The World's Oldest Tattoo Shop Has Been in Business Since 1300

By: Allison Troutner  | 
Kay Wilson, Wassim Razzouk
British-Israeli Kay Wilson (R) displays the Hebrew prayer tattoo on her wrist, made by tattoo artist Wassim Razzouk (L), a Palestinian Christian from Jerusalem's Old City, as part of an initiative to use art to heal both mental and physical wounds. MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images

The painted wooden sign fixed above the shop reads in blue, "Razzouk Tattoo, Tattoo With Heritage Since 1300." For more than 720 years (and 27 generations), Wassim Razzouk's family has continued the ancient art of tattooing using woodblocks to stamp the design before putting ink to skin, and today customers and religious pilgrims wait in hours-long lines to receive a tattoo from the world's oldest tattooing family. The business is the longest-running tattoo shop in the world, so says the 2022 Guinness World Records entry framed and proudly displayed in Razzouk's busy tattoo parlor, located in Jerusalem's Old City.


History of Razzouk Tattoo

According to the company's website, the Razzouk family left Egypt 500 years ago for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and stayed for the business. Razzouk's ancestors were Coptic Christians, an ethnoreligious community in Egypt. Tattoos were common in their tradition, often in the form of the Coptic cross. For Coptic Christians, it was a permanent display of their faith. In some cases, the tattoo was a bold-faced rebellion against the Islamic ruling power after 640 C.E. that actively forced conversions. Christians who did not convert to Islam were tattooed with the cross and required to pay a religious tax.

At the same time, Christian churches would often check for the cross before letting patrons into their church to ensure they were true followers of the Christian faith. This is how the Razzouks' family tattooing tradition began, in 1300 — tattooing other Copts.


They brought the custom with them from Egypt, realizing that a tattooing culture already existed in Jerusalem. Many pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land wished to receive permanently inked crosses and other religious motifs to mark the importance of their pilgrimage before going home.

"I have tattooed Christians, Palestinians, Ethiopians, Israelis — believe it or not, I've tattooed an Orthodox Jew with sidelocks," said Wassim Razzouk, in a 2022 interview with The New York Times. "I've tattooed nuns, atheists and bishops."

Razzouk said he was taught the art of tattooing by his father, who was taught by his father, Yaqoub. Razzouk's grandfather was the first tattoo artist in Israel to use an electric tattoo machine — powered by a car battery — and the first to add color to tattoos. Razzouk was 33 years old when he learned the art in 2007 during a busy Easter season. No relative in his generation had taken up the craft. "I knew that if it wasn't for me the tradition would disappear," he said. He tattooed his first clients — 25 pilgrims — in a single session.


Woodblocks: The Original Tattoo Flash

Unlike the hand-drawn stencils popular in tattooing in the U.S., Razzouk often uses woodblocks, hundreds of hand-carved wooden stamps that have been in his family for generations. Painted lightly in ink, the woodblocks are pressed against a person's skin, then Razzouk uses the stamp as a guide for many traditional tattoo designs. With the block, he can repeat the same tattoo again and again — like an ancient tattoo flash.

Some of the most popular woodblock tattoo designs, like the Jerusalem cross, date back to the First Crusade in 1096. A glass case in the shop displays dozens of woodblocks that customers can choose from. Razzouk also has a two-book collection of traditional tattoo designs for customers, including different configurations of crosses, Arabic calligraphy, and illustrations of symbolic biblical events like the crucifixion and religious figures like the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe. The oldest stamps he has belong to two woodblocks called "The Ascension," carved depictions of the moment Christians believe Jesus ascended into heaven after his resurrection. The stamps are 500 years old.


The tattoo shop has evolved over the centuries, incorporating more modern methods and tools to complement traditional woodblock tattoo art. In 2022, Razzouk opened a new parlor in West Jerusalem, catering primarily to locals wanting more modern and sometimes film-inspired tattoo art, separate from the other location that primarily serves pilgrims looking to commemorate their experience. Traditionally Islam and Judaism forbid tattooing, but Razzouk told The New York Times that it had become popular among younger Jewish Israelis and Muslims.

The family legacy continues as Razzouk trains his two sons, Nizar and Anton, in the art of tattooing. Thanks to his contributions to modernize the shop and teach the 28th generation of Razzouk tattooists, Razzouk said the craft "will hopefully remain in the family for many centuries to come."