Jewish Tattoos for Radical Visibility

“In a world that is largely White and Christian, and where it is beneficial for us to try and invisiblize our Jewishness, the act of having and receiving Judaica tattoos creates radical visibility,” said Nick F, an agender, Jewish tattoo artist based in Upstate New York, who also goes by the moniker of Tahini. “It is a way of engaging the world and allowing ourselves to be seen by our potential peers, while also welcoming the challenge of bigotry and confronting antisemitism head-on.”

Many Jewish people have a historically negative relationship with tattoos, due to their association with the forced tattooing of prisoner identification numbers on segments of the population interred in the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz, the large majority of whom were Jewish (though not all). This is the most visceral basis for tattoo-aversion among contemporary Jewish people, but not the only anti-tattoo rhetoric; several passages within the Shulkhan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law) identify tattoos as a form of idol-worship and forbid Jews to “put tattoo marks upon yourselves.” There is also a vernacular conceit that Jewish people whose bodies bear tattoos are forbidden burial in Jewish cemeteries — but this is, in fact, untrue.

“Big Shabbat Energy” flash by Tahini, offered during a Midwestern late summer tour. Tahini no longer tattoos on Shabbat.
This 2023 custom piece used every color of the rainbow and lyrics from a Yiddish song. It was also part of Tahini’s sliding scale/pay-what-you-can offerings.

“In terms of those Halacha that prohibit marking our skin permanently, my response is and always will be: We all choose which rules to follow and where to find meaning in Torah,” said Tahini. “This is true of all Jewish communities regardless of observance.” The artist characterizes Jewish tattoos as something akin to a modern mezuzah — a small decorative doorpost that traditionally contains a fragment of scripture and designates a Jewish home or place of worship.

“Jewish tattoos mark our bodies as a holy place and create a clear sign of our commitment and pride of our Jewishness,” said Tahini. “This feels especially important for my clients, the majority of whom are also queer in addition to being Jewish, and for whom the marking of the body as home holds particular significance.”

A 2023 mezuzah tattoo placed between top-surgery scars for a client.

Colorful and gorgeously whimsical, Tahini’s tattoos often feature Hebrew lettering and phrases, Judaica-like chalices and mezuzahs, and the artist’s take on characters from Jewish mythology — in particular, the golem. Golems are a kind of proto-superhero figure of Jewish scripture, formed from dirt and animated through ritual prayer, in order to protect or avenge Jewish communities. The most famous golem story is set in Prague, where a golem was created under the aegis of Rabbi Judah Löw ben Bezalel (who died in 1609), perhaps as a kind of belated response to the massive Pogrom of Prague’s Jewish community on Easter of 1389. Golems are often imagined as sturdy, roughly shaped, and rocky characters — similar in bearing to The Thing of Marvel’s Fantastic Four comic — but Tahini’s golems are soft “plushies” that look more like Teletubbies.

A Tahini-style golem, friend, and protector.
Tahini also makes golem “plushies,” sold online or at fairs.

“I am not afraid of cuteness!” said Tahini. “I love the approachability of my plushies as interactive objects, which is why I have strayed away from using more art world terms like soft sculpture, myself. The golems especially, I want to be more domestic as they are supposed to be functional and spiritual art in spite of cuteness. I want them to be carried with you as you live your life.”

Whether in tattoo or plushie form, Tahini’s approach to the golem shifts the creature from a menacing Frankenstein’s monster (and one apt to rage similarly out of control beyond the intentions of its progenitor) to a lovable and protective friend or totem.

“The cheerfulness and color of my art is a response to the great gloom and sadness that is often looming in mine and/or Jewish life,” said Tahini, “I want to remind myself and others of the joy that can still be found, even in struggle.”

Another of Tahini’s golem plushies.

Born in Philadelphia, Tahini is now a resident of a northern New York town, where they live off-grid for roughly two-thirds of the year on their farm. Tahini cites the farm as a definite influence on their methods, practice, and inspiration.

“The farm is my life project while my tattooing and art are largely my work projects,” they said. “I am working on building up a veganic and queer sustenance farm with rad Jewish values at its core.”

The artist travels seasonally to do tattoo work by appointment, some of which are offered for free or by sliding scale to make them accessible to clients at all price points. This winter, Tahini will be based in the Atlanta area, and traveling around to Asheville, North Carolina, and Orlando, Florida doing tattoos. Tahini creates tattoos mostly using the stick-and-poke method, which they prefer for reasons of accessibility, intimacy between artist and client, and the quiet and less painful process of application. Lately, after five years of tattooing, they have begun to incorporate some machining practices, for larger pieces and “more diversity of designs.” The artist’s interest in tattooing developed during a period of time when they were unhoused, living in Portland, Oregon, and trying to figure out how to redirect their life.

Tahini identifies as a community healer in their current practice but is also working to finish an undergraduate degree in psychology, with the intention of pursuing a Master’s degree in social work or counseling.

“Tattooing has blessed me in so many ways,” they said. “It has allowed me to have the freedom to live how I want. It has shown me a path with purpose.”

A 2023 painting commission by Tahini in goache on loose canvas. The artist is also hoping to expand into making custom Ketubas (Jewish wedding contracts) for queer Jewish weddings.

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