Theresa Peters’s parents told her that she didn’t need any more holes in her head. With two earrings in each earlobe and her cartilage pierced, she had already exceeded the typical teenage freedom to alter her body. So when Theresa, now 23, who hails from Greendale, Wisconsin, came home with a new stud on her nose, her parents questioned her decision—and her motives. Contrary to her parents’ assumptions, those motives, Theresa explains, had less to do with rebellion and more to do with her faith.
Faith motivates many Christians who choose to pierce and tattoo their bodies. Some choose symbols that are outwardly Christian, like a crown of thorns or an ichthus, a symbol resembling a fish that early Christians used to identify themselves to each other. Others choose tattoos or piercings that have symbolic meanings not exclusively associated with the Christian faith, but still carrying deep personal significance. Their tattoos and piercings represent significant events, spiritual awakenings, or commemorate influential people in their lives.
Paul Huck, 21, from Elmhurst, Illinois, got his first tattoo after his grandfather died. He thought extensively about the decision. “I didn’t want to get a tattoo just for getting a tattoo,” he says. At the same time, his grandfather’s death had shaken Paul and he wanted to do something in response. For Paul, the tattoo he had etched into his side is “like a memorial” to his grandfather. Paul’s tattoo is in the shape of a shamrock. “It’s supposed to represent a bagpipe,” says Paul. “At the funeral they played the bagpipes. It was so cool,” he says, smiling at the memory. At the bottom of the image is the date of his grandfather’s death. Though Paul’s memorial may lack the grandeur of a granite statue, it too will remain, printed in his skin, always with him.
In the book of Joshua, God tells his forgetful people to remind themselves of what he has done. As they are walking through dry land across the Jordan River, because God has miraculously made a path for them, he tells them to pick up stones to remind themselves and their children of the things he has done. Physical reminders can help those who tend to forget the faithfulness of God. Similarly, those who mark their bodies can use their physical markings to recall what is important.
After a life-changing summer, Amber May, 22 from Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota, never wanted to forget what God had done for her. “I was learning who God wanted me to be,” she says, “it was like a transformation.” Amber realized that she had been hurtful to others and saw God change her in remarkable ways. “I realized I needed to change my life to honor God,” she says. After two years of contemplation, Amber chose a butterfly tattoo for her back to represent her drastic change. To Amber, the butterfly symbolized something ugly being completely made over into something beautiful.
Though Amber knew the significance of her tattoo long before she got it, sometimes the meaning of tattoos and piercings comes after the fact. Ashley Schindel, 23, of Seattle, Washington, got her tragus (a part of the ear) pierced because she liked how the piercing looked. “It was kind of cool, something different,” she recalls, and since her friends were going to get piercings she decided to do likewise. “We all said, ‘Hey, let’s go get piercings,’ ” Ashley says. Now, when she reflects back on her piercing, she associates it with a meaning that was not originally intended. “It’s kind of like, I’m finally completely on my own,” she says, “I don’t have anything holding me back.” She adds, “I’m hopefully living what God wants me to do rather than [following] my own objectives.”
While the meaning of some tattoos and piercings are fluid, others have intentional and obvious spiritual significance. Theresa’s nose ring that surprised her parents was a physical expression of her faith. The idea of her piercing was born as two friends sat together sipping bubble tea—a popular Thai milk tea with tapioca—and discussing life. “I was really unsure about my future,” says Theresa, “I knew God had a plan for me, I was just really unsure what it was.” When the topic changed and Theresa mentioned that she had always wanted a nose ring, her friend told her the story of Rebekah, found in Genesis, chapter 24.
The basic story is this: Rebekah is chosen to be a wife for Isaac, which means that she will have to leave her life, home and family as she knows it. Theresa explains, “at this point Rebekah is facing a huge decision. Do you say yes to that? That’s a big deal. She decides to just let go of any fear she has about the situation and let God be in control.” Like Rebekah, Theresa decided to let God be in control of her future, uncertain as it seemed.
A nose ring was one of the gifts that Rebekah received when she decided to leave home and become Isaac’s wife. “You can say it’s a stretch,” Theresa admits, “my mother told me it’s a stretch.” But the significance of the nose ring is no stretch for Theresa. “I know in the end I’m going where God wants me to go,” she says, “I may have to leave everything to do what God wants me to do but I’m going to follow Him.”
While the potential spiritual significance of tattoos and piercings is obvious, the question remains, why choose something so permanent? People commemorate significant things all the time with haircuts, new clothes or jewelry, among other things. The answer is that tattoos and piercings are appealing because of the very fact that they are permanent. “A tattoo stays with you forever and is a reminder,” says Amber, “it’s not changing; it’s always there.”
The permanence of tattoos means that in a sense they are unavoidable. “In my experience it’s so easy for me to hide my faith if I want to,” says Paul. “Some people wear crosses, some people wear bracelets, but I wanted something that I didn’t have the option to take off.” Paul got his second tattoo, a cross with the Hebrew characters for the word “servant”, as a reminder of how God changes the way he lives his life. “It just serves as a reminder of what I need to be looking for and looking towards each day,” he says. In situations where he might be reluctant to share his faith, Paul says, “you’ve got two options: (A) stand up for your faith, or (B) back down, because you’re embarrassed, ashamed, or you just don’t want to deal with the drama.” For Paul, having a visible tattoo means that he is more likely to choose option A and stand up for his faith.
Despite the spiritual basis for some tattoos and piercings, these permanent body markings can also be seen as antithetical to the Christian faith. Often cited is 1 Corinthians 6:19-20: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit…Therefore honor God with your body.” The difference between these two perspectives lies in how one conceptualizes a temple. Paul Huck argues that “temples and synagogues and churches are all decorated with crosses and pictures and symbols.” He sees tattooing his body as similar to putting a stained glass window in a church—not necessarily a bad thing. Decorations in places of worship, as well as tattoos and piercings, could be beautiful and meaningful; they could honor God instead of disregarding him.
Another common argument against tattoos can be found in the Old Testament when Moses gives a long list of regulations to the people of Israel including Leviticus 19:28, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord.” There is continued debate among Christians whether this regulation was due to the significance tattoos held in Moses’ time (such as being used in religious practices that had to do with other gods) or if it’s meant to be a lasting commandment.
Body art, in the hearts and minds of Christians who practice it, harmonizes with the Christian faith. “I wouldn’t get a tattoo that didn’t have meaning to me,” says Amber, “I want my life to be honoring to the Lord.” Theresa notes that “a lot of people tend to associate body modification with rebellion…maybe they just automatically assume that one leads to the other.” She adds, “It’s really, to me, about the intent behind the action…we’re all wired differently. We all have different ways of dressing, talking and reminding ourselves of God’s presence.”
For those who have them, tattoos and piercings can serve as reminders. Paul says his tattoo is “a reminder that I’ll see everyday, no matter what.” Theresa says, “It’s not something I think of every time I look in the mirror, [but] if I’m just sitting around worrying about life and playing with my nose ring I’ll be like, oh yeah, I have this.” In one way or another, permanent markings on the body serve as reminders that might not otherwise exist. For Christians who have tattoos and piercings and have found meaning in them, these symbols signify something far deeper than what meets the eye.