Jewish people are not allowed to have tattoos. It is forbidden. The Torah is widely interpreted to prohibit tattooing when it states, “You shall not mark your flesh for the dead, nor incise any marks on yourselves: I am the LORD.”
For a Jewish person, getting a Jewish tattoo is an act rooted in conflict. There is the disapproval of family and community, there are the religious prohibitions, and there is the powerful deterrent of the Holocaust as a cultural memory. There is also the popular myth that a Jewish person with a tattoo may not be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
Tattoo Jew explores a controversial Jewish subculture never before studied, where individuals use the forbidden practice of getting inked as an unexpected way to connect with their Jewish identity. They have embraced a new way of expressing their roots, boldly displaying their love of Judaism written or drawn directly on their bodies. They turn tradition upside down while still displaying a profound respect for religion, history and culture. This new and growing expression of Jewish identity is an act of defiance and yet also an act of pride.
Tattoo Jew offers insight into complex issues of identity that are familiar to everyone, regardless of religion. The film answers questions that are meaningful to all of us. These are stories about people who want to hold onto their individuality regardless of the expectations of conformity. They need to shake things up and to feel unique. They want to resist assimilation and stand strong in the face of bigotry. They feel like outsiders but they are looking for a sense of belonging. Ultimately, it is a bold statement for a Jewish person to get inked with words and symbols expressing Jewish heritage. Their tattoos are dramatic, often purposefully so. The interview subjects in Tattoo Jew have struggled emotionally and put a great deal of thought into getting tattoos in the context of so much controversy and opposition. Yet, in the end, they have chosen to wear their identity for the whole world to see, permanently etched in ink upon their skin.
Tattoo Jew is written and directed by Andy Abrams. Produced by Andy Abrams and Pfelton Sutton. Photographed and co-produced by Justin Dawson.