What’s with all the Christian tattoos? Am I missing out?

What’s with all the Christian tattoos? Am I missing out? March 8, 2013
Cross tattoos
kris krüg, Wikimedia Commons

I used to want a tattoo. That was more than twenty years ago, back in high school when only the brave and cool and rebellious people got tattoos.

Back then a neck tat meant you were hardcore. Today it means you’re a 19-year-old sorority girl.

I never did get the tattoo. I couldn’t make up my mind what I wanted to permanently etch on my epidermal canvas. Or what part of the canvas I would use. Something public? Or something I could cover up so my boss didn’t think I was secretly the chief of a biker gang?

Decisions, decisions.

But hesitation has paid me no regrets in this case.

My friend Matt got a wicked skeletal fairy inked on his back, between two massive wizard’s eyes on either shoulder blade. It was awesome. And then creepy. After years of wishing he’d done something else with his time, he had it re-inked. Now, thanks to the amazing work of a very talented needle man, the fairy and eyes are hidden behind and within a tree emblazoned with scripture.

The religious element makes sense. Long before they were used to display romantic attachment and late-adolescent boredom, tattoos were employed to indicate tribal affiliation and religious devotion.

Among Christians the acceptance of tattoos has always been mixed. The Mosaic law offers a line against them, and the fourth-century bishop, Basil the Great, apparently forbade tattoos. He was more successful in other endeavors, as Christians continued to decorate their bodies through the centuries.

Religious tattoos can take on a powerful meaning. In Flannery O’Connor’s story, “Parker’s Back,” she used a tattoo of Christ to show reprobate O.E. Parker’s newfound faith and expose his pious wife’s hypocrisy. Getting the tattoo was, in some sense, a saving act for Parker, a sacramental act. Then, in a shocking moment of violence, Parker’s wife, Sarah Ruth, beats his back with a broom, bruising Jesus.

Today it seems there are a lot more Parkers in church than Sarah Ruths. In some churches a tat is practically part of the pastoral uniform. Who needs a clerical collar when you have a full sleeve of crosses, doves, and broken, flaming hearts? Or maybe even Saul on the Damascus Road, as worship leader Carlos Whittaker sports on his arm?

Whittaker uses the tattoo as testimony and reminder. “I’ve had a big life change and momentum shift in my life,” he said on L.A. Ink, “and I want to remember that moment.”

The Christian rock band, the 77s, had an unconventional love song called “Tattoo” with obvious religious meaning:

If you say I’m written on your soul
then write me on your skin

Tattoos are the most personal kind of art. They capture our stories, confess our interests, and even identify our allegiances.

Coptic Christians have long tattooed their wrists with small crosses, little blue-green marks that silently profess their faith. It’s not without irony that the word witness in Greek is martyr. Copts are often harassed by Muslim neighbors for their markings, and reports of Christian girls forced into Muslim marriages include references to having their crosses cut out or burnt off with acid.

I don’t have strong feelings about tattoos one way or another. I’ve seen enough old men with blurry smudges that looked amazing four decades prior to have lost most interest in getting one. But maybe once the hipsters and sorority girls tire of them and they slip out of fashion, as they inevitably will, I’ll reconsider.

If you could get any tattoo what would it be? If you have some ink already, what’s your favorite? Comment below.

Side note: The official Orthodox position?

Here’s an article on the subject that might be of interest. It’s a piece from the Orthodox perspective by a priest out of Lansing, Mich. And on a side side note, it turns out that there is a tradition of Christian tattoos among Croats too, though I don’t know much at all about it.

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  • Margie

    Thanks for this reflection. It’s been interesting here in the South in the USA to watcth the popularity of tattoos expand and contract — maybe a little. I really like Flannery O’Connor’s stories and Parker’s back is a great reflection on “skin art and Christianity” in my mind. When our daughter considered getting a tattoo while in middle and high school I told her that we would sue anyone that gave her one without our permission before she was 18 🙂 She’s 20 now and so we’ll see where she spends her money. I have seen some tattoos that I’ve liked and many that I haven’t. I still find it fascinating that it has evolved to be so popular in our culture. When I was little a tattoo was found only on a man and then it meant he had been in the service!

    • Joel J. Miller

      Or in prison. When we were in Uganda, I heard a few times from people there that they thought a white man with a tattoo was likely a dangerous man, a criminal. This was a bit funny at the time because we were there for a few weeks with a pastor with a large tat on one of his calves.

      Tattoos definitely go in and out of style. Here’s a page from The Tatler, headlined: “The Gentle Art of Tattooing: The Fashionable Craze of To-day.” The date: November 25, 1903.

    • Sergiy Bubin

      Brilliant idea! I will remember that – to sue anyone who gives my daughter a tattoo without my permission (at least I will tell her so with all seriousness). I need to get prepared for her being a teenage in 8-10 years 🙂

      • Joel J. Miller

        It’s coming faster than you think, Sergiy! My eldest will be a teenager in about a minute.

      • My stance has been that my daughters can do what they want with their hair and pierce their ears because hair grows back and piercings can heal. A tat, on the other hand, is permanent and my job as a dad is to keep them from doing anything as an adolescent that they would regret as an adult.

        I personally don’t care for tatoos but if my daughters choose to get inked when they are adults, then I’ll have to find a way to deal with it.

        • Joel J. Miller

          Ah, the considered wisdom of the parent. My eldest is 11. I’ve got a few years, but it’s coming.

  • Jason Deegan

    Would have been nice if you’d addressed this issue with scripture. (Leviticus 19:28) I’m not a Biblical scholar, so a new opine with a Biblical reference would have been more impactful.

    Keep writing!

    • Joel J. Miller

      Thanks, Jason.

      As far as I know that’s the only explicit reference to tattoos in the scripture (though, of course, I don’t know it exhaustively). I made the passing comment to it above (“The Mosaic law offers a line…”), but I didn’t think it warranted much commentary in the essay itself.

      My understanding of Lev 19.28 is that it applies to false worship; contextually it’s surrounded by concerns about ritual purity and prostitution, keeping the Sabbath, avoiding the occult, and in the same verse “cuttings in your flesh for the dead.” Since the average person is not getting tattoos for reasons that go back to Canaanite paganism I let it slide.

      Christians have of course made arguments about not defacing the temple of the Holy Spirit (the body), but even there (1 Cor 6) the immediate context concerns sexual immorality; a person has to read the passage with the prejudice that tattooing is wrong to apply it negatively to the question.

      In presenting the piece I was mainly interested in the growing presence of tattoos among folks who just one or two decades ago would have likely declined the opportunity. Tattoos have never been totally absent, but they have certainly been more marginal than they are today. Now they’re mainstream.

  • Thoughtful and provocative as always, friend.
    I have 2 tattoos, both of which I got as a 40 something and I was never in a sorority. 🙂 Both are intensely purposeful and meaningful.
    I have struggled most of my life to believe I am loved. Just for who I am and not for what I do. My first tattoo was the word “beloved”. So that I would see it every day. With a hope that somehow that word would seep into my flesh and penetrate my heart, and someday I would own it.
    The second tattoo is an Orthodox cross. Symbolic of a faith journey that has healed old wounds and continues to open a remarkable world of beauty and grace.
    Both are in locations where I can control whether or not they are seen. And, as an artistic concession, both are in locations where the skin is less likely to sag and create a silly putty interpretation of the original design. 😉
    Like everything else that intersects faith, and life for that matter, there are a million motivations for having, or not having, tattoos. As Jesus constantly reminded us, what happens inside the skin is far more significant.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Amen. As I mentioned, tattoos are the most personal kind of art and confess certain things about us, including our loyalties and values. To use a tattoo to remind you of who you are in Christ seems like a very commendable use.

  • For irony’s sake, I think the only thing I’d dare do is shave my head and get one at the very top that says “NO TATTOOS BELOW THIS LINE.” Then let the hair grow back in.

    But that’d hurt.

    In other news, Joel, I have mad respect for your manner of contextualizing theology. I tend to take a more literal view of Leviticus, but I think your interpretation a couple comments above is solid. Well played!

    • Joel J. Miller

      Thanks, Jeff. Much appreciated. And I smuggled in a reference to the 77s. Any time I can do that, I’m tickled.

    • Jeff, I would be interested to know if your literal interpretation keeps you from eating pork, or wearing cloth woven of more than one material (ie. no cotton poly blends and such), or from trimming the sides of your hair or your beard, etc….

      p.s. I love your generous spirit and am mostly just messing with you. 😉

  • I have begun to think that my children’s generation will consider not getting a tattoo very counter-culture. Even though I don’t have one, for basically the same reasons you state here, most of my friends do. One friend’s children call them her “stamps”. It’s an interesting shift in our culture, I think-particularly in the church.

    • Joel J. Miller

      I think you’re right about that. We’ll probably never go back to the relatively uninked decades of the past, but the tats will recede again.

  • msgracie

    Wow. I haven’t seen a mentio of the 77’s in a long time!

    • Joel J. Miller

      Since writing the piece I’ve been listening to them all day.

  • My father always thought tattoos and piercings were ungodly because he was brought up in a very conservative Assembly of God that way. When he was a kid it was wrong to dance at all, go to movies, or even play sports really…they were a lot like the Amish in not drawing attention to yourself. He never followed that stuff but couldn’t lose some of the beliefs. He told me when I was eight that I could get my ears pierced when I was 13, so I waited until I was 13 and said I was ready to do it and was told “I thought you would grow out of wanting something so stupid by then.” He didn’t ban me from having them, but I would have felt bad about getting them so I never did. I am 27 and never have gotten them pierced because I almost always wear my hair down anyway. I can’t say that I feel like I missed anything in retrospect, but it sure seemed like it at the time.

    I never had an urge for a permanent tattoo though, because I feel like it is something people really do for other people and not themselves. Otherwise, they would all be designed where you see the artwork in proper perspective instead of the people looking at you. I also think there are better ways to say “I’m a Christian,” …like with your actions….than getting a cross tattoo.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Thanks for that.

      “something people really do for other people and not themselves.” That’s probably true in some instances. Vanity is powerful motivator. I’m moved by it often enough.

      At the same time I think it makes sense to go back to Shelia’s first comment about getting “beloved” tattooed. She needed that for herself. Sometimes we grow into our declarations, and a declaration on the skin might have a peculiar emotional power, like Carlos Whittaker’s did.

      • guy

        Also, part of owning something for yourself may start with owning it before others.

  • David West

    My own instruction to my children is that getting a tat is a Christian liberty and that we love people with or without ink on their skin, or for that matter bones in their noses. And yes, I see a connection between the two.
    It seems to me that civilizations in a state decline (cannibalistic, naked natives) have a tendency to place great emphasis on the body through such things as peircing and tattooing. This is a result of God giving them over – as in Romans chapter one. These people were once civilized, having all come from the Ark of Noah, but have degenerated. Personally, and this is what I tell my children, I don’t want to associate myself with social norms that may be evidences of God’s wrath. Civilizations turn from worship, God removes His hand, lust of the flesh rein. I am as guilty as anyone apart from Christ, but don’t need to participate in the visual diplay of God’s turning from us.
    Tats or no, I love everyone who calls on the name of Christ and will link arms with you in His cause.

    David West

  • Cathi Warren

    Our kids grew up knowing and loving the names of God in the Hebrew scriptures through songs we sang together and especially through a cross-stitch sampler I did with those names back in the 80s. Several years ago, the nine kids made a pact that they would get tattoos, each one choosing one of the names of God that held a special meaning for them.

    It should be no surprise to us that God, having created us, knows our weaknesses…and one of those weaknesses is our short memories. And so even though He wants His words written on our hearts, He knows that we can never be reminded too often in tangible, visible ways of His faithfulness and His character. That’s why He told the Israelites, “Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; AND tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.”

    While I can’t say I’d be happy to see anything written permanently on my kids’ foreheads, I am blessed that their desire is to keep God’s names on their hands/arms as well as on the doorposts of their homes. To date, four of the nine have their “symbols”: Jehovah shammah, Jehovah shalom, Jehovah tsidkenu, and Jehovah rapha. The daughter who was the slowest in choosing (and not surprisingly, the oldest of the nine) was left with the longest: Jehovah mekoddishkem. She’s still ramping up her courage.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Cool story. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Varados

    “I don’t have strong feelings about tattoos one way or another.”
    So why write about them?

    • Joel J. Miller

      Not having strong feelings about getting or not getting a tattoo doesn’t preclude interest in a trend, does it?

  • Kimberlee

    I too have no strong feelings either way about tattoos. But I do feel that if you’re going to permanently mark yourself then it better be meaningful.
    I have been going back & forth about getting our daughter’s name with her foot prints. She died at birth. I don’t know where I would have it put though.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Wow. I’m at a loss for words on that except to say that such a marking would remain meaningful until the day you meet her again.

  • Brian P.

    Whether for or against, you know you’re a real Evangelical if one precedes one’s own opinion with “the Bible clearly says…”

    • Joel J. Miller

      That sounds a touch derogatory. And about somethings the Bible does clearly speak, e.g., that Christ was the son of God or the resurrection. About many others — e.g., tattoos — it does not.

  • Lavonne Parnell

    Will you take the mark just because your friends have. Think about it. I don’t like the things in this world influence me. If the word says don’t do it , that settles it for me. Besides that I think it ruins your character too.

    • Joel J. Miller

      As I said, I don’t think there’s any clear scriptural statement not to take a tattoo. Nor, for that matter, is there any compelling reason to read the mark (I’m assuming you mean the mark of the Beast) as a literal tattoo. So it’s not as simple as God said not to, therefore I won’t. That said, I think there are good reasons not to get a tattoo, and I don’t have one.

  • Joel,
    I enjoyed your post. I’m coauthor of a book that uses tattoo stories and culture as metaphor for the Christian life: INKED: CHOOSING GOD’S MARK TO TRANSFORM YOUR LIFE (Abingdon Press, 2013). As therapists, my coauthor and I wrote INKED to show that:
    1) Whether or not our skin is inked, we’ve all been marked by life and we have the power to choose the design that emerges.
    2) While the tattoo “has long been a metaphor of difference” (Marge DeMellow, anthropologist), Christ desires unity. Asking, “tell me the story behind your tattoo” is a great bridge toward unity.
    3) Christ is returning with “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” tattooed on his thigh (Rev 19:16). Having THAT inked on your life is the only thing that is truly tattoo-worthy.
    Thanks for getting the conversation going. If you or your readers have further interest, visit us at http://www.InkedbyGod.com, or find the book at your favorite online or local book seller.
    Indelibly His,
    Kim Goad

  • Cowpunkmom

    I have a few tattoos. A skull, a dragon, music stuff….but I have one religious symbol: a chi-rho. Hardly anyone knows what it is or what it means, and I like that. I’m not into “advertising”, but I did clearly hear the Spirit say to me one day: “You commemorate all this other stuff on your skin. When will you commemorate me?”

    So I got the tattoo. I do not, nor ever shall, regret it.

    • Joel J. Miller

      A chi-rho makes a lot of sense. We’ve lost a lot of Christian symbolism in our day. Maybe the tattoo can bring some of it back.