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
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6 thoughts on “Applying the Cross (On Your Wrist)

  1. Jason–it is my understanding from conversations with Copts here in the U.S. that the cross tattoo applied to the wrist in infancy is a permanent mark for the purpose of being able to identify Coptic children who may be kidnapped from their families and given/sold into Muslim families so as to be raised Muslim. It is a mark of protection and identification, not something done for the fun of it. I believe this sheds a different light on the practice, and takes it out of the realm of the generic debate about tattoos on Christians.

    Al-Masih-Qam! Hakkan Qam!

    • Yes, absolutely. Perhaps the article can be read as more lighthearted than desired. This is likely due to the fact that I witnessed what was a choice-tattoo, albeit in a Christian manner. Absolutely the wrist tattoo is about identification and community, though I would want to be hesitant about protection. Their testimony about kidnapping is far more important than mine, but while I often hear the fear of such kidnapping, I haven’t heard it tied to the tattoo yet. This gives me something more to inquire about!

      But as for the overall point, it is to help make what might be an odd practice more familiar and acceptable to the average Westerner. It certainly isn’t a full-on treatment of the tattoo and all it stands for. This is worthy, and I’ll certainly write as I learn more.

      • Hi Jason! I didn’t mean to imply your commentary on the subject of tattoos there to be light-hearted. Rather, I believe it has more significant meaning to the Copts in light of constant persecution as they live among Muslims. The wrist cross is a community identifier, but simultaneously it allow the community to identify their own in time where they have few religious protections. This, of course, has little to do with decorative religious tattoos acquired in adulthood as far as I know.

        Of course, I can only relay what others have told me. I am neither a Copt, nor live in Egypt. However, I do know that their community is shrinking drastically, and stories of children kidnapped to be raised in Islam are heart-breakingly true.

        Best,
        AP

  2. It is put on the wrist as protection against kidnapping. Because you can not cut off a tattoo that is on your wrist or you would die. A tattoo somewhere less lethal can be removed.

    • Thanks. Do you have any idea when this practice was started, and under whose leadership? That is, did it arise spontaneously from the people or did the church help direct the practice?

      • Although Muslim conquest of Egypt took place in 639 AD it was under Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (reigned AD 996–1021) that the persecution of the Copts became severe.So the practice started sometime during this reign as the Coptic Christians were prevented from wearing crosses or declaring themselves Christians. As the persecution increased, Christians started to tattoo the cross on their skin as a sign that they will never denounce their Christianity till they are skinned and no the church nor the Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria directed the practice.You are not ordered to get a cross tattooed.
        Personally i never got one till i was 15 visiting a monastery in Egypt maybe only because i was not born in Egypt but it has just become a cultural norm to do so with deep meaning,history and faith.

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