Religious Tattoos - Combination of Modern Art and Spirituality

Site of Gorlivka and Slavyanskiy diocese

October 1 is World Tattoo Day. Archpriest George Tsyganov, head of the diocesan department for cooperation with the penitentiary service, rector of St. John of Kronstadt Church in Kirovskoye, told about whether it is possible to participate in the sacraments of the Church with tattoos and whether there are Orthodox tattoos.

Tattoo as a ritual

The Church has a somewhat negative attitude towards tattoos. Tattoos have been known since ancient times. There is an opinion that the first tattoo appeared by accident. Some person had a wound, dirt got there and stayed there. Almost all miners who work underground have such "tattoos" now. Coal dust gets into the incisions and marks remain.

In ancient times, tattoos had different meanings. First, informational: seeing a certain tattoo, a person understood what kind, tribe his interlocutor was from, what status he was in. The second meaning was mystical: a person tried to use it as an amulet, thinking that this particular tattoo would protect him from some illnesses. The third meaning was ritual, magical: these are the tattoos that priests, chiefs made themselves.

In the Old Testament we meet a ban on the use of such tattoos. The book of Leviticus says: "For the sake of the deceased, do not make cuts on your body and do not tattoo writing on yourself. I am the LORD (your God)" (Leviticus 19:28). The book of Deuteronomy also forbids them: "You are sons of the LORD your God; you shall not make cuts [on your body] [or hair over your eyes after you have died" (Deuteronomy 14:1). That is, the Gentile tribes had such rituals to commemorate the dead. The Pentateuch of Moses explicitly forbids this so that the Jewish people would not follow barbaric traditions that led to ritual murder and other abominations.

Places for Religious Tattoos

Before getting a tattoo, it is necessary to carefully study the rules of application.

In Islam, for example, it is considered unacceptable to place religious objects below the waist. This also applies to tattoos, so they are done on the torso. The popularity of religious tattoos on the chest. Often they are done in the heart area. This is an indicator of sincere faith.

Orthodox and Catholic tattoos involve images of people. Therefore, they require a large surface area. In this case, religious tattoos on the back will look advantageous. This can be the wings of an angel, a scene from the Bible or the text of a prayer. In any case it looks spectacular.

Equally popular are religious tattoos on the arm. Most often the shoulder or forearm is chosen. A religious sleeve tattoo will attract attention.

Smaller tattoos look good between the shoulder blades and on the neck.

But the tattoo on the religious theme on the legs is considered to be a mauvais ton and a disregard for religion. This choice of place is only allowed for pagan and Buddhist tattoos.

Religious tattoos can also serve a masking function. Tattoos on scars are one of the most popular choices. Biblical motifs or pagan paintings can easily cover up any scars.

And remember - tattoos and religion are not fun for a while. To make such an image on your body, you need to have a strong faith and be aware of the responsibility that such a tattoo entails. In most cases, people rarely think about it.

Nakolki in Russia.

Today in our country tattoo associated with the criminal world. Historically in Russia, it was so that ordinary people did not do them. Tattoos were common in Europe among sailors. When they went to sea, they tattooed crosses and icons on themselves, thinking that it would be their talisman. We did not have tattoos until the end of the 19th century. In tsarist times they were given to serfs and convicts. Certain symbols meant that the person was in hard labor. In the case of escape it was possible to calculate in this way.

It was not until Soviet times that the tattoo culture began to spread in criminal circles. In the 1990s, when Soviet power faded into oblivion, the criminal world changed dramatically. The "thieves in law" no longer had the power that they had. And now tattoos no longer carry a certain connotation. People began to tattoo them to stand out, to show their freedom to their parents or to society. A simple pride, a desire to stand out from others when there are no personal merits.

Chief of the Maori people Tuturei Kareva, late XIX - early XX century

Facts about tattooing:

  • In ancient Japan, a person with a tattoo was persona non grata: he was banished from family and society, condemning him to complete isolation. The tattoos on the bodies of criminals were usually prominently displayed and could even tell one in which prison they were serving their sentence.
  • In the Japanese province of Chukuzen during the Edo period (1603-1867), the punishment for the first offense was a horizontal line across the forehead, an arc-shaped one for the second, and another for the third. The result was a composition that made up the hieroglyph INU - "dog". To this day, a person who has a drawing on his body is forbidden to work in a public office, to bathe in public places.
  • In ancient China, one of the five classic punishments was also a tattoo on the face. Slaves and prisoners of war were also tagged, making it difficult for them to escape. To this day, incarceration facilities around the world have an elaborate system of prison tattoos that imprint a person's lifelong history of crime and incarceration.
  • The ancient Greeks and Romans also used tattoos for similar purposes, marking slaves. The practice was revived by the Spanish conquistadors in Mexico and Nicaragua.
  • Mayan women tattooed their faces, which was considered a sign of low origin.
  • The word "tattoo" is a borrowing from Polynesian languages. This is how the wild tribes living on the islands of Polynesia called tattoos on the body. This method of "decoration" was first scientifically described during his voyage around the world by English explorer James Cook in 1773. He used the word from the language of the natives, as there was no such concept in European languages.
  • From his voyage, James Cook brought back not only his notes, but also the "Great Omai," a Polynesian covered entirely in tattoos. The appearance of such a marvel caused a sensation in European cities. No self-respecting performance, fair or traveling circus was without the participation of the "noble savage.
  • It was from traveling circuses that the fashion for tattooing went to the masses. Since the natives were not always available, the circus performers painted themselves with tattoos. So, at the beginning of the XIX century, a certain lady Viola flaunted portraits of six American presidents, Charlie Chaplin and many other celebrities, causing the delight of the crowd and making money on it. In parallel, in the same nineteenth century, laborers of the artels began to put pigment marks on their bodies to indicate their fraternity, and sailors to commemorate their voyages.
  • During the First World War in Britain, the "D" tattoo was used to mark deserters.
  • Tattooing was practiced in the SS divisions. The main theme in the tattoos of soldiers of the Third Reich was Nazi symbolism. After the surrender of Hitler's Germany, the Allies easily recaptured the SS through external inspection.
  • Islam prohibits absolutely all tattoos, even those with religious content.
  • In ancient Israel tattooing as part of one of the pagan rituals was explicitly forbidden by one of the commandments: "For the sake of the dead do not make dashes on your body and do not tattoo writing on yourself. I am the LORD (your God)" (Leviticus 19:28, also Deuteronomy 14:1). This is the prescription of the Bible that Jews and Christians still adhere to today.

Why is the Church against tattoos?

Nowadays, tattoos with the faces of Christ, the Virgin Mary are being tattooed. People who have nothing to do with the criminal world think it will be a kind of their talisman. The Church has a negative attitude towards this. God created man to be perfect. Trying to add something to this perfection, we take upon ourselves the mission of God - trying to show that we know better than Him and are more able. Basically, those who make tattoos have a desire to show off, to distinguish themselves.

Does Tattooing Have a Place in the Church?

Coptic girl with a cross tattoo on her wrist. Photo: B. Armange / Associated Press


tattoo jesus

Although officially the church considers tattoos unacceptable. Nevertheless, religious motifs in tattoos are quite common. Orthodox tattoos include temples, churches, prayers, quotes from the Bible, icons, and the image of Jesus. It is not desirable to portray Jesus crucified on the cross, as he symbolizes the suffering and trials. Most often religious tattoos can be seen among prisoners - perhaps in this way they are trying to fill spiritual gaps. Outside of prisons, tattoos with angels, demons and battle scenes are more popular. Although they are religious, the subtext is not about faith, but about the struggle between good and evil inside a person.

Are tattoos in the form of a cross or an icon allowed?

Christians in the East have a tradition of tattooing. In Africa and the Middle East, Christians tattoo small crosses on their arms. They live in constant danger. The Muslim world is very aggressive toward Christians. In making this sign of the cross, Christians show the firmness of their faith and their readiness to walk with Christ even in death. In the event of death, this sign will help ensure that they are buried in a Christian manner.

This differs from our penitentiary tradition of embossing crosses all over the back - there is a small cross that is hidden somewhere under the clothes, like our personal cross. People around us cannot see it unless we specifically display it. At the same time, we know that this symbol of our faith is always with us.

In the twelfth century, the Arab conquerors who invaded Egypt began to forcibly convert Christians to their religion. One form of resistance to this was that Coptic Christians began to tattoo the image of a cross on the inside of their right wrist. Because Islam expressly forbids tattoos and because a tattooed cross cannot be removed, forcible conversion to Islam became impossible for Copts.

Centuries later, tensions between Christians and Muslims in the East have not disappeared. Christians still place a cross on their hands, as an expression of their preparedness to be martyred for Christ and their refusal to convert to Islam.

We will be held accountable for all of our actions. I met a lot of people, especially in the army, who had their arms tattooed. Then, when they came to faith, they were ashamed of the tattoo and didn't want people around them to see it. To remove it is a very painful process, and not many people would do it. A person who is just coming to God and wants to get a tattoo, I would advise him to consider whether he needs it. Any bracelet, medallion we can remove. One day I like it, and the next day I don't. A tattoo can't be taken off. Burning it out is very painful.


Tattoo Islam

In Islam, too, the attitude towards tattoos is also very cool. Although there are no strict recommendations in the Quran on this matter, there is an opinion that the body with a tattoo will never be clean enough to perform a prayer. In this case, the pigment is perceived as contamination. Nevertheless, in today's world few people strictly follow this rule and Islamic religious tattoos are becoming more and more popular. The most common motifs are the crescent moon, a mosque and prayers or suras from the Koran in Arabic. It is forbidden to depict people in Islam.

Orthodox symbols in criminal culture

We must also take into account the specifics of tattooing in our culture. In the criminal world, too, there is a tradition of tattooing crosses and icons. This tradition has its own subtext. Nowadays people don't always know what their tattoo means, what meaning it carries. And he can find himself in a situation where he is told about his tattoo what he does not know.

Thus, the image of domes went back to the 1930s. The domes mean that the person was sitting. Their number shows how many trips he had to the zone. Sometimes there is one dome, but the drum depicts several windows. In this case, the number of walks shows their number. The crosses, if they are pinned on the hands, also indicate the number of strokes.

The crosses on the domes also have their meaning. If the dome has a cross, it means that the prisoner has served from call to call, from the moment he was locked up until the last day of his sentence, without parole, which is given for good behavior. If the window on the dome is dark, it means that the person was in a solitary confinement cell. For people who have never been in prison, these images mean nothing. But for prisoners, it means that the person is protesting openly against the authorities and has been put in solitary confinement for that protest. Accordingly, the authority of this person in certain thieves' circles is raised.

Icons of Christ are usually taken out by convicts as amulets. This often happens when the inmate is just beginning to come to faith. He begins to think about spiritual matters. This tattoo is a sign of remorse. It is the beginning of his journey to God. This path does not necessarily end in churching. Such a tattoo can mean that the person came to faith in prison.

Any police operative is necessarily trained to recognize tattoos. There used to be a very strong tradition in the world of thieves of tattooing rings on fingers and the like, which were flaunted, because you can't hide your hands. Often crosses on the fingers indicated the number of trips. But sometimes they were tattooed and as a talisman.

Tattoos of the Mother of God also have ambiguous meaning. They are made by convicts as a talisman, they can be a sign of a person's repentance. The implication of such an image, which goes back to Soviet times, is that a person at a young age was on the path of thievery. A person needs to think about what this or that tattoo has in addition to the meaning that he wants to put into it.

There were cases when someone decided to brag to his friends, acted boldly, got tattoos, then went to prison for hooliganism, and there he was told that he did not have the right to wear certain tattoos - he had not yet reached that "level" in the criminal world. And such a man in prison was punished by fellow inmates: tattoos were burned off.

Does Tattooing Have a Place in the Church?

Cancer at the site of the tattoo

The dangers of tattooing are something that tattoo parlors usually gloss over or downplay

Poison under the skin

The red paint used for tattoos contains mercury sulfide; other shades contain titanium, chromium, lead and cadmium. Blue paint is considered the most dangerous. It includes cobalt and aluminum. Paraphenylenediamine and arsenic, the components of black ink, are no less dangerous. The last component can easily provoke cancer, and all the others poison the body and lead to muscle tissue damage. The pigments used in tattoo parlors are not controlled by health authorities.

Death at the end of a needle

Thousands of people have contracted HIV, hepatitis B and C through tattoo needles. So many viruses are not killed by boiling or other types of sterilization.

A cancer that might not have been there

It's not just the arsenic in the paint that causes it. A lot of people try to hide birthmarks and other skin defects with the help of tattoos. Meanwhile, to do so is strictly prohibited. In fact, not only a mole, but any tattoo under the influence of ultraviolet sunlight can provoke skin cancer.

According to a research conducted in Europe, one third of clients of salons and private masters faced with the negative effects of tattoos.


It is impossible to remove a tattoo without leaving a trace. Even with laser removal scars remain. With other means of removal the size of the scars will be larger than the size of the tattoo to be removed due to the destruction of the skin. In fact, to remove a tattoo is to lose a piece of one's own skin.

Tattoos in Judaism: Is it kosher?

Tattoos in Judaism are considered to be as wrong as eating pork, working on the Sabbath or breaking one of the most important commandments of the Torah, yet it is forbidden in the orthodox Jewish community. More secular members of Judaism, or people who identify themselves as Jews who do not follow tradition, can afford to have a tattoo relating to their religion and culture. The most common ones are Hebrew inscriptions from the Torah, the Star of David, menorah images of other attributes of Jewish culture.

The depiction of Jesus as a religious sub-context
Jesus on a guy's arm

Is it possible to participate in the sacraments of the Church with tattoos?

A tattoo can neither bring a person closer to God nor away from Him. There are no barriers to participation in the sacraments. There are a lot of people with tattoos in the prisons I care for. They have them, and there is nothing we can do about it. They will not understand why tattoos are condemned. Sometimes, on the contrary, a convict tattoos an icon of the Savior or the Mother of God as a sign that he has taken the path of correction. Maybe this tattoo will even help him in some way.

If a person has never been in prison, but has a tattoo, it would not be out of place to say in confession that he had a desire to stand out in his youth and had a tattoo. Often it is one of the manifestations of pride, and the confession will help the priest find the right approach to the person.

Tattoos in different religions

As we know, religious tattoos have their origins in paganism. People believed that every element has the gods and reflected their worship including body art. These might be amulets, images of idols or runes (Scandinavian and Slavic). Now the fashion for such images is returning, ethnic tattoos are popular among neo-pagans.

To the tattoo religion can be attributed and Polynesian patterns. Even though they look like ornaments, the Maori gave such images supernatural power, they believed that tattoos protect and preserve people.

With the advent of monotheism, the development of religious tattoos took a new turn. Tattoos were divided into different denominations and movements. And of course the main question is the attitude of religion toward tattoos.

Can a person with a tattoo be a priest?

Yes, he can. We even have an example of a tattooed priest, Ivan Okhlobystin. But a tattoo can make life difficult in the future. Our people have a very strong conviction that if a person has tattoos, it means he belongs to the criminal world. For a priest, if he has a tattoo on some open place, it can be very difficult to communicate with people. Some will be indifferent, but many will be alarmed.

A priest is usually looked upon as some kind of ideal person in whom everything must be perfect. People often do not want to take into account that he is a human being like the others, so a priest with tattoos can be in trouble. However, this will not alienate him from God.

Maria Tsyrlina interviewed.

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