For as long as humans have traveled to new places, they have collected mementos to bring home—things that encapsulated the place they visited and helped them convey something of it to those who had remained behind. Pilgrims, a specific group of travelers who take to the roads for explicitly religious purposes, often seek objects that will aid their prayer or promote healing.
But receiving a tattoo in Jerusalem goes far beyond purchasing incense or rosary beads at one of the ubiquitous shops that line the Old City’s narrow streets. This particular pilgrimage ritual inflicts pain and permanently alters the bodies of the pilgrims themselves. Historically, in the days before Instagram, images inked onto pilgrims’ flesh served as souvenirs immune to loss or theft and thus as incontrovertible proof of a pilgrim’s successful journey to the Holy Land. And yet, as I sat in line at Razzouk’s tattoo shop on a blustery Tuesday in March 2023, waiting with three classmates and dozens of fellow travelers from across the globe to receive a small image of the distinctive Jerusalem cross tattooed on my wrist, I found myself reflecting on the ongoing significance and timelessness of this practice.
Razzouk’s shop is the oldest in the Old City and has been serving Christian pilgrims for seven hundred years. The ancient arched stone ceiling, a startling foil to the bright lights and sterile surfaces, amplified the sounds of upbeat music, multi-lingual conversations, and the buzz of modern tattoo machines tracing centuries-old designs. In light of the coexistence of the old and new and the unlikely community that filled the shop, I pondered why pilgrims like myself, my classmates, and the strangers with whom I debated the merits of various designs chose to continue receiving tattoos, despite easy access to photography and the abundance of other, less painful or permanent, souvenirs, and I asked myself why the practice has survived only in Jerusalem while waning at other holy sites, most notably Loretto.
My answers to these questions are drawn from anthropology and theology, and concern the nature of pilgrimage itself as an inherently transformative process, the uniqueness of Jerusalem as the site of the Lord’s Paschal Mystery, and the ability of a tattoo both to permanently inscribe an individual into a transtemporal, trans-spatial community of pilgrims and to enable those pilgrims to offer a small sacrifice by enduring the physical pain of receiving it in the same place where Christ suffered and died for us.
The work of anthropologist Victor Turner, who authored books on ritual and pilgrimage in particular, is a fruitful framework for evaluating this thesis. Deeply indebted to Arnold van Genep, who proposed in his 1909 work, The Rites of Passage, that traditional rites of passage consisted of three phases—separation from society, liminal space of transformation, and reintegration as a new person—Turner advanced the idea of the liminal space. In his ground-breaking 1969 work, The Ritual Process: Structure and Antistructure, he argued that, in liminal phases, social structures are temporarily suspended and participants exist “betwixt and between” them, no longer the people they were at their separation from their society, but not yet the people they would become upon reintegration.
This space is thus ripe with possibility and facilitates unique opportunities for otherwise dissimilar people to form a community of their own (communitas) founded on their shared, but at the same time deeply personal, experiences. Across a number of global cultures, the ritual process is accompanied by physical marks on the body, some temporary, like hair-cutting or donning certain clothing, and some permanent, like branding or tattooing. These enduring signs clarify one’s new place and identity to others but, perhaps more importantly, serve to remind the recipient of the new self they have become and to help them actively embody it.
Pilgrimages across religious traditions have proven to be fruitful testing grounds for Turner’s theories. Indeed, Turner, along with his wife and fellow anthropologist Edith, explicitly made this connection in a 1974 work entitled Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture, in which they called pilgrimage a “liminoid space.” The long physical journeys to places far removed from patterns of daily life underscore and facilitate internalized processes of change, and the rich language of symbols and ritualized activities that accompany them help pilgrims actualize a new identity.
In the fifty years since this new model for human transformation was first articulated, it has received some criticism, notably from John Eade and Michael Satlow in their edited volume Contesting the Sacred, for its argument for a unique community structure that undercuts, if only temporarily, social hierarchies and for its apparent attempt to collapse the diverse experiences of pilgrims into a single static narrative. That said, I believe that Turner’s work still offers a fruitful lens through which to view the transitional power of pilgrimage manifested by the tattoo.
Tattoos are far from the only way to commemorate a pilgrimage and communicate the new and permanent identity acquired along the way. Many Muslims will decorate their homes with banners to signify that a man in the family has completed the Hajj, something I witnessed firsthand in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. Speaking on the inaugural episode of the Pilgrimage and Public Humanities podcast, Professor Mun’im Sirry said that some Muslims in Indonesia celebrate their return by actually receiving a new honorific sir name, al-Hajj or al-Hajja, which encourages them to “strive to be more pious in their lives.”
The name change literally makes the pilgrimage part of a person’s identity. It not only signifies something they have done but also has an ongoing effect, as it reminds them to try to live in accordance with their new identity, presumably as someone who has been transformed or inspired to practice their faith more intentionally. In addition to these examples, pilgrims gather physical mementos of all kinds, from statues to pictures, candles, and even soil from the sacred places they visited. Along with these portable objects, a trade in another type of souvenir began emerging in the Christian Holy Land. The tattoo was something that would never get lost or stolen, that would always be close at hand to contemplate and show others, and that would change the body as permanently and profoundly as the journey had changed the heart.
Tattoos themselves occupy a sort of liminal space within the body, “simultaneously on and under the surface of the skin,” as Jane Caplan notes in the introduction to her edited volume Written on the Body: the Tattoo in European and American History. They occupy and define borders within the self, between the old identity and the new, and within the community. While this opens up a number of fascinating avenues for analyzing the tattoo’s significance and appropriateness as the product of a ritual process, practically, it makes them very difficult to study, for although they remain with their recipient for life, representing the permanence of their new identity, they often die with them, as they leave no trace in skeletal remains.
Additionally, as W. Mark Gustafson has discussed at length in his article Inscripta in Fronte: Penal Tattooing in Late Antiquity, they were historically associated with “degradation, criminality, or deviance,” and so there was not always a concerted effort to document their existence or function. However, from written sources and some exceptional mummy remains, we know that tattooing is an ancient and widespread technique. Indeed, our earliest evidence for it is preserved on the body of the venerable Ice Man himself, discovered in the Alps in 1991 and presumed to be over seven thousand years old.
Tattooing has also been an integral part of ritualized rites of passage for millennia in Pacific Island cultures, from which we get the word “tattoo” from the Tahitian “tatao.” Europeans were producing permanent ink markings for centuries before James Cook first encountered Pacific Islanders in the late eighteenth century, and it is the complicated web of connotations and reappropriations around these marks that established the pilgrimage tattoo tradition, which, though it has its roots in Roman punitive practices, functions more like a cultural rite of passage.
Christianity has long had a rather ambiguous relationship with tattooing. While Leviticus 19:28 seems to categorically forbid the practice, Revelation 19:16 was thought to describe the Lord himself appearing with the title “king of kings and lord of lords” written on his thigh. In his article Permanent Ephemera: The ‘Honourable Stigmatisation’ of Jerusalem Pilgrims, Robert Ousterhout describes several early examples of Christians who decorated themselves accordingly, placing tattoos either on their thighs or their arms.
However, for most early Christians, receiving a tattoo was not voluntary or devotional. Romans would use tattooing to demarcate slaves and criminals, usually with the name of their owners or a description of their crimes and subsequent sentences permanently printed on their foreheads. In the early centuries of the Church, many Christians facing persecution, for whom their faith itself was their crime, were marked with a wide variety of signs. It did not take long for Christians to reappropriate this initial mark of humiliation and transfigure it into a badge of honor.
For example, the parallels between the invisible, indelible seal of baptism and the visible permanent mark of a tattoo were not lost on the Church Fathers, with Cyprian even referring to the tattoos of his persecuted brethren as their “second inscription.” Punitive tattoos marked their recipients for Christ in a public way, and in both the pain of their administration and the life of almost certain hardship and even death that they promised, they allowed their recipients to participate in a small way in the pain and sacrifice of Christ. Ousterhout credits this early connection to Christ’s suffering with the eventual development and success of the pilgrimage tattoo, which, in its physical form of wounding the body and its visual representation of crosses, helped Christians identify with the heroic martyrs of old and with Christ himself.
From the mid-fourth century on, following the legalization of Christianity by Constantine in 313, Christians began traveling to Jerusalem to encounter the places associated with Christ’s life. As the journey became more popular, it became more formalized, with rituals celebrating departure and return developing quickly. These map nicely onto van Genep’s and Turner’s concepts of the ritual process and designate the time and space of the pilgrimage itself as the liminal phase, in which a new identity takes shape. Naturally accompanying Christians’ new-found interest in fixed locations was an interest in all things tactile. Pilgrims would, and still do, touch everything, wanting to make themselves part of the story of the places they visited and were also eager to take something from those places back home. Eulogia, meaning blessings, could refer to an actual blessing bestowed on the pilgrim but more often took the form of physical objects bearing images of Christ or significant locations in the Holy Land.
Pilgrimage is an irreducibly physical experience. It involves not just the mind but also the body—the body that travels over long and difficult roads and the body that touches and inscribes holy places and objects. It makes sense, then, that pilgrims were eager to touch and collect, encountering the holy places with their bodies and memorializing them through objects that could be manipulated with the senses. The fifteenth-century pilgrim Felix Fabri and his companions, for example, laid themselves over tombs and in the supposed imprints of Christ’s feet on the Mount of Olives. Long before them, St. Jerome, writing in the voice of his companion, Paula, and recording details of her pilgrimage in the late fourth century, notes the importance of venerating tombs and even of placing the ashes of the martyrs on one’s eyes. The anonymous sixth-century Piacenza pilgrim claims to have reclined on the couch used by Christ at the wedding at Cana and later collected a small flask of oil from the Holy Sepulchre.
Small, simple vessels containing holy substances—earth, water, or oil—and usually filled by the pilgrims themselves in rituals at each site were called “ampullae.” They were among the most important of the many objects pilgrims collected. In her article “Loca Sancta Souvenirs: Sealing the Pilgrims’ Experience,” Cynthia Hahn explains that the ampullae filled by pilgrims were transformed by and somehow incomplete before the pilgrimage, just like their bearers themselves, and thus became outward manifestations of an interior change. In this ritual process of receiving a new identity and a physical sign of it, pilgrimage itself appears quite sacramental, something to which Turner himself alludes in Image and Pilgrimage.
While obviously not a second baptism or a sacrament at all, pilgrimage was understood to give people a new life or identity, something epitomized in the vessels, representative of their lives, and the oil with which they filled them, which bespoke the vitality of their new life in Christ. If this was the depth of spiritual meaning associated with receiving a container of oil or soil, how much greater is the significance of receiving a tattoo, an act we have already seen compared to a sacrament?
Marking the body—the locus of the pilgrimage—followed naturally from the practices described above. Ousterhout writes, “With an emphasis on tactility and corporeality, a tattoo would have been the ultimate pilgrim’s eulogia.” Tattoos made pilgrims’ inscribed physical bodies into living memories—relics in their own right and outward evidence of their transformed identities. Just as the Roman tattoos came to represent and even amplify the invisible transformation of Baptism, pilgrimage tattoos represented and helped catalyze the invisible and unspeakable transformation of the heart experienced by pilgrims in the liminal space of Jerusalem. The sacramental motif is not lost with the end of the age of the martyrs.
Wassim Razzouk, the famous artist from whom I received my tattoo, still compares the practice to Baptism, noting the emotional responses of pilgrims to uniting themselves and their bodies to a place and a ritual that connects them to so many past generations. They become something bigger than themselves or even their present moment. They are welcomed into a world-wide communitas that stretches back centuries and has room for everyone, from the long-forgotten pilgrims of ages past to modern celebrities.
From the earliest days of Roman punitive tattoos, physical pain was an important part of how one’s new identity was forged. For early persecuted Christians, the pain of the tattoo was a foretaste of the pain they would likely experience as forced laborers or even martyrs, but they welcomed it all because it enabled them to identify with Christ, his sacrifice on our behalf, and his eventual triumph in the resurrection. For later pilgrims, “the transactional nature of pilgrimage involved offering up one’s body as the most intimate sacrifice possible,” as George Greenia notes in his article, “Bartered Bodies: Medieval Pilgrims and the Tissue of Faith.” While this comment refers to all bodily trials associated with pilgrimage, it seems especially appropriate for tattooing, as the pilgrim literally makes an offering of their bodies to Christ, just as Christ made an offering of his body to humanity.
The pain and bloodshed of receiving a tattoo gave pilgrims a feeling of connection with the early martyrs and with Christ and enabled them to experience, in the words of Professor Guido Guerzoni, “their own small martyrdoms.” The tattooed body, like the baptized soul, bears the imprint of Christ, an imprint that gives the person a new character that they must live out.
This idea is further reinforced by the symbols that pilgrims would choose to receive. Though there is quite a wide variety available from someone like Razzouk, the most popular and one of the most ancient is the Jerusalem cross. There are several layers of meaning connected with the five-fold cross, one large central one with a smaller one in each corner. It was associated very early on with the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, founded by Francis of Assisi himself to protect holy places and the pilgrims who came to visit them. In this context, the symbol was thought to represent the five wounds of Christ.
This made it a particularly fitting symbol for Jerusalem, the place where Christ was crucified. Receiving it as a tattoo in Jerusalem and around Easter allowed pilgrims to participate in his sacrifice at the very time and place where it occurred. The symbolism of the five wounds also offered an important connection to St. Francis, the first recorded Western saint to receive the stigmata, an outward manifestation of his inward character, which itself was often called a “sacrament” in early hagiographies. The tattoo becomes a small stigmata, a sign and actualizer of a pilgrim’s new-found conformity to Christ, exemplified by Francis.
This is not the only interpretation of the Jerusalem cross. In a recent interview, Razzouk, who has tattooed the image on countless pilgrims, explains:
The central cross represents Jerusalem as the center of the world, and four corner crosses represent Christianity spreading to the four sides of the world. Pilgrims come from all four corners of the world, and they become a part of Jerusalem, and Jerusalem becomes a part of them.
Another interpretation reads the four corner crosses as the four evangelists traveling out from Jerusalem to the four corners of the earth in order to bring all people to Christ. In either case, the Jerusalem cross creates and symbolizes communitas. It connects people across times and places, and it draws them all back to the place and experience they share.
While the tattoo certainly helps affect the transformation of the pilgrim, unlike other rituals, it is not a necessary part of the pilgrimage transformation. In fact, many pilgrims have refused to participate in this venerated tradition for a host of reasons. Some read Leviticus 19:28 as a ban on all body markings, but many others claim that a tattoo, which would enter them into the abstract and timeless community of pilgrims, would threaten their membership in local and temporal communities, both religious and cultural.
According to Ousterhout, in the decades shortly after the Reformation, for example, tattooing became associated with Catholicism, and so Protestants would not participate for fear of being marginalized or threatened back home. Even today, people who are from or who want to visit countries that do not have normalized diplomatic relations with the state of Israel must be careful to get tattoos that do not tie them explicitly to Jerusalem. Sadly, while the pilgrimage tattoo unites people in something joyful, it also has the potential to create a community of people who face discrimination. It also raises the question of the role of the tattoo in actually transforming someone’s identity on pilgrimage. Surely, those who do not receive a tattoo can still have transformative experiences on pilgrimage, but the tattoo certainly enriches it and creates a communitas within the communitas of pilgrims, a group that keeps an ancient community alive and receives a taste of Christ’s sacrifice.
Despite the potential for negative communitas around pilgrimage tattoos, it only becomes a problem when the marks are readily visible. Ousterhout makes the interesting observation, however, that most pilgrimage tattoos are placed on the inside of the wrist or forearm and therefore function more as contemplative images for their recipients than as loud announcements of a successful pilgrimage. While the pain of receiving the tattoo helped the pilgrims identify with Christ, the martyrs, and St. Francis in the moment, the lasting image keeps that identification alive long after the pain subsides and the pilgrim returns home. It reminds the pilgrim of the new person they have become, and in so doing helps them put that new identity, a more intentional conformity to Christ or a stronger sense of community, into action in their lives.
In this way, the tattoo is not just a static image but something that is always transforming its recipient, making present Christ’s life and the pilgrim’s own journey in Christ’s footsteps, fighting complacency or forgetfulness, and helping the pilgrims live ever more fully into their identity in Christ, sealed once in baptism, and invigorated on pilgrimage. Pilgrimage tattoos do also have the practical power to declare that someone has passed through a liminal phase of transformation, whether they can articulate that or not. As I look at the Jerusalem cross, wreathed by palm and olive branches, that now graces my left wrist, I reflect that such a close encounter with the places of Christ’s life changes pilgrims in profound ways. They cannot always explain their new identity when they reintegrate into society, but they can show it.