Healing with the help of the best tattoo artists in the world

Healing Ink is a groundbreaking programme providing free tattoos to more than 100 survivors of the October 7 attacks, injured IDF soldiers and relatives of victims murdered by Hamas


The tattooists at work

Last week the tattoo irons buzzed and hummed in central Tel Aviv as internationally renowned tattooists converged on IsraAID’s headquarters to meet their Israeli clients.

This was no ordinary assignment. For starters, some of these artists had never been to the Middle East before and were visiting one of the most volatile regions in the world.

They were in Israel for humanitarian work – for Healing Ink, a groundbreaking programme providing free tattoos to more than 100 survivors of the October 7 attacks, family members of hostages, injured IDF soldiers and relatives of victims murdered by Hamas.

Medical, or restorative, tattooing is already a widely established treatment as a natural-looking solution for disguising scars or burns or adding a realistic nipple or areola, for example, that had been removed or damaged during surgery.

Healing Ink has been in operation since 2016, providing transformative care to survivors of terrorism in Israel and the US. In the past, healing missions have been deployed to 9/11 survivors, survivors of the 2017 massacre at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas, as well as survivors and first responders of 2018’s Tree of Life Synagogue shooting.

In the weeks leading up to the sessions, the artists consult with the survivors to understand their story and collaborate on designs to help accelerate their healing.

“These tattoos say, ‘This is my body. This is my life. And I will not let anyone – [not] even a terrorist – rob me of that,’” said Craig Dershowitz, Healing Ink’s director.

“The common theme in all Healing Ink journeys,” he adds, “is taking back a sense of personal agency – a reclamation of their body, of their mind, of their life story.”

Brooklyn-born Dershowitz, whose earlier career included seven years at Morgan Stanley’s anti-money laundering prevention division, was never destined for a quotidian corporate life. He wanted to change – and save – lives.

That calling first came during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2009 when Dershowitz left behind his banking life in New York to set up Artists 4 Israel, a non-profit using art to help communities affected by hate and terrorism heal.

Artists 4 Israel’s 8,000 world-class artists have since turned 800 of Israel’s nondescript bomb shelters, children’s playgrounds and community buildings into aesthetic murals – an effort founder Dershowitz says is helping turn “artists into advocates for Israel”.

Healing Ink might be Dershowitz’s most life-changing initiative to date. For every survivor, the tattoos, which can take up to six hours to ink, serve as a potent form of therapy responding to unspeakable tragedy.

For Shoval Tamam’s tattoo, he chose the inscription “Please don’t stop the music” to honour his brother and wife who were murdered at the Nova Festival and “loved music and nature parties.”

Another Nova survivor, Rita Yedid, collaborated with her tattooist on an artistic rendering of a sun emerging from the clouds, with rays of sunlight being filtered through the festival’s now-distinctive and expansive canopies.

Shortly after the music stopped at the Nova rave, at around 6.30am, the sky briefly went dark as a result of the lethal barrage of rockets and bullets.

Rita’s husband was shot three times as he lay on top of her to shield her from the onslaught. They both survived and eventually found shelter in a caravan. By the time they were rescued, the sun had set. This tattoo was, in her way, an ode to the sun – and to survival.

Mina Cohen’s tattoo showed a crown to honour her husband, Baruch, a 72-year-old veteran paratrooper from the Yom Kippur War, who fought off terrorists with only 12 men. Baruch was shot three times and lost a leg after being struck by a rocket propelled grenade, but his heroics saved 400 people in his community.

The sessions were in some cases as transformative for the tattooists as they were for the survivors. Angel Castaneda, a Mexican-American tattooist, had never been to Israel. Nor did he know a lot about Jewish people or the Israel-Palestine conflict before visiting.

Castaneda was paired up with Yogev Tamm, whose son was killed on October 7. “Angel was Yogev’s son’s age,” Dershowitz said, adding that the duo quickly established a powerful bond as Yogev saw a youthful energy in Angel.

Yogev’s tattoo on his leg was the one his son had wanted, but never ended up getting – an elaborate tree of life infused with musical notes.

With more than 400 Israelis applying to take part in the Healing Ink initiative, Dershowitz held a second session a few days later at the serene botanical gardens in Jerusalem.

Natalie Sanandaji, an Iranian-American survivor of the Nova Festival, had originally planned to get her tattoo on October 11, but then the war broke out.

The tattoo she ended up getting last week in Jerusalem depicted the Unalome, a Buddhist and Hindu symbol that “represents wisdom and the path to perfection.”

The lotus flower etched on top of the Unalome “symbolises overcoming adversities towards perfection, thus perfectly integrating the meaning of the Unalome,” Sanandaji wrote in an Instagram post.

The therapeutic benefits of Healing Ink are already apparent among survivors, even before their tattoos are complete, but Dershowitz recognised that the programme would draw some criticism. Tattooing, or the act of making permanent markings on one’s body, is expressly prohibited in Jewish law, with rabbinical scholars invoking Leviticus 19:28 when making the case: “You shall not make a laceration for the dead in your flesh. And the imprint of a tattoo you shall not place upon you.”

However, rabbis interviewed on this topic, while firm in their belief that tattooing is undoubtedly prohibited, did note that there is a prevailing misconception that a tattooed Jewish person cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

Dershowitz, himself covered in tattoos, has a different interpretation. “There are many allowances [in Jewish law] for the tattoos we provide, not least of which is under the idea of pikuach nefesh, or [doing] anything to save a life,” he said.

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