Skin Deep looks at art of tattoos and their place in Jewish culture

When Wendy MacNaughton of San Francisco pulls up her left sleeve a bit, a small black tattoo becomes visible. When asked why she got it, she laughs and explains that her 19-year-old self had a bone to pick with French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s “mirror theory.”

Jhos Singer, meanwhile, has a pair of hamsas (hand-shaped amulets) inked above his collarbones — permanent reminders of his first visit to Tel Aviv.

“They are both about protection,” said Singer, spiritual leader at Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley and an educator at the JCC of San Francisco. “One has the sun coming up and the other has the moon. It’s a way of creating prayer on my body.”

MacNaughton and Singer are small pieces of a much larger argument about tattoos in Judaism, a subject of rabbinic debate for centuries. In fact, many point to a tractate in the 1,500-year-old Babylonian Talmud as evidence Jews have been participating in tattooing “forever.”

Jhos Singer answers questions.

“The Talmud wouldn’t talk about it as much as it does if they [rabbis and sages] weren’t dealing with it as often as they were,” Singer said.

Which brings us to the present day, an era in which 21 percent of American adults, according to a 2012 Harris poll, have at least one tattoo. An earlier Pew Research Center study said the number was closer to 40 percent among those 18 to 29.

That statistic certainly seems to ring true in San Francisco, and young Jewish adults in the area apparently are on board. Though they still face finger-waggling from their grandparents, many 20- to 30-year-old Jews are choosing to forgo their elders’ admonitions and embrace tattooing as a means of self-expression and creativity.

With the exhibit “Skin Deep: The Art of Tattoo,” the JCC of San Francisco is on board, as well. Here is a venerable Jewish institution that is dedicating its Katz Snyder Gallery to a study of the history and theology of tattoos.

During the exhibit’s opening reception on Nov. 2, Jewish vendors sold stick-’n-poke kits (do-it-yourself applications that don’t require a tattoo gun) and temporary tattoos, and Singer sat underneath an “Ask the Expert” sign. MacNaughton, an illustrator and graphic journalist, sat next to a stack of books titled “Knives & Ink: Chefs and the Stories Behind Their Tattoos” (her newly published book).

Curated by the former director of San Francisco’s Mexican Museum, David J. de la Torre, the exhibit will be open to the public through Jan. 20.

The breadth of the show is broad: Ritual Samoan tattoo tools are displayed alongside MacNaughton’s tender illustrations of commercial kitchen tattoo culture. And while attendees noshed on offerings from Mission Chinese Food and mingled with legendary tattoo artist Ed Hardy, local printmaker Paul Mullowney “tattooed” a gallery wall with woodcuts and etchings.

Paul Mullowney hangs woodcuts. photos/courtesy jccsf

“I wanted to do this show because tattoos are such a part of San Francisco culture, and they go way back in time,” said Barbara Lane, the Arts and Ideas director at the JCCSF. “Of course, we talk about the relationship between Jews and tattoos, but we also talk about so much more.”

In one area dedicated to the “Jew and tattoo” question, photographs of Nazi tattoo implements are next to an iconic photograph of a young man sporting his grandmother’s Auschwitz tattoo, in memoriam. Nearby is a photograph of the word “kosher” inked on the back of a woman’s neck.

While contemporary Jewry certainly has a colorful relationship with tattooing, the question remains: Is it allowed?

Generally, anti-tattoo Jews point to a line in Leviticus 19:28 that states, “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord.”

While Chabad has morphed this on its website to read “you shall not etch a tattoo on yourself,” others argue that this commandment should be seen as a contextual request.

According to the literature at the JCCSF, Bible scholar Jacob Milgrom explained that in ancient times, Judaism was struggling to separate itself from its polytheistic neighbors, many of whom marked their flesh with either their gods or their dead.

Singer said, “From the phrasing of the sentence [in Leviticus 19:28], it’s clear that you can’t do it ‘for the dead,’ but it isn’t clear that it should be completely prohibited. Does that mean you can’t make marks for life or for beauty or for things you love?”

Kate Torgovnick, writing for the New York Times, maintains that the “can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery” edict is a myth. After speaking with rabbinical scholars from institutions such as the Jewish Theological Seminary and Yeshiva University, she calls it an “urban legend” that was most likely started because a specific cemetery had such a policy against tattoos. She goes on to write that “Jewish parents and grandparents picked up on it and over time their distaste for tattoos was presented as scriptural doctrine.”

The tattoo debate is largely generational, with older Jews clinging to the idea that tattoos are off-limits.

“Tattoos are a trigger for many Jews because of their association with Holocaust and the forced tattooing [done by the Nazis],” said Singer. “There is a sense, from the older generation, that what they feel is sacrosanct about Judaism is being washed away by the youth.”

Jews with tattoos feel differently.

“It’s almost the opposite of how [tattoos were] used in the Holocaust,” said a Jewish woman with four tattoos who requested anonymity. “Now, God forbid, if I were to be put in a camp and have everything taken from me, my tattoos would be the only reminders I would have of who I am. It’s a way of asserting my me-ness. Just because they used this medium in an insidious way doesn’t mean that the medium is itself insidious.”

Skin Deep: The Art of Tattoo,”
through Jan. 20 in the Katz Snyder Gallery,  JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F. Free.

Hannah Rubin

Hannah Rubin is a writer at J. She can be reached at [email protected].