An interfaith conference on tattooing was held at a Vatican university on Tuesday, calling into question again the religiousness of tattoos.
"Into the Skin: Identity, Symbols and History of Permanent Body Marks" explored tattooing throughout history, from Egyptian skin art to marks on Crusaders and Christian preachers of today.
A Christian arts association and an Israeli ambassador collaborated to create the conference. The Jewish ambassador, Mordechay Lewy, said the conference was partly intended to look at what tattoos have meant in various societies, while contrasting those meanings to Scripture.
Lewy told the conference that tattoos "can symbolize a social rank, identify ethnic affiliation, indicate experience of religious pilgrimage, or of a rite of passage."
Christians have cited Biblical passages when denouncing tattoos. In the New American Standard Bible, Leviticus 19:28 reads: “You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead nor make any tattoo marks on yourselves: I am the LORD.”
But the context of that passage is important in understanding how tattoos once had a different connotation.
God is telling Israelites to reject the idolatrous tribes in the area and serve only Him. The passage also outlaws eating anything with blood, shaving sideburns and trimming beards – which were, ostensibly, all done by surrounding tribes.
"(Tattoos) can also be a sign of rebellion or diversity," Lewy said, calling into light one reason why many Christians reject tattoos.
Tattoos can signify a rebellion of government, religion, society, family and more. A tattoo that does not honor God – which of course is a subjective argument – is a sin, some Christians say.
Ephesians says to “honor your father and mother,” and a person may dishonor the wishes of his or her parents by getting a tattoo – but maybe not.
Indeed therein lies the crux of the issue. The Christian morality of a tattoo appears to rely on context and intent. If the tattoo glorifies God in any way, then it doesn’t violate any Biblical mandates.
The New Testament does not outlaw tattooing, but 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 does make a suggestion about bodily care: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.”
Whether a tattoo disturbs the temple that is the human body is a personal question. Christians can interpret the passage as they’d like, and some pastors not only appreciate tattoos, but have several of them.
Last year, a City Church in Anaheim pastor told his congregation that he would get a tattoo if attendance increased. When the attendance doubled, the pastor and several other church members got the church’s logo inked on their bodies.
Maori tribe expert Sean Mallon told the AP at the Vatican event that many in attendance weren’t just discussing the morality and history of tattoos, but that they were sporting skin art themselves.
"There are a lot of tattoos here," Mallon said. "They're just not visible."