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Documentary: Tattoos can serve as a salve for Israeli war, terror victims

Healing Ink’s CEO says the experience “was so powerful and moving that we knew we had to turn it into something bigger.”

Using art as a backdrop for tattoo art. Credit: Dillon Meyer/Healing Ink.
Using art as a backdrop for tattoo art. Credit: Dillon Meyer/Healing Ink.
Healing Ink CEO Craig Dershowitz. Credit: Dillon Meyer/Healing Ink.

The physical and psychological scars don’t go away, but victims can turn them into art.

The new documentary “Healing Ink” details the experiences of eight tattoo artists who go to Israel to help 24 survivors of war and terrorism reclaim their bodies to heal. Artists 4 Israel, a nonprofit advocacy organization, will screen the film on Sept. 6.

Craig Dershowitz, CEO of Artists 4 Israel and president of the organization Healing Ink, told JNS that the project, which has brought tattoo artists to Israel and to other countries since 2016, was never supposed to become a documentary.

Photographer Dillon Meyer, however, documented this year’s event at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and at businesses on Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street targeted in a New Year’s Day 2016 Palestinian terror attack.

“What Dillon filmed was so powerful and moving that we knew we had to turn it into something bigger,” Dershowitz said. “We knew other people would want to see it and then would want to experience the trip with us.”

‘A very good painful’

Participants in the project range from survivors of the First Lebanon War in 1982 to those who survived Palestinian attacks this year in 2023.

This sort of approach—generally forbidden under rabbinic law, but which many victims of attacks find meaningful and helpful in their healing—isn’t new, according to Dershowitz.

Participants in the project range from survivors of the First Lebanon War in 1982 to those who survived Palestinian attacks this year. Credit: Dillon Meyer/Healing Ink.

“For years and years, people have been using tattoos to commemorate positive occasions and to mourn negative occasions as a form of a ritual of going through a huge, life-altering experience,” he said. “We brought it into the modern age and into the mainstream.”

Maor David, a former medic in the Israel Defense Forces, was injured in a deadly accident in Ramallah, which serves as the administrative capital of the Palestinian Authority. He participated in this year’s Healing Ink project.

“It was a very important moment,” he told JNS, his voice quivering. “It was a very meaningful thing to me.”

David learned about Healing Ink when a friend sent him an application. Dershowitz says the project receives between 150 and 200 annual applications for just 30 open spots.

David met the Los Angeles tattoo artist Talley Matthew. “He inked me with the two birds flying from barbed wire,” David told JNS. “It symbolizes that beautiful things can come out of hardships and hard moments.”

Matthew spent between four and five hours inking the tattoo, which was of David’s design, at the Israel Museum. Each survivor was paired with an artist, and the two discussed the design and selected a sketch ahead of time.

“It was painful, but it wasn’t a bad painful,” David said. “It was a very good painful, like electricity on your arm.” (He has since added a tattoo of an atlas to his leg.)

Photographer Dillon Meyer documented this year’s event at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and at businesses on Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street targeted in a New Year’s Day 2016 Palestinian terror attack. Credit: Dillon Meyer/Healing Ink.

‘It makes it that much more intimate’

Rick Matros, a heavily tattooed, successful seniors housing executive, and IsraAID and Artists 4 Israel board member, met Dershowitz through mutual friends and started funding Healing Ink at the start.

Matros, who sees the work that his wife, a psychologist, does in the nonprofit world, has been struck by the way that tattoos can help people heal.

“I started getting tattooed a very, very long time ago,” he told JNS. “Over time, I realized how helpful it was to me and why.”

Many of those whom Healing Ink selects have not addressed the trauma they suffered directly. Some of the survivors had never discussed their trauma, which could be a decade old, with anyone until they met the tattoo artist, according to Matros.

“That process of communication starts opening everything up,” he said. “They start talking about what kind of design they want and what that conveys based on what they went through. That is why we’ve got such a huge array of designs—positive, negative and in between.” 

The discussion between tattoo artist and survivor “is actually very intimate,” Matros said. “If you think about this tattoo artist sitting next to you and bending over you, and drawing on you, then putting this needle in you. You very often wind up having very deep conversations.”

“When you add a component of trauma to it, it makes it that much more intimate,” he added.

“For years and years, people have been using tattoos to commemorate positive occasions and to mourn negative occasions as a form of a ritual of going through a huge, life-altering experience,” said CEO of Artists 4 Israel and president Craig Dershowitz. Credit: Dillon Meyer/Healing Ink.

Spouses, other family members and significant others often attend Healing Ink sessions, and mental-health professionals are on hand as well, according to Matros.

It’s all about finding some sense of permanence when life has been disrupted. 

“It’s a way for the survivors to reclaim their bodies—to take it back and not let the trauma affect them the same way,” Matros said.

It’s also a way for artists to help with their healing hands, Dershowitz told JNS.

“The real heroes are the artists. They’re the ones that did all the work,” he said. “They’re the ones who really should be counted and appreciated for their humanity.”

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