Unraveling Jewish identity and community with tattooist and artist Joey Ramona

An artist’s work doesn’t necessarily reflect their personality, but with Toronto-based tattooist and artist Joey Ramona, it does. They, like their art, are: bold, reflective, and as sure as the smooth lines they draw. Their work incorporates Judaism, including the stark designs and floral often found in Haggadahs and on Seder plates, with what can either be referred to as American Traditional, Americana, or American folk-art. Whether an image adorns skin or material, there is a permanence to Ramona’s work that goes beyond their literal presence. Pronounced black lines outline scenes and bodies are livened by shades of grey. When there is colour, hues are rich, even a deep burgundy pops. Subtlety is not Ramona’s aim; they want to “make a statement.” Though many aspects of Americana are connected to the military, and colonialism, Ramona finds satisfaction taking “some of those images rooted in that kind of [Americana] tradition and repurposing them into something that is liberating and freeing and encourages everyone to participate in tattooing.” 

If you were in New York City 24 years ago, you’d need to be sneaky if you wanted a tattoo. From 1961 to 1997 tattooing was illegal. The practice was banned in many parts of the U.S., the last state to make tattoos legal was Oklahoma in 2006 (their ban began in 1963). Tattoos have fallen in and out of favour throughout history, but even when they were in style, and the fashionable women during the Victorian Era (1837-1901) got inked, it was a dirty little secret. The women discreetly invited tattoo artists into their homes and got inked on a part of their body they’d easily be able to conceal. Even during Ramona’s time at Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD)—they were already tattooing full-time when they graduated in 2011—they found it “really difficult to incorporate tattooing into fine-art in a way that my professors didn’t feel put off.” It wasn’t until 2015 that tattoos started to see “growing acceptance in the fine-art world”, an acceptance, that has largely trickled down to academia. Now, Ramona says, OCAD’s “position on tattooing has unofficially changed quite a bit.” Only until the 21st century have tattoos entered the mainstream, but the fuzzy and shifty relationship Jewish history has with tattoos still influences Jewish perspectives today. One of the first topics broached in our conversation was the different interpretations of Jewish law and unraveling a Jewish myth.

Contrary to popular belief, if you are Jewish and have a tattoo you can still get buried in a Jewish cemetery. In 2008, Kate Torgonick interviewed eight rabbinical scholars for her New York Times article “For Some Jews, It Only Sounds Like ‘Taboo’”. The scholars remarked the belief as “an urban legend, most likely started because a specific cemetery had a policy against tattoos. Jewish parents and grandparents picked up on it over time, their distaste for tattoos was presented as scriptural doctrine.”

But what about Leviticus 19:28? Though the passage states “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead nor incise any marks on yourself: I am the Lord,” like much of scripture, this line is up for interpretation. Rabbi Mark Washofsky told Torgonick “‘We don’t think it’s a very ‘Jewish’ thing to do, but we’re not really sure why,’” adding it is unclear if Leviticus states tattoos are prohibited only when referring to God, or if it “generally condemns personal adornment.” While Washofsky is unsure how to interpret the text, Rabbi Alan Bright states tattoos are prohibited and uses Deuteronomy 4:15 to reinforce his interpretation of the law. Marshal Klaven, who, at the time was a rabbinical student (with tattoos), reflected that “when Leviticus was written, tattooing was largely a pagan practice, done to mark slaves or to show devotion to a pharaoh.” Inferring interpretation of the text should reflect modern times echoes Ramona’s view of there being many “things in the Torah that we’re not supposed to do and yet we do, because our modern life just does not make sense in that context.” Whether or not you agree with Ramona, the contrasting points of view of the scholars informs us that the ambiguity in the text provides space to make our own conclusions. 

Being Jewish in the tattoo community, Ramona expresses, “is a little bit isolating, as it is contrary to what we know in the tattoo community. Religion is not really seen as something that is valued, so much, especially not a religion in which tattooing is supposedly forbidden.” Which is ironic, because three Jews from New York, Albert Morton Kurtzman, known as “Lew the Jew”, his business partner Charlie Wagner, and Joe Lieber, were part of the one dozen individuals at the start of the 20th century up until WW1, who established the American tattoo industry.

Ramona didn’t incorporate Judaism into their practice until eight or nine years into their career. When they were still an apprentice at a tattoo shop, they recall an incident where someone made an antisemitic comment in front of the them to the other tattooer. Unfortunately, the tattoo community, Ramona added, does overlap with terrible communities like Neo Nazis. And when the incident in the shop occurred, “it dawned on me that my Jewishness will never be separated from my personhood, and I don’t want it to be. I want this [Judaism] to be represented in my work and on my body, which is why I have a lot of visibly Jewish tattoos because I want people to feel like they cannot say things like that.” As external forces inspired them to make Jewish tattoos, so did their desire to create designs reflecting their own “feelings of Jewish sadness, that explored my own identity, and to work through feelings of grief and trauma and loss that are prevalent in our community.” Ramona always used tattooing as a way to express themselves; they just decided to extend that practice to include their religion. They began by making tattoo flash based on Jewish images, and Jewish aesthetics.

Joey Ramona’s tattoo flash. Photographs courtesy of Joey Ramona.

It is kismet to learn they started with tattoo flash—the design samples hanging on the walls in tattoo shops—as the man who invented flash was Lew the Jew (1880-1954). His tattoos were in the vein of American folk-art, and similarly to Ramona, unabashedly coupled his heritage to his artistry. As Don Ed Hardy notes in Lew the Jew Alberts: Early 20th Century Tattoo Designs, “Kurzman chose a nom du needle that emphasized, rather than disguised, his heritage.” To reminisce on the Jewish presence in the history of American tattooing  always makes me chuckle because growing up and seeing Jewish people embracing tattoos seemed like an entirely new concept, when in fact, it’s been happening for more than a century, just, unfortunately on the fringe, and drenched in judgement. 

Ramona never believed people would understand or connect to their Jewish tattoos, so much so, they have become the focus of their work, which they add is a “dream come true.” I imagine, their presence is a dream come true for many who don’t feel included in traditional Jewish spaces. They give people the opportunity to have tattoos that can reflect queer identity and/or their various intersecting identities that include Judaism. 

In their zine New Ways of Worship: Jewish Tattooing, Ramona examines doikayt, the Yiddish word for hereness. They examine what hereness means in relationship to the body, namely the one it is inked on, theirs. To them, it is how they declare the “Jewish Homeland is wherever we live, wherever we land. This queer, non-binary Jewish body is my home, and this home will always be able to find community.” We’re always searching externally for community, but Ramona is here to remind us to find “comfort in finding your own hereness; where I land is where I exist and that’s completely valid. We don’t need to have a destination to get to. We can be Jewish wherever we are.” 

Ramona started making Jewish art because they felt “lonely” and “longed for a sense of community.” Community is a core aspect of Judaism they value, and to “bring like-minded people into community and to an extent practice Jewish ritual in a new and radical way feels fulfilling, beautiful, and amazing.” Their community emphasizes acceptance and languishes in open and communal exploration, constantly reinstating boundaries can be pushed without disrespecting tradition. 

This can be seen with the Yiddish word feygele, which can either mean homosexual or little bird. Usually, it is used to derogatorily refer to queerness. Twice now, Ramona has tattooed the word on clients who have reclaimed it. When Ramona saw the word it made them feel they “can also embrace Jewish queerness with the same loudness as I’m embracing Jewishness.” They added that on one of the clients they also tattooed an image of two Hasidic queer femmes kissing. Another powerful moment for them because they start looking ahead, and thinking people will be able to see what many still today do not know, “that queerness exists in Orthodox communities, or that people can be queer and very observant, and that queer love exists in every corner of Judaism.” To them, tattooing is a visual language, and they are using their instrument to reclaim the Jewish identities erased by tattoos during the Holocaust. Their tattoos express “I’m an individual person, I’m still here, and I’m thriving and really proud of my Jewish identity.”

Photographs courtesy of Joey Ramona.

The in-person exchanges sparking moments like the ones Ramona recounted have, obviously, not been able to happen for a while. It’s been difficult for Ramona to not be able to do what they love, but “people’s safety is the number one priority for me and also another core aspect of Judaism is human life above all, so I try to keep that in mind.” They’ve used this time to pivot to new ways of reaching people with their work, while “accessing different types of community, people who maybe aren’t ready or maybe don’t ever want to get tattooed but would like to have a piece of Judaica.” Ramona started to move towards Judaica last year prior to the pandemic. At first it started with painting Judaica pieces they found at a pottery studio in Toronto. Then during the pandemic they started making mezuzahs. They’re made locally and Ramona paints and varnishes the pieces theirself. Their roster extends to lifestyle pieces as well, including bandanas patterned with illustrations symbolic of Jewish tradition and history, and Yiddish patches giving people the chance to walk around saying “Fuck the Police” without anyone having a clue. 

They  believe their fiery spirit stems from the punk community. When “I had something to bang my drum about I did” and  by doing so in such an open manner, they inspire others to do the same. 

Whether you have one of Joey Ramona’s tattoos, want one of their tattoos, never want to get tattoos but admire their art and Judaica, you are part of a community whose archive will be remembered for encouraging Jewish individuals to live the Jewish life they want.

Header image designed by Orly Zebak. Artwork and photographs courtesy of Joey Ramona. 

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