Applying the Cross (On Your Wrist)

One of the distinctive marks of a Coptic Christian is the cross tattoo worn on the wrist. Sometimes applied as early as forty days after birth (and following baptism), the tattoo is a permanent identification marker signaling to all the faith and community belonging of the bearer.

Girgis Ghobrial

Girgis Ghobrial is an electrical engineer by training and a tattooist by passion. For over twenty-three years he had made a ministry of applying the tattoo to the wrists of Copts.

Translation: Apply Crosses with the Most Modern Medical Procedures

This is his shop at the St. Simon Monastery in the Muqattam Mountains east of Cairo. The location deserves its own description, but in short it is the recently developed church complex dedicated to serving the poor of ‘Garbage City’. This community of Coptic Christians has long been the trash collectors of Cairo, recycling over 90% of collected waste.

Loading trash just outside the monastery complex

Ghobrial contributes to the ministry with his skills and time. He is present at the monastery every Friday and Sunday for services, charging around $4 US for a cross tattoo and $25 US for a more elaborate tattoo, such as in the picture below.

Still bearing the smudges of ink and blood

All proceeds are donated to the monastery, and if a customer is unable to pay, he offers his trade at reduced prices or for free. Ghobrial made certain to emphasize the cleanliness of his operation. Every needle is replaced for each new job.

Smiling freely

Mina, with the cross tattooed on his arm in the picture above, said the operation does not hurt very much. As for motivation, he was getting the same image a friend of his bears. Many of the area youth were milling around the booth. Tattoos, they say, are just a part of the local culture, usually among youths in poorer areas. Most of their friends chose to do so, and they imitate. Being Christians, however, their choices tend to be crosses or images of the saints.

Available templates, all Christian-related

Local priests, they report, do not provide any special encouragement for or against tattoos, even the common one on the wrist. The tattoo booth, however, signals an official acceptance of the practice, and its location is right before the entryways to the two main churches – both in caves in the mountains – which seat tens of thousands of worshippers each.

Friday night evening service

In the Bible, in Leviticus 19:28, the following command is issued:

You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the Lord.

It should be noted, however, that a few verses earlier is another command, seemingly much less important:

Nor shall a garment of mixed linen and wool come upon you.

In the New Testament, I Corinthians 6:19 declares the body to be a temple of the Holy Spirit, without any reference to tattoos but with the designation the body belongs to God and is meant for his honor.

Does a tattoo of any nature honor God? Do the tattoos of these Coptic Christians?

If part of the Christian life is the imitation of God, perhaps Isaiah 49:17 is useful to note:

See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.

Surely this verse is neither command nor outright license for Christians to get tattoos, but it does put the matter somewhat in perspective. If God signals his love for his people through the image of a tattoo, perhaps the Copts’ love for God displayed on their wrists is equally acceptable.

All the same, I don’t like it very much. Why do something you can never get rid of?

Hmmm, but is that not also the demand, result, and promise of faith?

Demand: Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples. (Luke 14:28, 33)

Result: Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6:3-4)

Promise: For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

Perhaps a tattoo of faith is easier, but its glory is far less. Either way, let its mark be a choice made in freedom.

Related Posts:

  • Emma’s Saliib (Cross; Emma is our daughter, imitating her friends) – February 26, 2010

Emma’s Saliib

Today Emma showed that she is being affected by peer pressure … but not in a way I expected.  I was sitting with Hannah in the bathroom for awhile, and Emma asked if she could write.  I probably don’t let her play with a pen and paper often enough, but since Hannah was occupied, and therefore wouldn’t see what Emma was doing and want to copy her, I told her she could write for awhile on her own.  She has done this enough to know the basic rules: Only write on the paper, not on books, or toys or walls or yourself, etc., so I didn’t think she needed a reminder.  After about five minutes of no sound coming from Emma, Hannah and I finished in the bathroom, and Emma came to show us her “artwork.”  She had scribbled nicely on the envelope, but I noticed two things about her: 1) she had a pen mark on her face and 2) her left hand was covered by her sleeve.  So, I asked her to show me her hand.  She took it out of her sleeve, and showed me her hand which had a cross-like shape on the topside,

and she explained, “this is my saliib (Arabic word for “cross”) and I want to show the kids at hadaana (Arabic for “preschool”) my saliib on my hand.”  The unspoken words which I added were, “because all of the kids and teachers at hadaana have saliibs on their hands.”  Makes sense.  Poor little Emma is the only one there without a tattoo of a cross on her wrist. 

 I never thought of it before.  I had thought many times, I wonder when the day will come when she comes home begging to get her ears pierced because she’s the ONLY girl without pierced ears in the whole country!  I didn’t anticipate that sending her to the Coptic Church preschool would mean she was the ONLY person there without a cross on her wrist!  You see, many Christians in Egypt tattoo a small cross on the inside of their right wrist to identify themselves as Christians.

It’s a nice symbol which a friend commented on the other day, “I like the idea that no one can take this cross away … they may be able to take the cross off my neck, but can’t remove it from my wrist.”  I’m not sure if there is a general age at which this is done, but the kids in Emma’s class are 3 and 4 years old, so it’s done quite early. 

So, I told Emma that her cross would probably come off her wrist before she returns to hadaana in a few days, especially when she gets a bath.  I told her that the kids at her school had to get a needle to get their crosses so they don’t come off.  She really wanted to show the kids her saliib, though, so I told her that we could give her a new one the morning she goes to hadaana.  Jayson did the honors and she was very excited about showing the kids and teachers her cross on her hand.

I wonder how the kids reacted.  Had they noticed she didn’t have one?  Did they even think about it?  Did they think it strange that she showed them her saliib?  It’s just a natural part of who they are, and they wouldn’t think of showing it off to others; yet perhaps it is a symbol of pride right after they get it done?  There are many things that I don’t know.  I am guessing the teachers understood the peer pressure factor of Emma being the only child without a cross.  I’m not sure we’ll do it for her again, or if she will kind of forget about it, but it was an interesting experience.  I’m not ready for her to get a tattoo at age 3, but I was much happier that she wanted a saliib on her hand than holes in her ears, although I’m sure that will be coming in the near future.