Tattoos and Spirituality

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...

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4 thoughts on “Tattoos and Spirituality”

  1. A friend of mine once chided that if you want a tattoo you will have any number of reasons to justify to yourself and to the world why you should get one.

    On a more serious note, I was quite taken while studying Sacramental Theology at college to hear about the etymology of the word 'sacrament'. It comes from the Latin 'Sacramentum' which was the oath the legionnaires took upon entering service. I read one account of this oath which included the ritual branding of the soldier. If memory serves, they stood naked before the army, made their oath and where branded with the Imperial seal over their heart so that they and everyone would know that they belonged to the Emperor.

    I quite like the idea that we be branded with the Lord's seal. It conjures images of Deuteronomy 11 for me. That I could always be re-minded of who I am and whose I am.

  2. I finally got my tattoo. It has been along time in the making and my wife insisted that the design stay on the fridge for at least 12 months without change (wise lady). Anyway, it was originally an ordination 'rite of passage' type idea. I'm really happy with it. I lifted it directly from the Codex Sinaiticus, a 4th century copy of the Bible. It is one of the oldest surviving Greek Bibles and the oldest complete Newt Testament. This passage sums up the content of my faith and life: 1 Cor. 13:13.

  3. Dr Beck. I heard the two part podcast recently with you and Rob Bell on Luke Norsworthy's podcast and that led me to your blog. I'm very much enjoying the various topics you write about.

    Has anything else been done with this idea of "existential tattooing"? I'm 52 and have spent the last 5yrs being immersed in a sub-culture of 20-25yr olds for which tattooing is as common as breathing. My sense is that 90% of their tattoos are what you call existential tattoos and they can freely explain the meaning and significance behind each of them.

    One additional thing I have come to "sense" in my time with this group of young people is that tattoos are one thing in their lives that they can control that connects them to something "permanent and lasting". They see their world as so random and shifting and changing and lacking foundations and anchors and permanence that a tattoo is a way for them to declare "something will be permanent and unchanging" for them and their lives. So while the older generation berates them for tattoos that they'll regret as they age, they see the issue of aging and changing as THE reason they're getting the tattoo in the first place... "This one thing is so significant to me that I will never ever ever change what it means to me or how it feels to me no matter what else changes."

    Just my sense but I think there's something pretty significant in that idea for their motives and their fascination and dedication to tattoos.

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