In Christian circles that debate this sort of thing, the subject of tattoos revolves around two things. Or rather, two primary arguments are made against tattoos, and there are like three that are given for them. Yesterday, I accidentally stumbled across a completely new perspective on Christians getting tattoos, stemming from an ancient pilgrim practice and a 700-year-old tattoo shop.
If you have ears and/or eyes, you are familiar with how the conversation normally goes (But if you don’t, here’s a more rigid examination of the arguments). Some fundamentalist-type brings up a verse from Leviticus which forbids the marking of skin, to which the young Bible scholar points out that this verse is archaic and refers only to Israelites who had escaped from Egypt circa the 1300’s BC. And so on.
It boils down to the fact that the older person simply doesn’t like them, and the younger person just thinks they’re cool, and neither one has a solid biblical imperative for their side; they just have their own preferences. Which is fine.
And for most of my life, until yesterday, that’s what I thought too. I thought that the best a Christian could do is eek by, building a series of excuses for why, no, I think it’s actually ok for me to have a tattoo and still love Jesus. Please.
In other words, I always thought it was permissible but never encouraged.
The closest I could come up with was the defense that they start conversations and get people asking about my faith. This is true too (for me anyway…I don’t know how many introverts who use that defense have actually chatted with strangers as a result of their ink. Am I biased against introverts? idk), but it’s still a rather anemic argument.
But yesterday I learned about an ancient Coptic tradition in which Christians–and especially Christians–would get tattoos to mark themselves as Christians. The most common of these Coptic symbols which you may have seen before is the Coptic Cross:
This and other symbols like it marked the individual as a follower of the Way of Jesus. Honestly, some of these are awesome and I’m considering sticking one on myself.
In other words, once you were marked publicly as a Christian, there was no more turning back. You don’t get tattooed and then just change your mind when you decide to pursue other comforts. At least in the Middle Ages you don’t–it’s either a knife to your skin or you embrace the decision you made: first to follow Christ, and then to take that decision public with your skin.
We in Christian ministry always use the explanation of baptism as a public declaration of our invisible decision to follow Christ. How much more public and permanent is a tattoo?
Now to take it a step further, place yourself in the Middle or Near East, where being a Christian is not merely a word you put in your Instagram bio, but could get you into some real trouble. Imagine living in a place where you regularly brush shoulders with Muslims and Sikhs and being outed as a Christian in the wrong part of town could have serious consequences.
The Coptic tattoo tradition wasn’t just to get some cool ink with some quasi-spiritual meaning beneath the ink, but a declaration of Who you follow, Who you worship. Like salvation should be, getting a Coptic tattoo is an irreversible statement that you’ve decided to follow Jesus and there’s no turning back.
The Greek word they used was ‘stygma’ which meant ‘marked.’ Christians were actually eager to mark themselves for Christ once they entered into the church.
Seen through this lens, getting a tattoo in the Coptic world seems more like something Christians should do, rather than something to be critiqued! I can almost picture a Coptic Christian grandmother chastising her grandchildren for not getting their tattoos soon enough.
“Where are your markings, child?? You’ve been baptized for two years now! Why haven’t you shown it yet?? What are you waiting for, an engraved invitation? Come on, Bubbeh will take you to the shop.”
Maybe we Westerners got so wrapped up in our own myopic arguments over these things that we lost sight of many of the larger realities: That any sort of public branding ourselves for Christ will not go to waste. Like Paul says with some strong language, we have become slaves to Christ, and a tattoo, especially in this tradition, is a beautiful way to show it.