US Catholic Faith in Real Life

A journey in ink

Tattoos, overtly religious or not, reflect people's identity, their relationship with God, and their journey toward something larger than themselves.

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I’m used to strangers stopping me in public. “What kind of bird is that on your arm?” they ask. “I’ve never seen a tattoo like that.”

The tattoo in question is a small black-and-white chickadee—a couple of inches tall—on my right bicep. And I’m comfortable answering questions about what kind of bird it is, when and where I got it, and whether it hurt. It’s the questions about why I chose to have this image permanently and indelibly drawn on my body that always throw me for a loop. Not because I’m unwilling or unable to reply, but because the answer means sharing something very personal about myself with a total stranger.

I got my tattoo after my grandfather died. The chickadee was my grandma’s favorite bird, and my grandfather, a natural mimic, would often greet me with its call. The image on my arm is a constant reminder of my close relationship with both my grandparents. 

But it’s also more than that. It reminds me of where I came from—that my family is not just two grandparents but a whole clan of aunts and uncles and cousins, not to mention the other side of my family. Each has had a role in making me who I am today. My tattoo reminds me of the importance of living fully in my body—of being present and taking care of myself as a child of God. It reminds me that I’m connected to the chickadees of the world, as well as the rest of creation, and that we are all connected by the presence of God. 

But how do I translate this—my relationship with my family, my faith, and my identity—into a 15-second elevator speech on the train or in the grocery store? 

My tattoo, as simple as it is, reflects some of the deepest truths about me. And, without fail, the people I spoke to for this story all said the same thing: Their tattoos, overtly religious or not, reflect their identity, their relationship with God, and their journey toward something larger than themselves. Elizabeth Huff, a high school counselor in Atlanta, sums up the words I heard over and over again:

“I like to honor the places I’ve come from and how they’ve shaped me as a person. I use my tattoos as a way to remember important periods in my life as I move forward, in the same way that people create art. And yet, this is something I carry on me always, instead of something that’s in a collection of poems or a portfolio. To me, that makes the meaning inherently more powerful; this is something I’m willing to carry on me forever.” 

A brief history of tattoos

Tattoos have been around for nearly as long as humans—about 200,000 years. Take Otzi, the “Iceman” mummy found in the Alps, who lived around 3,300 B.C.E. 

He had tattoos that are thought to have been treatment for arthritis. And long before any stereotypes about tattooed sailors or burly motorcyclists, there’s the book of Leviticus. Tucked between prohibitions against “rounding off your hair at the temples” and making your daughter a prostitute is the following verse: “You shall not make any gashes on your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you” (19:28). 

Today, many Christians continue to use this as justification against tattoos or permanent body markings of any kind.

Perhaps partially because of Leviticus, negative stereotypes about tattoos still abound. As recently as 2007 a study found that women with tattoos were seen as less attractive and more promiscuous than non-tattooed women. In New York City, tattoo parlors were illegal from 1964 until as recently as 1997. According to an article in the New York Times, city legislators cited not only the risk of disease from unsanitary needles, but also the possibility that young people would forever regret a hasty decision to get a tattoo. 

Apart from all the negative stereotypes, there is also a rich history of Christian tattooing. Coptic Christians, for example, have been marking their bodies with crosses and Christian symbols since the eighth century. Today, the Razzouk family, a family of tattoo artists in Jerusalem, continues that ancient tradition. They have been tattooing pilgrims in the Old City of Jerusalem for over 250 years, bringing their family tradition—already close to 500 years old by that point—from Egypt when they relocated for trade. 

According to the family’s website, the history is a long and storied one. Visitors to the Holy Land (including crusaders) have been getting Christian tattoos to commemorate their visit since at least as early as the 1500s, and possibly earlier. The current tattoo artist—Wassim Razzouk—uses the same kind of handmade stencils his ancestors used. The stamps depict various religious designs and are used to transfer the art onto people’s skin before tattooing. 

Today the popularity of “pilgrimage tattoos” is declining. Fewer and fewer are finding their way into Wassim Razzouk’s studio to be tattooed with a traditional design after visiting Old Jerusalem. But walk around any college campus, enter any restaurant or coffee shop, or even attend worship at any parish, and you’re bound to come across someone with a tattoo—even if it’s not visible. 

A 2010 Pew Research report found that 38 percent of Millennials (those born after 1980) have at least one tattoo—69 percent of those have more than one. Gen X isn’t far behind: 32 percent have tattoos.

Andrew McCarthy, a scholar who studied religion and tattoos before his death in April 2016, said that it makes sense that as tattoos become more popular in general, religious and spiritual tattoos are becoming more acceptable as well. He suggested that tattoos are a current example of the intertwined nature of religion and culture. “Religion depends on culture for the expression of its deepest insights and, as a process to mediate the events of life, culture draws on religious understandings to contextualize many of the most deeply impacting life experiences,” he wrote in an article for Imaginatio et Ratio. In other words, the search for ways to make sense of religious experiences or understandings is nothing new. And for experiences for which there are no words, people have to make use of the tools and languages of their time. Right now one of those tools is tattoos.

A different kind of pilgrimage

Catholic musician and writer Elise Erikson Barrett has a tattoo of the word awake on her right wrist along with a small scallop shell. 

“It’s a reminder to not go into autopilot,” Barrett says. “To stay awake, to keep my soul awake, as Jesus says, and to stay present to the demands around me. The scallop shell is a symbol of baptism, my belonging to Christ, and my identity as God’s daughter.”

She got it after her husband, who is now deceased, had gone through a year of chemotherapy for non-Hodgkins lymphoma while she was caring for him and their three small children. Barrett says she realized that she needed to rediscover who she was apart from her identities as caregiver, mother, and wife. “I realized that, like all of us, I had come into adulthood with certain patterns and unconscious assumptions about what made a good person and how I was supposed to behave,” she says. When those patterns of behavior and ideas about who she was stopped working, she decided not to be ashamed for her emotions and feelings, regardless of whether they were “the sort of cheerful, good Christian emotions” she felt she should be having. “This was part of having a deep, real intimacy with God,” she says. 

Barrett describes her tattoo as marking a journey, albeit an emotional and spiritual pilgrimage rather than a physical one. Physical scallop shells were often given to pilgrims along the way on the St. James pilgrimage, or Camino de Santiago. “This time in my life felt like the kind of waystation I wanted to mark,” she explains. “It wasn’t the end-all and be-all of my discipleship, but it was really, really significant.”

Elizabeth Huff, the high school counselor, also describes her own tattoos in terms of a journey or pilgrimage. She’s in the process of designing a tattoo of two mountain ranges with a body of water in front and a trail winding up one of the mountains. Every part of this artwork is significant: The two mountain ranges represent Los Angeles, where she grew up and where her immediate family lives, and the Philippines, where her extended family lives; the water is the Pacific Ocean, connecting her two families; and the trail is the Appalachian Trail, which she hiked with her sibling.

For Huff, the pilgrimage was to find her way back to herself after a bad breakup. “I brought myself back through a lot of different things,” she says. “Part of it was being home with my family in L.A., part of it was a trip to the Philippines to see my extended family, and part of it was a trip that my sibling made out to Atlanta to spend time with me. I really wanted to mark that time in my life, to remember that I got through that and I could do it again, and that these are the people and places that care and that always have my back.”

There’s a common urge to commemorate a difficult time in your life to somehow make sense of what happened and how you survived. But, as McCarthy writes, “Suffering, especially pain, does not lend itself to direct encounter.” This means that people have to use their imagination and creativity to figure out how to express their pain, how to journey through it, and how to heal. And, for some people, this creativity is best expressed through tattoos.

A visible reminder

The idea of pilgrimage may be a common refrain for Christians who get tattoos, but the reasons behind people’s tattoos go deeper. There’s something compelling and important about looking in the mirror every morning and having your innermost convictions—your faith and your relationship with God—look back at you, in concrete and visual form.

Brittany Baechtle, who lives in Pennsylvania, has a tattoo on the top of her foot that reads Τετέλεσται, Greek for “it is finished,” and Christ’s last words on the cross according to the Gospel of John. For Baechtle, the tattoo is a reminder of our salvation through Jesus. “I get to live in the grace of that,” she says. “There’s nothing I have to earn or do, no checking off the box.” This belief in God and faith in Christ is at the very depth of who she is, Baechtle says, so she didn’t hesitate to mark the word on her body.

Baechtle explains the meaning of her tattoo further: “The grammar means ‘an event that took place at a certain place in time, but the impact of which continues to expand outward.’ So, those were the words of Jesus on the cross, but the implications continue in my life today.”

For Baechtle, getting a tattoo meant permanently marking herself with something that was central to how she understood herself; her belief is at the very depths of who she is. “It’s a way to express something that people wouldn’t see on the outside, but that is more my true self than what I look like or what I wear. It reflects a true permanence,” she says.

Huff also says that her tattoos reflect personal truths about herself that might not be obvious to the casual observer—both religious and otherwise. One of her current tattoos incorporates the sun from the Filipino flag with the Islamic crescent and a Jewish Star of David. She talks about the importance of commemorating her ethnic heritage and her academic background. “In my head I’m just me, and yet when I go out into the world, people don’t see certain things about me,” she says. “I look very white, and I have people I’ve worked with for two years who don’t realize that I’m half Filipino. My tattoo is a good reminder to myself that even though I look white and people don’t always see it, I am Filipino.” Speaking about why she chose stars as a motif for the tattoo, she continues: “We have particles in us that could only exist from exploded stars. We think of stars as these really far away things that are really beautiful but in the sky. But we are intimately connected to all those things out there.” 

Huff studied both chemistry and religion in college, and the tattoo symbolizes the coming together of these two sometimes seemingly disparate disciplines. It reminds her to live out these commitments: “I’m in a job that isn’t directly connected to my major, but I definitely look for chances to use that information, to be aware of religion in everything,” she says.

The idea of tattoos as a reminder and mark of identity is nothing new. In Inked: Tattoos and Body Art around the World, Margo DeMello writes that slaves in the Roman Empire were often tattooed as a sign of ownership. This may have been one of the reasons early Christians—and Jews—were against tattoos. While tattoos were often used to mark a person as belonging to a specific group, Christians, on the other hand, understood themselves as belonging only to God. 

However, if tattoos suggest identity, then Christian groups have also used this practice to reinforce the idea of their own unique religious belonging. Take the Montanists, for example, an early Christian sect that used tattoos to mark themselves as God’s slaves. A few hundred years later, according to DeMello, Pope Hadrian I and the 787 Council of Northumberland validated the use of tattoos for maintaining Christian identity. Christian tattoos, they determined, unlike “pagan” ones, were not only allowed but also laudable, as they glorified God.

The body of God

Part of the conflict or uncertainty surrounding tattoos in Christianity has to do with the fact that we are embodied beings who believe in an incarnate God. Bodies are important in Christianity. They are how we worship, how we sing, pray, and make the sign of the cross. Athanasius wrote, “By the greatness and the beauty of the creatures, proportionately the Maker of them is seen.” In other words, without creation—without bodies—we would have no way to understand or experience the glory of God. Bodies are so important that God became a human in the incarnation. 

The Bible, along with much of Christian history and theology, teaches us that bodies are worth preserving and cherishing as part of God’s creation, God’s plan for us. 

The disagreement comes over what “cherishing” means. Elise Barrett sums up several conversations she’s had regarding her shell tattoo. “Some people believe I shouldn’t be marking my body because it’s God’s to mark,” she says. “There are two ways of looking at it: Your body is God’s and to mark it yourself is taking on a privilege that’s not yours. Or, we have ownership over our bodies’ soul and minds. And I chose to make a statement in a physical, indelible way; I chose to make that the body I have belongs to not me, but to God.”

Barrett points out that tattoos aren’t the only kinds of reminders we carry with us. “Our bodies don’t get out of life without being marked,” she says. “We’re marked by the passage of time, by accidents, by childrearing, by aging. I can look at my body and I can trace my own history.” She compares her tattoos to her C-section scars, saying that for her, tattoos are just a more intentional way of marking her body’s journey. 

When I chose to get my tattoo, I did so with the words of Psalm 139 in mind, the psalm that I read at both my grandparents’ funerals: “You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (13–14). The chickadee on my arm is a reminder of God’s role as creator and the fact that God is still fully present in creation. My grandparents, the real-life chickadees, and I are tied together by God’s love and care for all of creation. Like Barrett and Huff, my tattoo reminds me that I am part of something far bigger than myself.

Baechtle puts the connection between tattoos and God’s incarnation more simply: “It’s the word made flesh,” she says.

This article also appears in the December 2016 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 81, No. 12, pages 26–30).

Published: 
Tuesday, November 29, 2016