Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Tattoos and Religion

Tattoos appear in a great deal of cultures as ornamentation of the body. Unlike clothing, tattoos are semi-permanent and they don’t get in our way when we try to do things. These markings have been used for a variety of purposes from assigning tribe/clan affiliation, affluence, marking criminals, marking military ranks, distinguishing heroic deeds… In this era of fast food and fast computers, though, tattoos have become entirely a social ornamentation a lot like wearing a pinky ring.

Recently, I came across a blog post by a Myspacer who just opened up a tattoo and piercing parlour out in Chandler, the Blue Clover. This post caught my attention because he went off into a long yarn about Christianity and tattoos—I believe the title said something like, “The Truth About Christianity and Tatoos?”[1]

It made me ponder a little bit about religiosity and tattooing.

For the most part, a lot of cultures have their taboos and their affectations. Insofar, few tribal cultures—if none—have any taboo about tattoos; in fact, most happen to see tattoos as important social ornamentation and the primary taboo might connect instead with misrepresentation rather than the tattoos themselves. Rather like our own American taboo (or should I say legal forbiddance) against wearing a police badge. When a tattoo can have a cultural significance, suddenly a fraud of character becomes a problem.

Religions, on the other hand, tend to attempt to control their populations through taboo—and often they do so by enforcing normative behaviors that distinguish a difference between them and their neighbors (this is true also of cultures, but is therefore more localized.) As a result one wonders if there’s a taboo present in Christianity against tattoos that this individual wants to do away with, or perhaps shed light there.

Looking at some Jewish Law—the inceptive parent of Christianity—there seems to be some direct prohibitions against tattoos. Primarily in the concepts of taking care of the body and for purposes of establishing a distinction between them and neighboring cultures who often tattooed themselves with images of their own gods. As I mentioned above, it was a common practice to avoid the traditions of others to avoid dilution. What I found most amusing is the prohibition does not follow to women piercing themselves for purposes of beauty; but it does forbade them from doing so due to a fad.[2]

I have heard discussions from schisms of Christian mythology which possess that the body is sacred and therefore anything intruding is therefore verboten, but this is obviously the outlier and not the mainstream. Taking a look a Chicano culture which has a strong Catholic tradition (another schism of the Christian mythos) there are numerous examples of the Virgin Mary tattooed on the arms of muscle-bound hombres, gigantic suffering-on-the-crucifix images emblazoned across their backs.

Old Ireland, it wasn’t uncommon to have tattoos depicting glorioles, the trinity, or even parts of psalms engraved forever into the skin—a tradition brought by Galway merchant sailors and modified to the new mythos. The sailor tradition believed that beseeching the various gods could bring fortune, although generally that fortune was to avoid wrecks. Often saints names and busts became the staple of their imagery.

Among my own people there is no such taboo. In fact, there is a deafening ambivalence. Tattoos are another ornamentation like piercings, jewelry, clothing, and other things. Although, tattoos are the cheapest of all those put together since they’re extremely long term, cannot easily be lost, and pretty much just stay put. We see Celtic knots, various depictions of goddesses, the trifold symbol, the moon.

Possible prohibitions against tattoos in the practical senses only fit into social memes and don’t need to rely on some sort of supernatural prohibition (unless one has a geasa, I suppose.)

Still, there are some possible objections to modern tattooing.

Getting a tattoo can lead to embarrassment later in life. I suppose, this is a reason to avoid them, but it’s not a good reason to forbid them to other people. It has never been a good idea to disallow people to make embarrassing mistakes—lethal mistakes maybe, but not simple embarrassment. Especially now that we can remove them easily.

Getting a tattoo can lead to life threatening infection (hepatitis, gangrene, MRSA.) But this is only a high likelihood in unsafe conditions. As a result in the US we regulate tattoo and piercing parlours to a particular safety standard in accordance to disease control—to put this in perspective: we do the same thing with our food.

For the most part, modern medicine and regulation have taken away needs to control people in these manners. Knowledge of the subject is readily available, bodily injury is minimal and risk is extremely low. All that remains is the old traditions and prohibitions by the gods of the religious should they choose to approach these subjects.

Even with the gods in place, of course, a person does get their moral decision about tattooing and piercing from their society. If their people are highly religious and hold a prohibition it will be easy for them to find out and decide on that, in some cases making the decision for them; if their people are equally religious but there is no prohibition it certainly makes the decision less burdensome; and, finally, there are traditions who naturally tattoo as a matter of social discourse.

I for one look forward to the rabbits on ankles, vines with thorns wrapping around wrists, cabbits on thighs. Tattoos have a vibrant and bold tradition that crops up everywhere. The art is not risky, later embarrassment really is nothing, and everyone gets their very own personal canvas to work with.

To tattoo or not to tattoo.

In the mainstay of at least North American culture the practice crosses religious boundaries from Chicano culture where it occurs considerably, even into the staunch corporate monoculture (hidden under shirts, on thighs…), and has had uses both sacred and secular across a multitude of cultures.

That’s a cute orca whale—got it in the ‘60s? Wow, that tattoo is older than I am.

Tell me the story.



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