm piece for his friend Elad Elharar. The picture was of two comic book characters — Deadpool, a red and-black super villain, and Deathstroke, a blue and-orange antihero, locked in a struggle. He had downloaded the image off a fan website. I leaned in to get a closer look, and Zelman warned me to be careful not to bump into the pots of ink on the table: They contained traces of Elharar’s blood from their session earlier that day.
I asked Elharar what the tattoo symbolized for him. “Nothing,” he said. “I like the picture and that’s it.” But like any good Israeli son, he made sure to run it by his mother. “On my way here my mother told me, ‘Think about it very hard,’” he said.
Before I left I decided to get inked, too. At one booth a man was applying fake tattoos to convention-goers as a promotion for a new website. I asked for a diamond underneath my left eye, a spot I would never consider for a real tattoo. “If you’re going to get a fake one, you might as well do it right,” he joked as he pressed the paper onto my cheek.
Walking back through Florentin, I fit right in.
Naomi Zeveloff is the Forward’s Middle East correspondent.
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.