Exclusive to Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority, getting a cross tattooed on your wrist isn’t just a sign of faith; it’s a storied tradition.
Getting ink done isn’t a new concept by any stretch of the term, seeing as they’ve been part of countless tribal traditions, religious practices and just plain artistic expression (meaning they sometimes look cool), but the most widespread example in our neck of the desert would have to be that blue cross you’ll see on many an Egyptian’s lower palm or wrist. You’d think it’s an established part of the Coptic Christian faith, but as a matter of fact; it has nothing to do with any official sect of Christianity.
Though it may not be an integral part of the creed, it does serve a sincere and endearing purpose; to remind oneself and others of one’s devotion to their faith, harkening back to a time when being Christian was an invitation to all sorts of discrimination and undue violence. They also serve other, more utilitarian purposes, such as helping church security staff to identify churchgoers. In any case, a cross on your inner wrist symbolises pride, and a sense of belonging to a higher power.
Where do folks get them though? Who’s the artist behind it all? We know of one tattooist serving the people around the Religious Complex area, across the yard from the Abi Serga church in Old Cairo, one you’ll easily identify by his sign; “We do Cross & Saint Tattoos.” Follow the sign well and you’ll find Magdy Gabriel; a religious tattoo artist who’s been plying his trade for 25 years, sat on his little wooden chair among his tools of the trade, as well as some medical supplies for cleanup. A queue of folks both young and old line up to get their tattoos done by Gabriel’s expert hands; “I taught myself the trade, I started out just observing, but then it grew on me, becoming my one and only job.”We weren’t lying when we said “young;” it was a quivering 5-year-old’s turn to get a taste of what Gabriel has to offer, his father holding his hand in place to make the process easier while the ink sets into his skin, the buzz of the machine mixing with the child’s screams, all in the span of a single, painful minute. Once all is inked and done, the tattooist disinfects his ‘canvas’ with some water and Betadine, telling his parents not to remove the gauze for the next half hour, and cleaning it with water afterwards. “The tattoo must be cleaned properly so that it shows, and to avoid any disease transmission, I make sure of that by changing the needle after every customer.”
Any church has rules, but besides that, we’re also governed by the Tourism Police; who lay down the laws that I can’t go against.
Though the small, minimalist crosses comprise most of Gabriel’s work, he does do more elaborate designs; a fact the local youths attest to, waiting for him to finish up the easy work and get into the creative side of things. One of the guys around decides he wants a tattoo of Saint George, out of the many premade templates that Gabriel makes extensive use of. Gabriel grabs the appropriate template and starts filling out the spaces with blue ink, right onto his customer’s arm, until a full template is available for him to continue working. “Bigger artworks need a template, in order not to mess them up.”Don’t expect any pampering in the process; there’s no anesthetic of any form, and it all happens on the fly in a matter of minutes. And it’s not just Christians that employ Gabriel’s affordable services; young Muslims also come to get their ink done as well, “simple folk tattoos are all we can afford. The other artists out there are too expensive.” Gabriel writes some English words on Hassan’s shoulder, along with a tree branch, which he then starts to tattoo while Hassan tries his best to hide the pain, going onto say “we have friends who’ve had ink done of Om Kalthum, daggers, swords, that kind of thing, but the church doesn’t allow any tattoos that aren’t simple words or religious depictions, flowers, simple stuff like that.” Magdy goes on to elaborate more on the church’s stance; “Any church has rules, but besides that, we’re also governed by the Tourism Police; who lay down the laws that I can’t go against.”Everybody has their reasons for gritting their teeth and getting a tattoo done, like little Kirolos; who gleefully told his father “I want to be a Christian,” on his way to get his tattoo, but for most young people, it’s a lot less convoluted; “we get tattoos because we just like them, it doesn’t have anything to do with religion.”
Though they may represent a subset of the Egyptian people, for all intents and purposes, they don’t have much to do with the actual faith it’s attached to, but the simple notion of getting one can be inspiring to some; a tattoo is a lifelong commitment, seeing as removing it isn’t exactly a walk in the park, and to go that far for an ideology, for faith? It can only mean a deep appreciation for something bigger than oneself.