Tattoos were once the ultimate sign of rebellion and counter culture. While they still carry echoes of that legacy, most people do not see tattoos in the same way. Permanent body art has become far more normalized in recent years. Tattoos themselves have also gotten more and more impressive. Watercolor tattoos, perfect copies of loved one’s handwriting and other changes to tattoo styles have led to more people than ever sporting ink. As such, many Christians became interested in inking their bodies. There was, however, a great deal of debate over whether such a thing was permitted. Some people argued that tattoos were expressly forbidden by the Bible as Leviticus 19:28 says, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves.” Others pointed out that the previous verse prohibits “cutting the hair at the sides of your head [and] clipping off the edges of your beard,” and most Jews do not even follow that law anymore much less Christians. So, why should the statement against tattoos be any different?
Even among those who were comfortable with tattoos, there was the unspoken expectation that any Christian with a tattoo be discrete and avoid getting a tattoo of something too out there or provocative. This is sound advice regardless of a person’s faith. Many employers require their employees to cover their tattoos, and people with large or highly visible tattoos may find themselves overlooked for positions that require a great deal of face to face interaction with clients, investors or board members. This is doubly true when the tattoo is something that is inappropriate for polite society. No one wants to see tattoos that emphasize violence, sex or profanity every time they walk into work.
Given the debate that surrounded tattoos already, many Christians who wanted to get some ink felt it best to get a religious tattoo. They had crosses, Bible verses and other religious symbols added to their skin. Some people, however, argue that tattoos cannot be religious. They are manifestations of modern, secular culture and cannot be used as a medium to profess religious beliefs. Religious tattoos, they claim, are an oxymoron.
This is not true. Tattoos have been around far longer than the idea of an atheistic culture. Atheism, in fact, is a very young religion. As such, tattoos have been associated with expressions of faith for most of their existence. The oldest tattoos in the world belong to a European Tyrolean Iceman called Otzi. Otzi’s preserved skin bears no less than 61 tattoos on his left wrist, lower legs, ribs and lower back. These tattoos are believed to have been religious in nature. That was certainly true of many tattoos in the ancient world. Ancient Egyptian women, for example, were known to create an intricate web of tattoos across their stomachs, hips and thighs. When a woman was pregnant, these tattoos would form a net that surrounded her swollen stomach. The inked designs were meant to form a barrier against evil spirits and protect the woman’s unborn child. The tattoos also tended to incorporate depictions of the god Bes, a protector god of pregnant women and children.
This association between pagan religious rites and tattoos is part of why the Old Testament warns against tattooing one’s skin. The tattoo itself was not the problem. The issue was the close tie between pagan religion and tattoos. Even if one did not have an image of an actual god placed on their skin, tattoos tended to be more heavily laden with meaning in the ancient world. Today, someone might get a tattoo simply because they think it looks cool. With a much higher risk of infection in the ancient world and greater pain, tattoos needed to have more meaning than simple aesthetics. They could denote an association with a particular tribe or act as a permanent protective spell against some sort of harm. Either way, refusing to engage in this practice would help set the Israelites apart from the various Canaanite tribes and nations also living in the Promised Land.
Over time, tattoos began to lose their religious meaning. Instead, they came to be a symbol of crime. A variety of nations and empires had a habit of tattooing or branding criminals and escaped slaves in order to permanently mark them and force them to wear their shame openly. It was then that tattooing was truly divorced from its history of religious meaning. Instead, it was now a class marker and a sign of punishment.
In the modern world, tattoos are no longer heavily associated with pagan worship or seen as proof of criminal activity. As such, it is perfectly possible for a tattoo to be religious once more. It would, however, have to embody a Christian meaning in its entirety. That would mean that a person would need to be getting it as an act of faith, not simply because it looks cool. They would need to be planning to use it as either an open declaration of faith or a conversation starter that would allow them to discuss their beliefs with others. They would also need to pick a tattoo design and location that is consistent with a Christian message. Gothic crosses do not always make others think of Christianity, and no Bible verse will make a tattoo high on a person’s inner thigh less provocative.
Tattoos have a long history of being associated with religion. In some ways, that makes it easier for a Christian to consider their tattoo to be religious. In other ways, that makes it more difficult. The old religious connotations of tattoos, after all, were almost purely pagan. Today, however, most people are unaware of the long religious history of tattoos. As such, the issue comes back to the same series of questions that govern many religious grey areas. What is the person’s intention, did they achieve that intention and what are the consequences of their actions? If all three of those questions are associated with some form of common good, the person is clear to proceed. If not, they may want to reexamine their own intentions before they run off to a tattoo parlor and claim their new tattoo is an act of faith.