Gabriel Wolff from Hebrew Tattoos
Today we are interviewing Gabriel Wolff. Not strictly a tattoo artist, Gabriel refers to himself as a Jewish tattoo designer. Rather than inking his designs himself, he draws Hebrew calligraphy designs and sends them for others to ink and get inked.
It all Started off Wrong – Very Wrong!
Gabriel grew up in the south of Germany before immigrating with his family to Jerusalem, where he spent about half of his life. The family story about how he started being interested in calligraphy goes like this: when he was five, there was an exhibition about Nazi propaganda in the cultural space of the Munich Jewish community. Upon leaving the exhibition Gabriel turned to his mother excitedly and yelled: “How beautiful their posters are!” “Since then, I was hooked”, he says. “I got my mom to buy me a calligraphy set and started spending my afternoons drawing. I can’t really remember a time in my life when my fingers didn’t sport ink stains”
Hebrew Calligraphy – That’s not Kosher!
When Gabriel was 12, his family immigrated to Jerusalem. Trying to adapt to his new surrounding, he started drawing Hebrew calligraphy and soon was searching for people to learn from. However, even in Jerusalem, there was hardly a single Hebrew calligrapher to be found. Sofrey Sta”m, traditional Torah writers, avoid any kind of creativity. The only places where someartistic input is traditionally allowed are Ktuboth, wedding certificates. “But by the age of 15, I was bored drawing the same text over and over again. I needed more. I needed creative space. And in the traditional circles, all I found was rejection.”
Hopes in Jail
Jewish Tattoos – That’s Really not Kosher!
If you have ever talked to a Jewish person about tattoos, you know that Jews and tattoos just don’t go together. Still, Gabriel insists on only designing Hebrew calligraphy. Isn’t that a contradiction? “Of course, combining Hebrew art and tattoos, you encounter a lot of criticism. Judaism isn’t very approving of ink under a Jew’s skin, to say the least. This stems from a few verses of the Torah. However, just as tattoos are condemned in some parts of the Torah, they are also mentioned as a tradition in others. It seems that in Biblical times their prohibition was anything but strict. Some claim it was only prohibition of inking God’s name, others say God’s name was the only thing you were allowed to ink. Be that as it may, in the last few centuries, tattoos have been banned from Judaism.”
So there is a clear prohibition of tattoos, nowadays, then? “Yes, there is. Against tattoos, as well as shaving off one’s beard, against mixing different kinds of fabrics in clothing and against selling land permanently. But hey, in times like ours, I feel the questions asked can’t be as dogmatic as they were centuries ago. We can’t only be interested in dry religious laws if we want to continue existing as a collective entity. The world we’re living in is constantly demanding an impossible individualism. We’re pushed to be special, find our true self, realize our potential.
“Collective identity was what gave people a sense of security until very recently. A catholic knew how he was supposed to behave, a child born in Azerbaijan knew where he would live and die, the son of a butcher knew what his work would be. The freedoms we were given by the various bourgeois revolutions came at the price of loosing those clear prescribed paths. Today, we’re forced to take responsibility for every step we take. Every failure is our own fault. Every move is a choice. That’s a blessing and a terrible burden.”
So your tattoo designs are an act of resistance to individualism? “No. Maybe they are more an attempt to find individualism without losing the ground under my feet. I feel we need those collective identities as human beings. We need to know we’re Jewish or European or women. And it is the preordained, the unchangeable, that is the nature of identity. What we choose can define at most what we do, but never who we are. That is one of the big lies of our time.
“But the thing is: the old religious Jewish identity just doesn’t fill the bill for most of us anymore. Even should we want to, we cannot rely on the Torah to provide us with all the truth we need to survive in a world so vastly different from the one Moses lived in. So we need to find new ways to be Jewish. We need new ways of connecting with each other and for ourselves as Jews.”
And tattoos will make that happen? “No [chuckles]. But Jewish tattoos are my tiny contribution to that. By marking myself as Jewish, I don’t have to answer the question “what does that mean” in detail. What matters, foremost, is that I recognise, celebrate and proclaim that my Jewish identity is an important part of myself. And I have the rest of my life to figure out everything else.”
Thanks for your time, Gabriel!
Ink Done Right
Photos by ©AnnAjFranken