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The History of Tattooing

Tattooing has been around much longer than most people think. Most people envision natives, with tribal tattoos, or sleazy parlors on the wrong side of the tracks filled with bikers and sailors, but that’s not even close to where it started. Scientists found a man, “the ice man”, said to be the oldest man ever found intact that dated to the prehistoric era, and he had tattoos. And there were also the Egyptians who were masterful tattooists. Usually only the upper class, priests and priestesses had tattoos. The women wore tattoos on their bellies to ensure fertility, and many of the priestesses were heavily tattooed, especially on the face.

In the years of the Roman Empire tattooing was almost wiped off the face of the earth in civilized cultures. Barbarians were the only ones that sported tattoos, and to wear a tattoo was an offence punishable by death. The Romans believed that the body was to remain in its purest form and tattoos had no place in this ideal. Roman soldiers encountered many tattooed barbarians in their conquests for Rome and needless to say the soldiers began bringing tattoos back into the mainstream. Christianity soon came along and with it the secrecy of an underground religion in a Roman state of intolerance.

Christians began tattooing crosses on the underside of their forearms as a secret sigh to other Christians. This was a bold statement of their faith, although secret, a Christian caught with a cross tattoo would be killed in short time. History has shown that tattooed individuals were set apart from the norm, being a priest, royalty, a criminal, and a slave. But times have changed. Exit the drunken sailor, lovesick adolescent, and occasional Pharaoh. 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 disfigures the body, 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, California, 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. 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, according to researchers Lori Jensen and Donald Miller of Southern California and Richard Flory of Biola 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”–a comment most scholars attribute to Paul’s having undergone some form of beating as a consequence of his belief.

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 tattooing have met with limited success. Pilgrims to Jerusalem up until modern times marked themselves with Christian symbols to commemorate their journey, the three researchers

The surge toward tattooing among evangelical youth is seen as part of a larger movement of growing evangelical churches to welcome youth through providing cultural settings they are comfortable with, from adding rock-and-roll musical styles in 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 in inscribing images on their own “private temple of the Holy Spirit,” Jensen, Flory and Miller state.

And: “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. ” Jensen noted that 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. ” A doctoral student at Southern California, Jensen is not only a tattoo researcher but also a devotee.

She has religious tattoos on various parts of her body. Her upper back bears 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. “

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