The tattooist of Nova: Family tribute to the murdered artist and ink she inspires

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The tattooist of Nova: Family tribute to the murdered artist and ink she inspires

Shani Louk died after the attack on the Nova Festival on October 7. Since then many survivors have expressed their support for Israel on their skin

Brigit Grant is the Jewish News Supplements Editor

Shani Louk(right) with her friend at Nova and (left) one of the tattoos she designed
Shani Louk(right) with her friend at Nova and (left) one of the tattoos she designed

By the cruellest twist of fate, a 22-year-old tattooist became the poster girl for the Hamas atrocities and now thousands of Jewish people have tattoos in support of Israel.

The image of a smiling Shani is burned into our collective psyche. She had been dancing to trance music dressed for a peace party.

Then, just hours later, she was lying face down in the back of a truck surrounded by Hamas terrorists, one hanging his leg across her body, another holding her hair.

The half-German half-Israeli’s distinctive dark and blonde dreadlocks were the essence of hippie chic when she posed for a video at the camp site before the massacre that took her life and those of so many
of her friends.

Shani Louk tribute page

Shani was a prominent name in the tattoo and art world yet, unlike most other artists, her body – bar the black tribal markings below both knees – was devoid of tattoos.

This set the graphic design student apart from her creative peers, but Shani was a free spirit and “an angel who never did one thing wrong to anyone in her life”, according to her brother Amit.

Shani with her brother Amit

Choosing not to serve in the Israel Defence Forces she instead lived independently in Tel Aviv, working in shops and restaurants while developing her tattoo skills (her designs are pictured below), researching the history of tattoos and their role in cultures around the world and adding hairdressing to her CV as a dreadlock stylist.

For weeks Shani’s family – her father Nissim, mother Ricarda and brother Amit – had clung to the hope she was alive, praying that the information circulating about her being treated in a hospital in Gaza was correct.

But on 30 October the family was told Shani was dead after the identification of a piece of her skull. The family still doesn’t have her body and is unable to hold a Jewish funeral, which brings further pain. The family has built a website to commemorate and share her artistic spirit and vision. Those fortunate enough to already have a Shani tattoo already know and can’t forget.

Shani’s hand holding one her tattoo designs

Our Own Ink Tributes 

My first tattoo was a rose entwined with the initials of the one I loved. Or thought I did in 1988. Now that scarlet flower is a dull red – but it is still there, which my mother, semi-scolding, warned me about at the time.

A year later, the longevity of ink was no longer an issue when I added a chai tattoo to my wrist after my father drowned in Israel. Some found it strange that I chose the Hebrew word for life to mark the loss of one, but not any more. Since October 7, chai has become the go-to expression for Jews across the globe who have been inked or are about to be, to show support for Israel physically in the only way they can.

“Beyond giving to charity, helping to get much-needed kit for the soldiers, a tattoo shows another level of commitment,” says Michelle Rosenberg. “I already had a spiritual squiggle with a lotus flower curved down my right arm. After October 7 I put a vertical pattern incorporating a chai on the back of my neck. Three weeks later I returned with a friend who got her first tattoo – a Star of David – on her ankle and I had my daughter’s names inscribed in Hebrew on my wrist.

Michelle Rosenberg skin commitment

“On the one hand, my kids love it, on the other they’re scared I’m brazenly displaying my Jewishness. But for me that’s the whole point. I’m not going to be intimidated. It’s a f*** you to all the antisemites.”

Michelle’s sentiments are shared by Jewish people of all ages who have elected to wear solidarity across their skin, be it the chai on torsos or big, bold Stars of David across backs.

Mark Silver chose to put a huge hamsa (hand of Miriam) on his back and underline it with am Yisrael chai (the Jewish people live), while his wife Kate added a small chai to her existing collection of Hebrew tattoos, which include a Star of David and the names of their children.

Kate and Mark Silver with Nick Rose tattoos

“I got the chai because it means life, and after what has happened it shows we care about the lives of our people. We love our life,”said Kate.

Nick Rose who did Jewish tattoos for free after October 7

The Silvers were inked by Soho tattooist Nick Rose, who moved from San Francisco to Golders Green and now works at The Circle on Noel Street. Much sought-after for his artistry, from 11 October, Nick offered Hebrew tattoos for free to the Jewish community.

“Being raised Jewish, I share that common experience of being taught from a young age to be cautious about how, when and to whom we reveal our Jewish identity,” said the softly-spoken Californian. “When to use a fake last name, when to lie and tell someone you’re Italian or Greek, when to tuck in your Magen David…While practical, I do resent the instructions. Above all else in life, I am a Jew and a Zionist and I am proud to say that. I hope these tattoos will help strengthen the resolve of the tribe in expressing their identity in spite of hostility.”

The paradox of Jews choosing to show Holy Land allegiance with tattoos as permanent as the numbers branded on their ancestors in concentration camps darkens the soul. The words in the Torah: ‘You shall not etch a tattoo on yourselves’ (Leviticus 19:28) will be observed by the pious, but the murder of 1,200 on October 7 has made ink more popular than prayers.

German-born calligrapher Gabriel Wolff understands the reticence, the “inherent instability of the act of tattooing for Jews”, but he is invested in creating tattoo art for clients that interprets and evokes exactly how they feel about their faith.

After studying in Jerusalem with Torah scroll scribes, Gabriel garnered a “deeper understanding of the connection between Hebrew letters and the Divine” and created a style of Hebrew calligraphy that reshapes the ancient letters to give them new meanings. He then started Hebrew Tattoos, from where he has created thousands of bespoke Hebrew calligraphy designs that are traced by world-class tattooists on to clients.

Gabriel Wolff and his caligraphy tattoo

“Like many Jews in my generation, I am actively shaping my Jewishness on my own terms,” says Gabriel, who now lives in Berlin. “Yet at the same time, by using Hebrew letters and words, I place myself and my art within a wide web of historical, cultural and social meaning.”

For Israeli tattooist Liav Forer, his artistry has never had more meaning. Since the attack, his studio in Modi’in has been filled with Israelis wanting tattoos that embed the spirit and loss of October 7. Stars of David. Names of the slain. Or the logo of the Nova Nature Party, where so many were murdered, raped, injured or kidnapped, among them Mia Schem, 21, who was the hostage seen in the first proof-of-life video released by Hamas.

Tattooist Liav Forer with released hostage Mia Schem

A mentor to Mia, who was working at his studio when she left to go to the Nova festival on October 6, the next time Liav saw her was on the news as a hostage, shot in the hand with her arm badly broken.

Mia was released from Gaza on November 30 after 54 days in captivity. Reunited with her family, she has had extensive surgery and rehabilitation on her arm. She also saw Liav, who shared their joyful reunion on Instagram: “It’s not a dream. I got my victory that you returned, a friend for life and a friend for work… After much crying and much pain, there are tears of joy. The most important thing is that we will never stop dancing.” Liav recognises that getting tattoos echoes the Holocaust, but says “this time it’s a choice we make,” adding: “It unifies us and instils strength, reminding us that we will prevail.”

Brigit’t Chai on the wrist

The chai on my wrist was a daily reminder of my father, whose Yahrzeit on October 6 preceded the attacks in Israel. When the 9/11 attacks took place in 2001, I was working in New York, flying back and forth across the pond, and my mother was worried about the visibility of the Hebrew word.

Dismissing her concerns, I still agreed to cover it with a butterfly, though I could hear her words the moment Israel’s detractors denied the horrors, triggered hate and edged us towards hiding our Stars of David. But where’s the Jewish pride in that? Since 2021 I have had two more tattoos. On my left arm run my mother’s words from the last birthday card she sent me. On the right is a chai etched in Israel last summer. I won’t be rolling down my sleeves because I have nothing to hide.

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