Yet it’s always interesting to look back and pay homage to the heritage that led to the art we see today. In this article, we’ll explore the styles and histories of five influential traditional tattoo artists that each represent a unique tattooing culture spanning centuries in their respective regions. These are traditional artists, with a heritage that links back to the days when a tattoo was carved into skin by hand, painstakingly.
The Razzouk Family
Israel is not well-known for its tattoo scene, in part because the Jewish faith doesn’t put much stock in tattooing oneself (the Torah, the Bible, and the Quran each have a verse that indirectly or explicitly forbids a person from marking themselves indelibly).
However, despite that, tattoos have long played a role in the lives of millions of followers of the Abrahamic faiths. One example of that heritage living on into the modern day is the Razzouk family, which traces its tattooing practice back to the 1300s. It was at this time that the Razzouks tattooed Coptic Christians in Egypt, at a time when different Christian faiths were wholesomely accepting of tattoos in an effort to convert more pagans.
Since then, the Razzouk family has imprinted upon more than just the Coptic Christians, opening its services up to those of any faith and denomination, although the majority of their history and fame comes from the practice of tattooing pilgrims to Jerusalem with images and iconography of Christ and Christian mythology. Wassim Razzouk is the family’s most current artist, carrying on the tradition of his father, grandfather, great grandfather, and so on. His shop, Razzouk Tattoo, is located in a 350-year-old building in the Old City of Jerusalem and attracts countless tourists over the Easter holidays and on other special occasions. While Wassim uses a modern tattoo machine, many of his traditional Christian designs stem from an antique collection of woodblocks that have been in the family for centuries.
Su’a Sulu’ape Petelo
Su’a Sulu’ape Petelo is a Samoan tatau master residing in New Zealand, and part of a long history of skilled Polynesian tattoo artists. He and his brother Su’a Sulu’ape Paulo II spent much of their youth traveling the world and interacting with other famous tattoo artists, including Don Ed Hardy, and they helped popularize the Polynesian tribal tattoo style.
Paulo II was murdered by his wife in 1999, leaving his brothers to continue the tradition and pass it onto newer generations. Petelo’s brothers, Alaiva’a Petelo and Lafaele, are also accomplished tattoo masters. Samoan tattoo art focuses heavily on tattooing the thighs, buttocks, and waist, particularly among men.
The last traditional mambabatok of the Kalinga tribe, Whang Od is a Filipino tattoo artist who has continued a centuries-old tradition of tattooing the Kalinga men and women for their prowess in battle (the former) and beauty (the latter). Tattoos were especially important among the Kalinga, because they signified how many heads a warrior had claimed. Other cultures in the Philippines also had a rich history of tattoo art, particularly the Visayans in the country’s central region, although centuries of Spanish occupation, as well as Japanese and American administrations means few traces of Visayan tattoo art remain (the most important source is the Boxer Codex, illustrated circa 1595).
Although Whang Od rarely tattoos nowadays, she had been seeing visitors as recently as a year ago, despite being a centenarian. Without children, she cannot officially pass her title onto the next generation, although her nieces have become skilled under her watch and continue to inscribe visitors and locals with Kalinga art. Nevertheless, the original Kalinga practice of painting headhunters for their kills has (largely) died out. Whang Od and her nieces use citrus thorns and ink made from soot to create their tattoos, as was the practice for centuries.
While Horiyoshi III is not the only irezumi tattooer in Japan, and he and his son mostly use tattoo machines nowadays (as do many other Japanese tattoo artists), he is one of the most famous irezumi experts in the world, a renowned tattoo legend, and one of few remaining tebori (hand-poking tattoo) experts. Tebori is fading because using a machine is faster (and thus cheaper for clients), easier, and considered safer.
While artists and clients argue that tebori actually hurts less than using a tattoo machine and is just as safe (as most tebori artists use disposable needles and completely sterile equipment), local Japanese people tend to opt for smaller, machine-made tattoos, rather than full-body hand-poked art, which carries a negative connotation and is more often requested by foreigners. Horiyoshi III’s son and other tattoo artists can be commissioned for a tebori-style tattoo.
When you think of American tattooing, you might think of the traditional stars and stripes, plenty of pinup girls, anchors, hearts, skulls, roses, and lots of other sailor art. A lot of that can be linked to the adventures and prolific times of one Sailor Jerry, born Norman Keith Collins.
Collins’ life is quite colorful. His love for tattooing began in his teens, while he was traveling alone around the country, practicing the art on himself and others. His first mentor was “Tatts” Thomas, a tattoo artist in 1920s Chicago, who taught Collins to operate a tattoo machine.
The “Sailor” part of his nickname eventually came to be after Collins enlisted in the Navy and found himself traveling throughout Southeast Asia, until eventually landing in Hawaii in the 30s. Aside from his travels, his time in the Navy also contributed to his ‘sailor’ art, and the use of many motifs commonly found on tattooed seafarers over the centuries, including stars, dolphins, ship’s wheels, and various sea life. World War II pulled him back into the military, although he was back in Hawaii shortly thereafter.
Decades spent tattooing others and traveling the world allowed Collins to refine both his style and his technique, and he became the first to develop purple ink, single-use tattoo needles, and the practice of sterilizing one’s tattoo machines in an autoclave (basically an industrial sterilization machine). His travels exposed him to a variety of tattoo art, including Japanese art, and he spent some time working with Japanese hori (tattoo artists), incorporating some of their work into his own (notably dragons). Collins inspired and worked with other artists who eventually took up his mantle, including Don Ed Hardy, Mike “Rollo” Malone, and Zeke Owens. Collins died in 1972, of a heart attack.
While Sailor Jerry has passed away, his legacy is still palpable today, and represents much of classic Americana tattoo culture.