The Body of Christ and Tattoos: Is It a Sin?

A Vatican university held a surprising conference on Dec. 6. The event discussed tattoos and their impact on forming identity. Lots of interesting history was explored indicating that tattooing have deep roots across various cultures.

Warriors from the First Crusades in the 11th century would sometimes mark themselves with tattoos of crosses on their foreheads or shoulders to testify to the divine support of their mission. Mystics throughout history would brand them “stigmata,” or wound marks of Jesus from being crucified. Coptic Christians in the Middle Ages bore the cross as a symbol of strength during persecution.

"Into the Skin: identity, symbols and history of permanent body marks" was a collaboration between a Christian arts association and Israel’s ambassador to the Holy See. The study of tattoos is a fairly new one in deep academic study and even more interesting to find a Jewish expert considering Judaism’s restriction of tattooing.

Tattoos "can symbolize a social rank, identify ethnic affiliation, indicate experience of religious pilgrimage or of a rite of passage," Ambassador Mordechay Lewy, said at the conference held at the Vatican's Pontifical Urbaniana University. "They can also be a sign of rebellion or diversity." Lewy’s statements are evident through the usage of tattoos in Europe during the Holocaust. And even today, in the Shubra district in Cairo, where some Christians have traditionally inked crosses to their wrists.

Lewy definitely enlightened the attendants of the conference. "I was gobsmacked," said Jane Caplan, an Oxford historian. There is much to be said about the cultural significance and role of tattoos, however, some of its usage today may not reflect this history.

Popular culture has made tattoos a trendy custom of artistry and self-expression. In August 2011, Miley Cyrus added to her various tattoos with a tiny one on her finger. She inked an equal sign and a statement of all love being equal, including that between gay couples. Rapper Eve, famously inked paws on her breasts. Soccer star, David Beckham now has ten roses around his arm to commemorate his 10th wedding anniversary with wife, Victoria Beckham.

Tattoos have morphed into a more profane and self-initiated practice. And though this trend seems harmless and fun, how should a Christian respond to getting inked?

The Word of God says in Leviticus 19:28-- “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.”

Some stars have incorporated religious meaning into their tattoos. Demi Lovato has a myriad of body art, including a cross, and most recently, the word “Faith” across her forearm. Disney actor, David Henrie, has two New Testament verses on his arm. Justin Bieber has the name “Jesus,” written across his rib in Hebrew characters.

What can be said about being inked… even when it does suggest Christian symbolism? What if I want to get a cross to remind me of Jesus’ sacrifice for me, is that wrong? “The question is not necessarily ‘is getting a tattoo a sin?’ The question is more ‘is getting a tattoo a good and necessary thing to do?’” wrote on their website, in response to a similar question.

Therefore, the best solution would be to pray about whether your desire is something constructive. Even in the olden days, Coptic Christians in the Middle East had reasons for marking themselves. “In times of persecution, the tattoo of the cross has given strength to the faithful and has made it impossible for them to deny their faith,” Coptic scholar Otto Meinardus once said.

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