The History Of This Sublime Paradox
A hundred years ago, and you would have been very hard pressed to find anyone
wearing a Christian tattoo design. As a part of history, tattoos have been most
often frowned upon by not only the Christian clergy, but also the Jewish and
Muslim faiths. Because of a Bible verse tucked into the book of Leviticus which
states (in the new Message translation written to modern language):
||Lev 19:28 "Don't gash your bodies on behalf of the dead. Don't tattoo
yourselves. I am GOD.”
…the art itself was forbidden to the followers of the faith and has only
recently been reclaimed by the younger men and women of America and across the
whole face of the earth.
The History of the Christian Tattoo Designs
Despite the protestations of parents, preachers, teachers and bosses decrying
the practice of getting any tattoos, even Christian themed ones, the modern
youth seem to have reclaimed this ancient art and use it to worship God, Jesus
and or the Holy Spirit. And while Christians still face dirty looks and a loss
of credibility with some folk simply because they have tattoo, that’s
nothing compared with the displeasure that their tattoos would have cause decades,
centuries and millennia ago.
However, there is historical documentation of Christian inspired tattoos dating
as far back as the late 5th Century. Then, a man by the name as Manim, had the
following phrase tattooed on his thigh: “Manim, the disciple of Jesus
Christ”. Half of a century later, Procopious of Caesarea reported that
several Christians of the later half of the 6th century wore tattoos of crosses
or Christ’s name on their arms. Later, in 787, at the Council of Calcuth
in Northumberland, a report of the Papal legates mentioned two different tattoos.
The first were tattoos given in honor of pagan superstitions, and were forbidden
to be worn among Christians. The later were tattoos worn or given for the sake
of God, and for these were mentioned certain, unspecified heavenly rewards for
During the Crusades, Crusader knights were often tattooed with a picture of
a small cross design on their hands or arms to show that they desired a Christian
burial. Also around this time, people embarking on holy pilgrimages to the Holy
Land and other distant places would often get a tattoo during their absence
in an attempt to prove that their claims of a pilgrimage were true.
When it comes to modern Christian tattoo, it can most likely be traced back
to the times of the counterculture movement of the 60’s and 70’s.
While sex, drugs, and rock and roll were waging a war against Christian culture,
devoted Christians emerged who wanted to claim back lost Christian territory.
One of the ways that they did this was to reclaim the practice of tattoo for
God and Jesus, by getting tattoos that were inspired by Christian and religious
symbols and images.
Popular Tattoo Designs Among Christians Today
Despite the opposition that young tattooed Christians faced from parents and
ministers, it seems that their diligence has paid off. No longer are tattoos
so widely viewed as evil, pagan proofs. As a matter of fact, Christians today
have several logical justifications for their tattoos.
- Christians claim a freedom from the words of Leviticus based on the freedom
from the Law that came through Christ’s atonement of our sins. This
is a fact mentioned by the apostle Paul numerous times throughout the New
- In a humorous line found on the website of the Christian Tattoo Association
said: “You shall not…tattoo any marks on you…” obviously
means don’t do it yourself, see a professional.
- Another popular argument for Christian tattoo refers to the mention that
our bodies are the temples of God. If this is so, then Christian tattoos are
serving in place of stained glass windows and frescoes.
- Finally, supporters for Christian tattoo refer often to the Book of Revelation
to several references that could translate to Jesus wearing marks like a tattoo,
and us receiving the marks of our new names, and the seal of God.
If you’re looking for inspiration for a Christian inspired tattoo design,
here is a gallery of symbols that have played a big part in the Christian faith.
- The Cross: Available in several different designs and variation, crosses
have become a favorite among Christians with tattoo. In addition, many of
the separate denominations of Protestant Christians have their own church
emblem or seal which contains a cross.
- The Peacock: The peacock was used as an early symbol of the resurrection
by Christians in history. Each time the peacock sheds his feathers, the new
feathers far surpass the old ones in their beauty.
- The Lily: This flower design often appears in connection with the Easter
season and has come to symbolize immortality and eternal life.
- The Phoenix: This mythical bird, whose life cycle was a constant series
of fiery death and rebirth from the ashes, was also a popular Christian sign
for the resurrection.
- Wheat Heads (generally three of them): This design represented the Bread
- The Pelican: This water bird became a symbol of atonement to early Christians
because it was believed that pelicans would draw blood from their own breast
in order to feed their young.
- The Palm Leaf: While alluding to Jesus’ greeting and worship upon
his arrival into Jerusalem for his final Passover, the Palm Leaf is also a
symbol of heavenly reward.
- The Shepherd: Often drawn with the Shepherd carrying a lamb over his shoulders,
this image served as a reminder of Jesus’ loving care as our heavenly
- The Triquetra: Easier to understand when illustrated, this geometrical
design is composed of one continuous line that creates 3 equal arcs (each
arc generally triangular in design) with was used to explain eternity in a
continuous form, and the indivisibility of the Trinity.
- Nimbuses: Also known as halos, nimbuses are often used in conjunction with
pictures of Jesus, Mary, the apostles, saints and martyrs.
- I.N.R.I.: This Latin inscription appeared on the head of the cross and
says “Jesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum, or “Jesus of Nazareth, King
of the Jews”.
- The Ship: Showing an image of a ship sailing through rough and stormy sees,
this tattoo design speaks of the churches ability to sail unscathed through
all perils and still remain alive and well.
- The Lamp: Often depicted as the typical oil lamp you associate with genies,
the lamp signifies the Word of God.
- Fish: Everyone has seen the Christian fish, on cars, arms, legs, back,
mailboxes, business signs – it shows up every where. Early Christians
used it to identify one another by one person drawing an arched line in the
sand with a stick or toe. If the other person was a believer, they would complete
the design. The fish was used for this reason because in Greek, the first
letter in their translation of “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior”
spells out the Greek word for fish (ICTHUS).
- The Candlestick: An image that proclaims to the world that you follow Jesus,
“the Light of the World”.
- The Dove: Associated with God’s spirit resting on Jesus during his
baptism, the dove is now generally associated with the Holy Spirit of the
- 3 Intertwining Circles: If you’re looking for a Christian symbol
to incorporate into a tribal or Celtic tattoo design, this just might do this
trick. These three equal sized interwoven circles symbolize equality, unity
and the co-eternal nature of the 3 persons of the Godhood.
Other popular Christian designs include the image of the crown and the cross;
a bunch of grapes (which symbolizes communion); a burning torch (“let
your light so shine among men”); the crown of thorns and the butterfly,
whose mystical metamorphosis has been used time and time again to represent
the falling away of the Old Man and the birth and flourishing of the New Man
There is no end to the number and scope of the designs that can be used in
Christian tattoos, and the selection of places to put them are nearly as great.
The most important thing is to listen to your heart, and go where the Spirit