Tattoos and Christianity: Tattoos are Leaving their Mark on Christianity

By Maggie Walker

Tattoos—hate them or love them, the art form is now prevalent in America. In 2020, over a third of Americans aged 18-29 had at least one tattoo. What used to be controversial has entered the mainstream. What thoughts do people have about tattoos today? 

Emma Waywood, a senior Social Work major, has gotten several tattoos, starting with a colorful wrist tattoo when she was 16 years old. 

“I wanted it to be a reminder to me about God’s providence in my life. It has my life verse on it, Philippians 1-20-21,” she said. “All of my tattoos I can point back to Christ somehow. I’ve made that a point with all the tattoos I have because I know that tattoos are here-there with the church so I wanted to be able to say, ‘well, all my tattoos glorify God.’” 

Waywood has several other tattoos, including one of 2 Corinthians 12:19 and one of her favorite names for God drawn from Jeremiah 23:23. 

Joseph Mattackal, a senior IT Management major, has a tattoo of a name on his forearm. 

“The tattoo I have is my mom’s name in Hindi,” Mattackal said. “ I wanted to get a tattoo for a while just because it was something I was interested in, but I was not interested in permanently marking my body for absolutely no reason. I felt there had to be a reason to have the tattoo, and my mom was a very important person to me. She passed away when I was 12; I wanted to get something to commemorate her by, so I got her name phonetically spelled in Hindi on my right arm.” 

Aaron Gosser, Associate Professor of Studio Art, has multiple tattoos, all in type. Two standing out specifically are the words, “choice,” and “TRUTH”.

Explaining the “choice” tattoo, Gosser said he was greatly impacted by John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” and the Genesis 4 story of Cain and Abel.

“The idea of this choice to be overcome or overcome sin that free will has necessitated all this pain, evil, ugliness — free will is responsible for this world in which we live, and everything kind of flows out moment by moment from our choices,” he said.

Gosser has another tattoo on his arm of the word “TRUTH” in all capital letters framed by a crown. 

He said, “There is that which supersedes, undermines my own concepts. There is an absolute to life, to existence, that makes relative my own choice. I like that those [two tattoos] are on opposite sides. Truth is king, there is an ultimate reality. It’s sort of fun, I’ve gotten into all sorts of interesting conversations because of both of those, but definitely the truth.”

A theme arising in all three conversations was the idea of tattoos as a tool for witnessing and sparking conversations with nonbelievers. Gosser pointed out that most conversations he’s had surrounding his tattoos have been with unbelievers. For Waywood, a social worker, her tattoos help her connect with her clients. 

Waywood said, “My tattoos help me a lot with my clients because most of my clients have tattoos. [Having tattoos] helps me connect with them more because they see me more on their level than as a pious, high-and-mighty Christian.” 

Because of the artistic nature of his tattoos, Mattackal has been able to have many conversations with non-Christians. He shared that many people of the world believe that Christians are uptight. So, some people are surprised when they see a Christian with tattoos as it makes them perceive the Christian as being more laid back than they expected. 

“I can tell them my testimony,” Mattackal said. “I think there are a lot of cases where tattoos can help other people who are not Christian empathize with you because they don’t expect to see Christians with tattoos.”  

Is the idea that Christians are against tattoos an accurate one? It depends. For Gosser, who got his tattoos after college and attends a church where most attendees have tattoos, there were no negative reactions from his church or community to his tattoo. 

Waywood and Mattackal’s experiences were a bit different. Waywood met with resistance and unapproval from her extended family, who are Catholic, and the Evangelical church she used to go to.

Waywood experienced negative stigma around the fact that she was a woman with tattoos. “Tattoos are typically seen as masculine,” she explained. “If I was a man in the military it would be more acceptable than as a 16-year-old girl in high school.”

While there was some support in her community, it was split between the approving and disapproving.

She further remarked that different denominations and countries have “their own stigmas, their own thoughts on tattoos. I think it’s just a lot of the traditionalist views you find in the evangelical church.” 

According to Gosser, views that people have of tattoos is dependent largely on context. 

“Where we live, here, in the middle of the cornfield, we tend to be a pretty conservative sect,” he said. “It makes sense that people might be a little resistant.” 

Mattackal had a similar perspective, remarking that in contemporary Christian circles tattoos are very common.  But in other places tattoos are seen as unprofessional. In these places, he believes that tattoos are viewed as a symbol of a secular culture. 

Mattackal experienced some apprehension coming from his “conservative, Christian, Indian [family and community]” about his tattoos, but only initially. 

He said, “in the end, it’s just skin-deep…After a couple of weeks, they all got over it.” 

Historically, Leviticus 19:28, which forbade the Israelites from getting tattoos, has been brought up in debates over whether or not Christians should have tattoos. Waywood admitted that there are historically negative connotations surrounding tattoos but pointed out that the argument that says tattoos are sinful is taking scripture out of context. 

Verses such as Leviticus 19:28, however, were referencing historical tattoos aligning with witchcraft. In contrast, today, tattoos aren’t generally associated with witchcraft and pagan practices. 

Waywood said that she would obviously never want a tattoo of something like swastikas or witchcraft, but tattoos pertaining to the grace of God in her life are something entirely different. 

Waywood said, “I think there’s something really beautiful about having permanent reminders about God’s grace etched on my body. We all kind of have our own scars that we carry in a lot of ways, and we don’t consider scars sinful. And I don’t think God considers tattoos sinful, either.” 

The general consensus was that tattoos are a form of art. Since they’re permanent, it’s advisable to think through whether or not you want to get one, but a tattoo can glorify God and be a useful tool for witnessing to people. 

Gosser views tattoos as art and art always has meaning. Good design glorifies God, who is the ultimate designer. 

Gosser said, “We create because we are placed here as tenders of this garden, that’s our whole purpose. That was the original purpose in us, cultivating. And how do we cultivate but through design? We do this everywhere; any kind of aesthetic undertaking is a part of the initial purpose we’ve been given. Of course tattoos can fall into that.”

Maggie Walker is a junior Political Science major. She loves both spontaneous and planned adventures with friends, art, dinosaurs, green tea, and indulging in the occasional rant, political or otherwise.

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