With one in three people in the UK now having at least one tattoo, tattoos have become a popular fashion item. Research shows that Birmingham is the most tattooed English city – with 48% of ‘brummies’ having an average of six tattoos.
Tattoos have an ancient history. The mummified remains of a body found in an Alpine glacier, dated back to 3250 BC, had 61 tattoos. The modern custom of tattooing, however, probably stems from Captain James Cook’s voyages to the South Pacific in the late 18th century where his crew were greatly impressed by the Polynesian and Maori tattoos. Indeed, the modern English word ‘tattoo’ is derived from a Tahitian word.
Tattoos became popular with sailors in the 19th century: then 90% of British sailors sported a tattoo. Their tattoos told a story: a turtle meant you had crossed the equator, an anchor you had crossed the Atlantic, and a dragon you had served in a China station.
Some people think having a tattoo is a ‘working-class’ thing – but many prominent Brits have had tattoos. George V was tattooed with a blue and red dragon during a trip to Japan, while his father, Edward VII, had a Jerusalem Cross tattoo as a sign of pilgrimage. Winston Churchill had an anchor on his left upper arm while Clementine, his wife, had a snake on her wrist. Samantha Cameron (wife of former Prime Minister David Cameron) has a dolphin on her ankle.
Some ‘conservative’ Christians – mostly from the USA – said no Christian should have a tattoos on the basis that the ‘Holiness’ code of Leviticus apparently bans the modern practice of tattoos: “You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoos any marks upon you” (Lev 19.28). However, the tattoos in question had nothing to do with modern ‘body art’ but belonged to pagan mourning rituals, aimed at honouring the gods and ensuring a peaceful transition into the afterlife. So Old Testament scholar Jay Sklar comments (Leviticus, Tyndale/IVP Academic 2013): “Tattoos today – at least in Western cultures – do not have the same pagan associations as they did in ancient Israel”. Interestingly the use of Lev 19.28 as a ‘proof text’ against tattoos could be ‘countered’ with Isa 49.16 where God, speaking of his eternal care for Jerusalem, using a metaphor reminiscent of a modern tattoo: “See I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me”.
I find it significant that in the Early Church many Christians marked themselves tattoos – first as a sign of their faith and then later as a ‘souvenir’ of a Holy Land visit. True, not all Christian leaders were happy with this practice. The 4th century preacher Basil the Great said: “No man shall let his hair grow long or tattoo himself as do the heathen”. However, the 787 Council of Northumberland declared: “When an individual undergoes the ordeal of tattooing for the sake of God, he is greatly praised. But one who submits himself to be tattooed for superstitious reasons in the manner of the heathens will derive no benefit there from.”
Although I am no fan of modern body-art and would never consider having a tattoo myself, I see no reason in principle why Christians should be against tattoos. In fact earlier this year Pope Francis told a group of young people “don’t be afraid of tattoos”. He went on to say to priests present that tattoos could help them connect with the “culture of the young”. Not so long ago I read of a Lutheran pastor from Denver who had a range of extravagant Christian tattoos: Her left arm is like a cathedral window, covered in Biblical scenes. There’s a creation; a nativity; Jesus in the desert; the raising of Lazarus; the angel at the empty tomb; and Mary and the disciples at Pentecost. She now has the Annunciation tattooed all over her back.
So, if you want to share your faith with others, why not consider this Christmas having a tattoo featuring the manger scene or the name Emmanuel?