Christian Student Perceptions of Body Tattoos: A Qualitative Analysis

By Firmin, Michael W.; Tse, Luke M. et al. | Journal of Psychology and Christianity, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Christian Student Perceptions of Body Tattoos: A Qualitative Analysis


Firmin, Michael W., Tse, Luke M., Foster, Janna, Angelini, Tammy, Journal of Psychology and Christianity


We used qualitative research methodology in appraising 24 evangelical Christian college students' perceptions (15 female and 9 male), voluntarily recruited, of their tattoo choices. After coding the transcribed interviews, four predominant themes emerged. First, students believed that the Bible did not forbid their tattooing practices. Second, special religious significances were ascribed to the tattoos' meanings by most of the participants. Third, few students described making rash decisions when becoming tattooed, but rather, thought through their decisions rather carefully. And finally, friends generally were encouraging of the participants' decisions to tattoo while family members were more discouraging. In sum, participants in our study did not portray rebellion or deviance in the choice to tattoo, but rather, viewed the decisions as spiritual expressions.

Tattooing has had a long and, albeit, controversial history. The practice of this art form has been documented in nearly every culture and used to communicate a number of messages, including group identity, religious commitment, and individuality (Armstrong, Owen, Roberts, & Koch, 2002). During the Greco-Roman era, Greeks and Romans used tattoos to punish or identify people as property (Schildkrout, 2004). Authors of antiquity, according to Schildkrout, condemned the practice, claiming it to be barbaric. Ancient literature was sometimes inscribed onto the skin of saints so as to preserve the Christian message and to serve as reminders of God's work for generations since the indelible messages would be seen by children and grandchildren. In the early days of Christian church history, many pilgrims traveling to the Holy land also adopted the practice of tattooing as a sign of religious observance. Nevertheless, most scholars of the Quran and the Bible have interpreted the sacred texts as prohibiting tattooing (Forbes, 2001). Among Christians, Scriptural passages such as "Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD" (Leviticus 19:28, New International Version) have been cited as direct prohibitions from God.

For the past century, Western societies have increasingly adopted the practice of tattooing. DeMeIIo (1993) indicated, that while most Western social leaders have continued to associate the practice with the rebellious, criminals, and sociopaths, some tattoo seekers in recent decades have shown differences from their predecessors. Tattooing has become more prominent in society and tattoos sometimes are accepted as a form of fashion statement. Tattoos sometimes are seen among fashion models, movie stars, and popular sports figures (Brown, Perlmutter, & McDermott, 2000). Several studies have noted that while only a small estimated percentage of the population sport tattoos on their bodies, its popularity is increasing. Up to 9% of the general population indicated that they have permanent tattoos. For adolescents, that percentage could be as high as 16% (Roberts & Ryan, 2002). Tattoo designs vary in complexity. Milkier and Eichold (2001) purported that "a tattoo is never just what the appearance is. ... Tattoos are indicators or little vents to [the owner's] psyche" (p. 429).

Visible tattoos are more likely to make an impression, whether good or bad, than tattoos that individuals choose to cover (Armstrong, Roberts, Owen, & Koch, 2004). Drews, Allison, and Probst (2000) found that men tended to have tattoos on their arms and shoulders, while women were likely to obtain tattoos on their backs. Tattoo designs typically ranged from the size of a quarter to the size of a small dinner plate. Common designs among the college-aged sample included flowers, celestial objects, butterflies, mottos, and reptiles.

In an effort to better understand the influences of image, identity, family, and friends on tattooing practices, Armstrong et al. (2002) gathered data from 520 college students, adolescents, career women, and military recruits. …

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