Tattoos and Religion

Published: 22 May, 2010 - Featured in Skin Deep 124, August, 2005

Judaism takes a very strong stance on the subject of tattooing. It is written in the pages of the Leviticus ‘you will not do an incision on your flesh and you will not write signs on your body.

It is undeniable that today, tattooing is a very fashionable and big business. Middle or senior management, teenager, men and women, from all types of backgrounds, are now being tattooed with all sorts of images and in all places on the body.


Some of these individuals wear some very religious symbols.


Did you know that many criminals in the past had the image of Christ tattooed on their backs to avoid being lashed as many authorities were not very keen on lashing the face of Christ! Many religions condemn tattooing and look up on it as blasphemous and a violation of the body, yet an awful lot of people wear religious symbols to express their faith.


The tradition of the tattoo is not a new one and indeed, the first signs of tattooing appeared some 5000 years before Jesus Christ. These ancient markings were found inscribed on bodies unearthed from Japanese tombs.


Humans of many tribes and races used tattoos to help them pass on to the afterlife smoothly. In many primitive populations, this is still 

the case.


Tattoos also have sociological functions such as medicinal, magical and often ritualistic, empowering the wearer with extra powers to overcome a daunting task or illness.  Meanwhile in some religious societies, the tattoo is not accepted and more often than not, banned.


The Koran forbids the tattoo, even if some Muslim people still practise it. On the other hand, people practising Hinduism quite often get the image of Shiva (the Hindu god of destruction) tattooed on their forehead. Also in Buddhism, you can often see practitioners wearing a small Buddha tattoo on their wrist or back.


Judaism takes a very strong stance on the subject of tattooing. It is written in the pages of the Leviticus ‘you will not do an incision on your flesh and you will not write signs on your body’. Many people wear the Swastika, which far from being the image of evil associated with the Nazis, it is actually a symbol of peace and regeneration used by the Jews, Picts and many other faiths. Most who see a Swastika tattoo believe that it is worn for fascist reasons. This usually isn’t the case.


As far as Christianity is concerned the definitions are less clear. At the time of the persecutions, some Christians would wear an anchor, a lamb or a fish in order to be recognised as follower of the faith. In 789 the then Pope, Adrian 1st forbid the practise of tattooing and this slowed the global spread of the art somewhat although there were some who went ‘underground and continued to tattoo. For many Christians, there are many symbols such as the cross or the face of Christ or a lamb to affirm their faith in God.


These and many other religious symbols; the cross, dove, lamb and the image of Christ or his mother the Virgin Mary. These images have enabled some very talented tattooists to create some visually stunning pieces of art on the skin.


Religious tattoos are also worn as a talisman like the tattoos worn by the Karen People, fighting for its independence against the Birman army. Their tattoos allegedly protected them against the enemy’s bullets. The Berber people believe that certain tattoos can give them protection from illnesses. Samoans use tattoos to fight against rheumatism and some tribes in Africa believe tattoos ward off eye infections, headaches, dog bites, snakebites or drowning. 


Throughout history tattooing has played a big part in the lives of many religious people and I suppose you could say that tattoos were the first form of vaccination!


Text and Photos: Daniel Pissondes


Skin Deep 124 1 August 2005 124