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The idea of religious tattoos may seem counterintuitive, for several reasons – not only is tattooing prohibited by some religions, such as Orthodox Judaism, but until recently, tattoos were associated with a vaguely disreputable counterculture that seems at odds with religion.
However, religious symbols – Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Islam or otherwise – are actually quite common tattoo designs. It might surprise you that about 25% of all tattoos in America have a religious meaning...
Nowadays, because tattooing has gone mainstream, religious tattoos are not just for gang members – not by a long shot. Tattoos of Christian symbols, such as the cross and the ‘Jesus fish’, are a common way for Christians to express their faith. And it doesn’t stop there – people use religious tattoos to express a great variety of religious views.
Religious tattoos are one of the oldest forms of tattooing. Besides identification, decoration and social ranking, early tattoos definitely had a spiritual purpose. Tribal tattoos offered protection from the gods, even in the afterlife.
Religious tattoos fall into one of several categories. For a start, there are the Christian tattoos.
Christian tattoos are the most popular form of religious tattoos, especially in North and South America. Mexican and other Latin gangs have been using Christian symbols in their tattoo art for generations, believing in the protection that these images can give.
The Bible is not in favour of tattoos though, like you can read in Leviticus 19:28: You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the Lord.
The most popular Christian symbols are crosses, praying hands, Jesus Christ, angels and doves. Other symbols worth mentioning are the virgin Mary, rosary beads, a crown of thorns and the crucifixion.
Tattoos of Jesus Christ are one of the most popular Religious tattoos. Most often Jesus is pictured on the cross. Other Jesus tattoos are a close up of his face with or without a crown of thorns or a halo.
The Ichtys, aka "Jesus Fish" is one of the more abstract symbols. It is a stylized fish that is the symbol of Christ because of several Biblical references. Jesus once mentioned to his disciples that he would make them "fishers of men". The fish is also mentioned at the feeding of the five thousand.
Ichtys is an acronym for "Jesus Christ God's Son Saviour" in ancient Greek. The early Christians used it as a secret symbol to find out if a person was a Christian or not. This happened by drawing one arc of the fish in the sand. If the other person drew the other arc, they knew that they both were Christians.
The Ichtys is also a symbol for the astrology sign Pisces
The cross is a very universal symbol used in many cultures and religions, including the Celtic cross, the Egyptian ankh cross, and many others.
Cross tattoos are not new. The crusaders had a small cross tattoo on their hand or arm to ensure they got a Christian burial when they died in some foreign country.
A cross tattoo can be very basic because it is a strong symbol. In some tattoo designs Jesus is pictured on the cross, making the whole design considerably more complex. Other detailing might include a wood grain pattern on the cross, or the crown of thorns in the middle of the cross of hanging off one of the arms.
Sometimes lettering is added to the image – such as the chapter and verse number of a certain Psalm or Bible verse. Other times, the cross itself is made of two crossed nails – large ones, such as those that were put through Christ’s hands and feet.
Praying Hands Tattoos
A tattoo of two praying hands, with or without a rosary and/or a cross is also a popular religious design.
Although praying hands are not strictly a Christian symbol, it is almost solemnly used by adherers of the Christian faith.
Angel tattoos are a kind of religious tattoo that is popular, especially among females. Angels act as messengers between heaven and earth. They appear in the Christian, Judaic and Islamic belief.
Virgin Mary Tattoos
The Virgin Mary is popular as a female tattoo design as well. Mary, known as Madonna since the middle ages, is the mother of Jesus of Nazareth. Christians believe she was a virgin at the time of conception.
Besides the obvious religious meaning, Virgin Mary tattoos are also a symbol of strength and virtue. Most designs picture Mary gazing down at her praying hands.
The Virgin Mary tattoo is also popular in the Latin world and used to be popular among seafarers, for whom they symbolized the longing for their wives on their long trips abroad.
Mary is not only a Christian symbol, she is also honoured in Islam.
Of course, not all religious tattoos are Christian at all, though symbols from the other major religions are rarer. Let's have a look at the other religions...
Judaism & Tattoos
Orthodox Judaism forbids tattooing, though this is not an edict that everyone follows – occasionally, you might see a Star of David or a menorah tattoo, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Orthodox Jews consider altering one's body ungodly – God made your body and is therefore perfect.
Another factor is that tattooing is considered disrespectful to those who were tattooed by the Nazis in the Holocaust. The Nazis used tattoos to mark prisoners in the concentration camps.
Star of David Tattoos
The Star of David, named after King David of ancient Israel, is a symbol of Judaism. It is also a symbol of Israel (the star is in the Israeli flag) and Zionism.
Star of David Tattoos are popular way to express one's Israeli identity. Sometimes it is combined with a map of Israel, the word Zion or Lions.
Hebrew Faith Tattoos
Tattoos in the Hebrew script are the most popular form of Hebrew tattoos. Usually quotes of the Bible are used, but also non-religious quotes or names.
A very popular Bible quote is "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine", probably because David and Victoria Beckham have this tattoo.
The Indian religions have their own traditional body art, but tattooing is fairly uncommon. On the other hand, Buddhist and Taoist symbols have become quite popular of late.
Hinduism is the biggest religion of India and the 3rd largest religion in the world, after Christianity and Islam. It has roots going as far as the prehistory. It has its own traditional body art, but tattooing is fairly uncommon.
Hinduism is a monotheistic religion, meaning that a Hindu believes in one God, called Brahman. There are however 1000s of deities that represent different aspects of that one God.
The best known deities are:
- Krishna: often depicted as a cowherd boy playing the flute or as a baby.
- Vishnu: the preserver, has a blue skin and 4 arms.
- Ganesh: the remover of obstacles, depicted as an elephant.
- Shiva: the destroyer, usually depicted in deep meditation.
- Lakshmi: the deity of wealth.
- Buddha: the enlightened one, an incarnation of Vishnu.
The Hindu deities are very extravagant and colourful, what makes them ideal for a tattoo design.
Om Tattoo Designs
Om (aka ohm or aum) is the sacred syllable in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Every Hindu text begins with it and it is also uttered before praying or doing puja (a ritual).
Om is written in the Devanagari script, the script that is used to write Sanskrit and Hindi. The om symbol is very elegant, hence it's popularity as a tattoo design. It is often combined with other images like a lotus flower.
Hindi and Sanskrit Tattoos
The main language of India is Hindi. It is written in the Devanagari script, a very elegant script that lends itself very well to tattoo designs.
Sanskrit is the ancient language of the subcontinent and uses the same script as Hindi. Although it is a cultural and liturgical language, like Latin, it is still one of the official languages of India. All Hindu religious texts are written in Sanskrit. Sanskrit prayer tattoos are quiet popular nowadays...
Buddhism is a religion with about 500 million adherents, most of them living in Asia (Tibet, China, Thailand, ...). One of the key points of Buddhism is personal spiritual growth, no wonder it is gaining more and more adherents in the West.
Sak Yant Tattoos
Sak Yant (aka yantra tattoos) is the art of sacred tattooing as done by Buddhist monks in Thailand and Cambodia. Sak Yant tattoo designs came from India together with Buddhism and were tailored by the Khmer. The scripts used for these tattoos are Pali and Khmer. The tattoos are meant for protection.
Angelina Jolie has a Sak Yant tattoo, done in Thailand in the traditional way.
Buddhists don't believe in a personal god. They all follow the teachings of Gautama Buddha who lived around the 6th Century BCE in the north of India and Nepal. A tattoo of Buddha may be a bit of a contradiction because Buddha discouraged the use of images.
Buddha tattoos have a certain popularity in the West though and most of them depict Buddha sitting in a meditative position.
The Koran, the holy book of the Islam, is not too fond of tattooing either. It sees all alterations of the human body (tattoos, piercings, ...) as a mutilation of Allah's creation.
The crescent moon and star tattoo has a certain popularity as a tattoo design. It is the symbol of Islam and in a more political meaning also the symbol of the Middle East.
Arabic writing tattoos are trendy nowadays, also in the west. They are not all religious tattoos though. Besides verses from the Koran, a lot of people want their lover's name, their own name or favourite quote translated into Arabic script.
Another Arabic inspired tattoo design is the Hamsa tattoo. The Hamsa, aka Hand of Fatima or Eye of Fatima (Fatima is the daughter of Muhammad), is a symbol that protects against the evil eye.
The hamsa is also known in the Jewish culture, as Hand of Miriam. The hamsa is used on charms, painted on houses and... used as a tattoo design.
Other Religious Tattoos
Among so-called ‘fringe’ religions, religious tattoos are also common. A great example is the neo-pagan movement that has been gaining momentum in North America and Europe during the past couple of decades. Wiccans and other neo-pagans are great fans of tattoos, and many religious symbols can be found among their favoured tattoo images.
Some examples include the pentangle star, various images representing the four directions and the four elements (sacred in all pagan religions) , and the ‘athame’, the witches’ ceremonial knife. Religious tattoos are, in short, far more common and versatile than you might think, and for many people they are a powerful, personal way of expressing their faith.
The Only God Can Judge Me Tattoo
"Only god can judge me" is the title of a song by Tupac Shakur. It's also very popular as a tattoo design in all kinds of languages like Farsi, Arabic, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Chinese and Japanese.
Celebrities With Religious Tattoos
Here's an overview of celebrities with a religious tattoo:
- Allen Iverson: NBA player with a praying hands tattoo on his chest accompanied by his mother's and grandmother's names. He's also got a cross of daggers on his left upper arm.
- Cross Tattoos: Celebrities with a cross tattoo include Justin Timberlake, Robbie Williams, Lenny Kravitz and Britney Spears.
- Hebrew Tattoos: Celebrities with a Hebrew tattoo include David and Victoria Beckham, Madonna and Christina Aguilera.
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