c. 1998 Religion News Service
UNDATED _ Exit the drunken sailor and lovesick adolescent. There is a new gang of marked men and women in tattoo parlor lore: evangelical Christians.
More than a millennium after church authorities condemned tattooing as”a form of deviltry”that disfigured the body, a new generation of evangelical youth are permanently altering their bodies with images of crosses, sacred hearts and angels.
From the”modern skin art”of Finest Lines in Wickliffe, Ohio, to joints like Sid’s Tattoo Parlor in Santa Ana, Calif., where all four artists are conservative Christians, Generation Xers are transforming a cultural fad into distinctive statements of faith.
Already, religious scholars are taking notice.”For a small but growing subculture within evangelical Christianity, religious tattooing is becoming an increasingly legitimate expression of individuality, identity and faith,”sociologists from the University of Southern California and Biola University said in a paper presented at the recent meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.
At Finest Lines, just down the street from St. Mary Seminary, tattoo artist Joe Mona said he might have done one or two religious tattoos a year a decade ago. In the last six months, he has done 50, he said.”It’s unbelievably popular these days,”Mona said.”The religious aspect … is taking off tremendously.” On a recent weekday morning, Brian Berry of Warrensville Heights, Ohio, walked into Finest Lines to get his first tattoo. Instead of a dragon or death skull, the 23-year-old Baptist in a muscle shirt chose a pair of praying hands with the initials”S.M.T.”_ short for”see me through”_ carved below.”I feel that prayer is a strong need in most people’s lives, especially my life,”Berry said as he waited for his tattoo.”By having hands on me, I will always have something about prayer on my body.” Operating out of the theological principle that the body is the”temple of the Holy Spirit,”conservative Christian churches have often set limits on bodily expressions, from”dirty dancing”to hair length to the acceptability of jewelry or makeup.
On the subject of tattooing, the Bible sends mixed messages, researchers Lori Jensen and Donald Miller of Southern California and Richard Flory of Biola noted in their study,”Marked for Jesus: Sacred Tattooing Among a `New Generation’ of Evangelicals.” The 19th chapter of Leviticus gives this divine mandate:”Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves.” Yet in his letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul says,”Let no one cause me trouble, because I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.”Other biblical passages from Exodus to Revelation describe divine symbols being placed on the bodies of believers.
Since the Emperor Constantine banned the practice in the third century because it”violated God’s handiwork,”attempts by religious authorities to prohibit the practice have met with limited success. Pilgrims to Jerusalem up until modern times marked themselves with Christian symbols to commemorate their journey, researchers said.
The surge toward tattooing among evangelical youth is seen as part of a larger movement of growing evangelical churches welcoming youth in cultural settings they are comfortable with, from adding rock ‘n’ roll musical styles to worship to relaxing dress codes.
Instead of looking to religious representations displayed on the stained glass windows of the local church, members of this new generation of evangelicals find meaning inscribing images on their own”private temple of the Holy Spirit,”Jensen, Flory and Miller state.”As a symbol of identity and individuality, an extreme expression of an extreme faith, religious tattooing among young evangelical Christians embodies _ literally _ their beliefs in a new and radical way,”researchers said.
Jensen said when she would ask evangelical youth why they were getting tattooed,”A lot of them were like, `I have my faith and this is a very strong expression of my faith, a permanent commitment.'” (OPTIONAL TRIM BEGINS)
A doctoral student at Southern California, Jensen is not only a tattoo researcher but a client.
She got her first tattoo at age 21 at the urging of a boyfriend. Now she has religious tattoos on various parts of her body. On her upper back is a sacred heart flanked by banners reading”grace”and”mercy.”On her hip is a large angel, and her lower back is covered with a Jerusalem cross surrounded by the words”approved unto God.”An ankle is tattooed with a symbol of the Trinity.”For me, it is very much a public symbol of my beliefs,”said Jensen, 24.”For me, it is a form of expression.” At Finest Lines, tattoos of a cloaked skull holding a dagger, topless women and grinning devils above the moniker”hot stuff”vie for wall space along with several options of pictures of Jesus and angels.
Mona said he does quite a few angel tattoos, with some young parents celebrating the birth of a child by putting the infant’s name with an angel. Others remember a deceased loved one with an angel tattoo.
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There may not be the same intense burst of romantic intoxication that leads young men to permanently inscribe the name of their current paramour on their bodies. But advocates of religious tattoos say the love between God and human beings may be the one kind that endures long enough to heed the warning of tattooists everywhere to young lovers:”Love lasts forever, but a tattoo lasts six months longer.” DEA END BRIGGS