Egypt's Christians uphold tattoo tradition

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.

An Irishman, who asked to go only by Allen, arrived in Cairo four years ago to visit family here. He brought his tattoo equipment for fun but quickly found that there was a thirst among certain Egyptians to indulge in the art form that had been so absent from their culture.

Allen claims to be the only high quality tattoo artist in the country.

Customers come to him, he says, from all over the Muslim world, including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.

His customers, many of whom he says are Muslim, “know exactly what they want,” suggesting a certain sophistication about a forbidden practice and a willingness to bend the rules. 

That many upper-class Muslims do choose to take tattoos speaks to a class of people wrestling with the competing tugs of Egypt’s Islamic heritage and the allure of Western indulgences.

“The majority of scholars are only interested in the rise of Islamism in Egypt. They’re not interested in the other rise: the rise of Westernism,” said Diaa Rashwan a scholar at the Egyptian think tank Al-Ahram Center. “When they take tattoos, it’s not a sign to be against Islam. It’s to be different socially.”

For the most part, though, tattoos in modern day Egypt are largely in the Christian domain.

The Copts have long felt themselves a repressed minority — they are thought to make up about 10 percent of the country’s population, or 8 million people — and their tattoos can serve as a means of communal identity in a country that has a history of sectarian friction.

Copts are known to approach Western-looking foreigners and flash their tattoos, asking the startled out-of-towner if they’re Christian too.

To Girgis, though, tattoos are more than just the mark of Christianity. They possess tangible spiritual power.

“I once saw a man,” he said, “who had an untreatable condition in his arm, so he wanted to draw Saint Mary Girgis’ picture on it, as this great saint appeared in his dream and told him to get that tattoo. And he got healed after having it.”

Girgis’ son looks to be following in his father’s footsteps, though Girgis insists that he get a college education first. Only then, he argues, can the Girgis family carry on one of Egypt’s most ancient traditions.