Every summer I do research with undergraduate students at ACU. I generally pick research topics that relate to current events or might have some appeal to students. For example, to name a few things I've blogged about, we've done research on PostSecret, attitudes about torture, and religious blasphemy.
This summer I have two teams of students, each doing something very different.
The first group picked the subject of tattoos and Christianity.
Historically, Christians have tended to look down on tattoos. Some of this has been motivated by Leviticus 19:28:
Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.Some of the stigma also comes from the fact that tattoos were associated with unsavory characters like sailors. (Tattoos were introduced to Britain and America after Captain Cook's men came home with tattoos from Tahiti.)
In short, for much of American history at least, tattoos were associated with deviance and alternative lifestyles. And yet, over the last decade or so, tattoos have gone mainstream. A study from 2006 found that 25% of people between ages of 18 and 50 have a tattoo. That number was up from 16% only three years earlier.
Interestingly, a lot of this tattooing is being done by Christians who are using tattoos for spiritual purposes. Christians use all sorts of tattoos--Greek or Hebrew words, bible verses/references, Christological or pneumatological symbols (e.g., cross, dove)--to "mark" an event of spiritual significance or to use the tattoo as a prompt or reminder of mission or identity.
And it's not just Christians who are doing this. Many people are using tattoos for spiritual or religious purposes. In class, I've been using the language existential tattooing versus aesthetic tattooing. Although this distinction is crude and the categories overlap, existential tattoos are tattoos that have an existential function. That is, the tattoo might have religious significance or be tied up with personal identity. Existential tattoos have symbolic significance. By contrast, aesthetic tattoos are, at root, forms of body art or fashion. The tattoo's function here is mainly to "look good" given some aesthetic standard. Again, this distinction is crude and it should allow for both/and. It's simply a stab of mine at sorting out the various motives for getting a tattoo.
So, any existential tattoos out there? And is the existential versus aesthetic contrast getting at something useful in motives associated with Christian tattoos?
As for me, if you care to know, no, I don't have any tattoos. I tend to use religiously themed jewelry for my existential prompts. But my tattooed students have, however, educated me a great deal about tattoos and culture. I now know, for instance, what a "tramp stamp" is. The things you learn when you hang out with undergraduates...