The symbol of the Jerusalem cross has a long history in the world of Christendom as well as the world of tattooing. Sometimes described as a cross potent between four crosslets or a cross of equal arms, each terminating in a cross bar, there is no mistaking this distinctive and squarish cross symbol out of the dozens of types that have been used in tattoos. Its earliest appearance as a symbol seems to have occurred, not surprisingly, during the first Crusade (1096), in the coat of arms of Godfrey of Bouillon, the first Latin ruler of Jerusalem. Dead by the age of only forty, the tall, handsome, and fair-haired descendant of Charlemagne found his way quickly into legend, idolized as the “perfect Christian knight.” In the nearly one thousand years since then, the Jerusalem cross has been associated with Christian crusades, heroism, and knights, but especially with Jerusalem, especially when it comes to tattoos.
“In the old City of Jerusalem one afternoon in 1956 I discovered a collection of woodblocks which struck me as unique in character.” So begins John Carswell’s compellingly simple account of his discovery of the remnants of a centuries old tradition of tattooing in the Holy Land that goes back in written records to at least the 1600s and quite possibly much earlier. In the tattoo/coffin-making shop of tattooer/coffin-maker Jacob Razzouk, Carswell recorded the designs of 168 wood blocks that were carved with various, mostly Coptic Christian, tattoo designs. Prominent among them is, of course, the Jerusalem cross. Pilgrims to the Holy City have likely used it for centuries in order to commemorate their journeys – even pilgrims such as King Edward VII of England and King Frederik IX of Denmark.