Christian tattoos

This page is a sequel to the discussion about the Cross Tattoo, popularly worn as decorative art rather than as a mark of faith.

Below, we look at the justifications and reasons why some Christians have a cross tattoo.

Biblical arguments

God's laws revealed to Moses (Lev. 19:28) specifically prohibit tattoos. Literal interpretation clearly shows that permanently ingraining a dye into the skin's dermis, verges on sacrilege. 

But that doesn't interpretation stand up to much scrutiny.

It is worth reading Lev. 19 for other forbidden acts we might do, without considering them to be sinful:

  • 'Don't pick up fallen fruit'
    - good advice to avoid overripe fruit that may have undesirable levels of bacteria
  • 'Don't wear clothing woven of two kinds of material'
    - again, good advice if you don't want your sweater to lose its shape. 

The laws were given, not as medical or laundry tips, but for Jews to distance themselves from contemporary Pagan practices. We may decide that breaking those laws today is not important. 

However, that same chapter in Leviticus also instructs that we should love our neighbours as we love ourselves. which Christians agree is incredibly important.

So some laws are important and others aren't, and it's for each person to decide how important the prohibition of tattooing is in the 21st century.

In the New Testament, 1 Cor. 6 warns against sexual promiscuity. It does not mention tattoos, and it does not mention eating too much, smoking, drinking, overworking, and many of the other things we do that damage our body temple much more than a tattoo might.

So is it such a big deal for Christian to have a tattoo?

Identity or Vanity

There is a legend that hundreds of years ago, a tattoo of a Christian Cross on a sailor's back was his insurance against excessive flogging. 

Much earlier than that, the Knights of St John are believed to have identified themselves with a tattoo. As we read in the Antiquities of the Christian Church, a cross tat was one way Christians could readily identify each other. And in the First Crusade, warriors had a Latin Cross tattooed on their arms to ensure they received a Christian burial.

Pilgrims to Jerusalem and pilgrims to the tomb of St. James, would come back with a souvenir in the form of a small cross tattoo on the insides of their wrists as proof of their pilgrimage.

Pagans and heathens also tattooed themselves, and it's likely that the custom was dropped by most Early Christians who strived to distance themselves from the practices of other faiths.

More recently, cross tattoos for Christian identification have become less common in most societies. Exceptions include Coptic Christians in Egypt, who are often seen with crosses tattooed on their right wrists. Usually this is a simple, small cross, and not necessarily any particular Coptic Cross design.

Tattooed arms of a Catholic lady in Bosnia and Herzegovina

It is not unusual to see tattoos on older Catholic ladies in Bosnia and Herzegovina
(Click image to enlarge)

Catholics in Bosnia and Herzegovina have used tattooing, especially on children, to make it less likely they would be forced to convert to Islam during the region's Ottoman occupation. Ottoman rule ended in the 19th century, but the tradition of tattooing lingered to a certain extent.

Some Indian Christians also tattoo a small cross on their hands, but as with all the cross tattoos mentioned so far on this page, they are for identification, and not the decorative crosses people favour in the West.

In the absence of cultural traditions, there is little justification for a Christian to tattoo a cross. On the contrary, today many people still associate tattoos with gangsters, convicts, low-ranking military, heavy drinkers and the sexually promiscuous. The Christian could easily encounter disapproval from peers for displaying an apparent desire to belong to such a 'tribe'.

The common argument for Christians in favour of cross tattoos is that they are an additional opportunity to fulfil their duty to evangelize. Yet a tattoo is unlikely to give any better message than a lapel badge or some other piece of jewellery. And those are no match for the message a Christian can give through actions.

Identification marking is quite different to cosmetic or wanaabe-in-your-gang tattoos, and Christians have generally opted to keep their bodies free of such adornments. Our bodies belong to God and are to be used to spread the love taught by Jesus. 1 Cor. 6:19-20 likens our bodies as 'a temple of God'. What sort of Christian would deface a temple with graffiti? Of course, a temple of God might well be decorated with a cross, and a Christian could argue that a cross tattoo is a mark of one's faith, not graffiti.

But note that "decoration" is different to "identification", just as plastic surgery to correct disfigurement (reconstructive surgery) is different to plastic surgery to enhance beauty (cosmetic or aesthetic surgery).

It's not simply a case of vanity being incompatible with Christianity. Vanity is a form of pride. Tattooing may not be considered a sin, but pride certainly is. 

Christians have a duty to evangelize and a tattooed cross is a constant advertisement of one's faith. However, a tattoo must be a minor advertisement in comparison to our actions.

In World War II, forcibly tattooing Jews in the concentration camps added to their humiliation.

Some fibres, such as wool, shrink slightly at each wash, whereas other fibres, such as cotton, shrink only after the first wash when the tension applied in manufacture is released.

Many laws seemed a good idea when they were made, but considered absurd later.

Technically, anyone dying in London's Houses of Parliament is entitled to a state funeral, so a law exists prohibiting dying there. (The punishment, presumably, would be not a state funeral.)

The prohibition of death is borrowed from a Pagan law, where dying or giving birth on the sacred Greek island of Delos would spiritually pollute the place — so decreed the Delphic Oracle in the 5th century BC.

We must love our neighbours: Lev. 19:18, 34, Matt. 7:12, 19:16-19, 22:36-40, Mark 12:28-34, Luke 6:31, 10:25-28, Rom. 13:8-10, Gal. 5:14, Eph. 5:25-33, Jas. 2:8-9

Today, corporal punishment is no longer permitted. It was whipped away from the Naval Discipline Act by an Order-in-Council dated 29 March 1949

Pride is one of the seven deadly sins.


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