Pilgrims to Bethlehem often return home with candles or rosaries, but for those who see religion as more than skin-deep, tattoo artist Walid Ayash is there to help.
The 39-year-old Palestinian specialises in Christian themes. His repertoire includes around 100 models, from simple or elaborate crosses to images of Jesus Christ or a veiled Virgin Mary.
His studio sits near the Church of the Nativity, built on the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born — and which happens to also be tattooed on the chest of Ayash, himself a devout Catholic.
He took up tattooing about 12 years ago, having previously helped out at his father’s barber shop, located downstairs from his current studio.
He started by teaching himself with the help of the Internet, before perfecting his art in Israel since “there is no tattoo school in Palestine”.
“Everybody laughed and told me: ‘What do you think you’re doing?'” said the Bethlehem native and father of four who is always quick with a smile. He wears aviator glasses and his beard and moustache are carefully trimmed.
On a leather chair, Florentino Sayeh, 13, was readying his mobile phone to record the inside of his right wrist being tattooed with a cross and, in Arabic, the words “Thy will be done” — from The Lord’s Prayer.
As Ayash worked, the teenager’s mother watched, half-anxious, half-amused and grimacing as the needle moved over reddened skin.
“Until 1 in the morning, me and his father tried to talk him out of it, but he insisted, so there you go,” she said.
“This tattoo will pull me back whenever I do something wrong,” was what the Palestinian teenager had to say.
– Proof of pilgrimage –
For Ayash, the high season is over now.
Easter has passed and the pilgrims who come to the Holy Land — Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and everything in between — have gone home.
Visitors take the small, stone staircase that leads to his studio, where crucifixes, bottles of alcohol and religious drawings sit on a sound system playing house music.
He shows videos of pilgrims being tattooed, sometimes while singing hymns or reciting prayers in Arabic — or even in Aramaic, the ancient language spoken in the time of Jesus.
“Most are Egyptian Coptic Christians, Syrians, Lebanese, Iraqis, sometimes Armenians,” he said.
“They want a cross and the date of their visit. It’s part of the pilgrimage, proof that they came here and received the blessing.”
While Judaism and Islam forbid permanent body markings, tattoos have for centuries been traditional for Holy Land pilgrims of Eastern rites.
The pilgrimage has been off-limits for some Christians.
The late Egyptian Coptic pope banned visits over Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, where Bethlehem is located, but a new Coptic pope, Tawadros II, has relaxed the rule.
Although Syria and Lebanon bar their nationals from visiting Israel, which controls the borders leading to the West Bank, they can visit if they have a second passport.
– Hidden faith –
Ayash has noticed other changes afoot.
With Christians in the Middle East facing growing threats from jihadists, emphasizing one’s religion can be life-threatening.
“I recently tattooed a cross on the head of a Syrian,” said Ayash.
“When she lets her hair fall, the cross can’t be seen. She was adamant about the tattoo, but she couldn’t do it in a visible area of her skin because she wants to return to Syria.”
Ayash is a faithful man, but he also feels that, when it comes to business, religion alone will only take him so far.
Teaming up with a colleague from Jerusalem, he is to open a new studio, not in a religious city like Bethlehem, but in secular Ramallah, the Palestinian political capital, to meet demand from its hip young people.