Connect to share and comment

Egypt's Christians uphold tattoo tradition

Never mind the children's screams: For Cairo's Copts, tattoos are a mark of pride — and of protection.

The Coptic Orthodox Virgin Mary church is seen during sunset ahead of Coptic Orthodox Easter in Cairo, Apr. 18, 2009. (Tarek Mostafa/Reuters)

MOKATTAM, Egypt – A baby’s wail echoed across the plaza. His mother’s face was etched with joy as she struggled to subdue her writhing infant. The children who had gathered around roared with delight.

Church had just finished. It had been a long service. But for the children of the congregation, this was the highlight. And Girgis Gabriel Girgis, with his ancient (though he swears sanitary) tattoo machine, was more than happy to oblige.

One after another, the customers came. Some were so young they had to be carried by their parents. Others, in their teens, were more willing participants in this Coptic tradition.

Regardless the age of his human canvas, Girgis went to work — inscribing not fire-breathing dragons, fierce skulls or the gestures of star-crossed lovers, but rather simple blue-green crosses on the inside of his subjects’ wrists. The crosses are small, but they symbolize community in a country that Copts often view as hostile towards them.

Girgis’ open-air stand, just outside the church gates, has been his studio for almost two decades. For that long, he has been among the small ranks of Coptic tattooists, marking his subjects with symbols that identify Egypt’s Christian minority.

“When God chooses you for something, what you can do is just to obey his calls and do exactly what he wants you to do,” Girgis said.

The Egyptian Copts' practice of tattooing continues a long and storied history of tattoos in Egypt.

“The Egyptians are the first to provide evidence of tattooing,” wrote Harvard Professor C.P. Jones in the essay, "Stigma and Tattoo." “Here it is first found on mummies of the 11th Dynasty, about 2,100 BC.”

These first tattoos were made, mostly on women, with dark ink and were typically simple shapes, though scholars disagree on their purpose.

When Islam first came to Egypt millennia later, though, tattooing largely died out since  tattooing is forbidden under the laws of Islam as interpreted by some Muslims.

The verse they often cite is this one: The devil, according to the Koran, said, “most certainly I will bid them so that they shall alter Allah's creation.” It continues: “And whoever takes the Shaitan [Satan] for a guardian rather than Allah, he indeed shall suffer a manifest loss.”

Even though tattoos remain taboo, it’s not to say that some Muslims don’t break the rules.