*Originally posted at my Houston Chronicle Belief Blog – Sacred Duty
Tattoo Bans, Religious Expression and the Staying Power of Religious Body Art
Earlier this month Thailand’s Culture Minister Niphit Intharasombat sparked national controversy when he proposed a ban on all religiously motivated tattoos. A major tourist industry in Thailand, especially in Phuket, purveyors of tattoo art and religious symbols fought against the prescription. Arguing that such a ban would hurt their business the Ministry of Culture backpedalledslightly, allowing tattoos, even religiously motivated ones, could continue to be made as long as they did not include Buddhist symbols. Behind the prohibition is the idea that tattooing bodies with Buddhist symbols is insolent, culturally insensitive and potentially disrespectful. The Ministry feared that individuals with the tattoos might be found performing inappropriate activities and bearing a religious tattoo on their body might cause offense. People from all over the world come to get religious tattoos in Phuket and other provinces in Thailand whether they be Buddhist, Hindu, New Age or Christian. Some believe the tattoos endow a person with spiritual power, with certain individuals claiming that their tattoos save their lives.
To say the least the row over religious tattoos in Thailand is not soon to dissipate. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the industry of religious tattoos is not unique to Thailand or the Southeast Asian region. All over the world Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, New Agers, Pagans, Druids, Jews and other religious adherents get tattoos to represent their religion.
There are prescriptions against tattoos in various religions including Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Judaism to name a few. In the Abrahamic religions (Islam, Judaism and Christianity) it is seen as polluting God’s perfect creation of the human body. Some Theravada Buddhist monasteries will not allow tattooed individuals to take the monastic vow. For the most part such restrictions do little to prevent believers from proclaiming their faith and values with ink in the skin.
It does not take long to find many of the faithful sporting religious ink.
Go to a Christian concert and when a song leader raises their arms I guarantee you will find at least one, tattoo on the arm, if not more. While the arm may be acceptable, and may in a way be a means of making the tattoo less discriminate I went to school with a young man hoping to become a pastor who had a broken chain tattooed around his neck. No matter how hard you try, you can’t hide that type of ink. For Christians the most often tattooed symbol is the cross, Mary, a Trinity symbol, a dove representing the Holy Spirit or some word in ancient Greek or Hebrew (original languages of the Bible). Among Millennial Christians, the practice is becoming more and more common with tattoos showing up on wrists, arms, legs, backs and shoulders.
But what about the face?
The Maori people of New Zealand have a long standing tradition of tattooing (in the past, chiseling) the face of individuals with high social status. “Ta moko,” as they are called, are imbibed with great sacred meaning and often tell the story of an individual’s whakapapa (genealogy). While Maori designs have become fashionable, and controversial, as of late on many pakeha (non-Maori caucasians – including British pop star Robbie Williams) the original designs were meant for sacred purposes and revered members of a Maori tribe.
In Buddhism the recent prevalence of so called “dharma” tattoos has stirred some debate. While some believe these tattoos become an extension of their Buddhist practice and lead them towards mindful meditation in their everyday life opponents of such tattoos claim they are an aberration and indicative of a mindless “pop” Buddhism. Particularly in Theravada Buddhism tattoos can bar one from taking a monastic vow. For example, Angelina Jolie caused a stir when she went under the ink pen to receive a Buddhist Pali incantation tattoo in Khmer as a reminder of her adopted son’s Cambodian heritage.
Hindus, specifically many Asian-Indians, are known for their beautiful henna tattoos observable on Hindu brides. However, many modern day Hindus are getting inked up with the image of their chosen deity as a sign of their bhakti (devotion). The most popular representations seem to be images of Ganesh, the destroyer of obstacles.
Various other religiously themed tattoos can be found on people’s bodies. From Judeo-Christian symbols to Pentagrams to Buddhist mandalas, many religious adherents choose to proclaim some aspect of their faith or practice through body art. Though the symbols may fade with time, or cause a commotion today, they are ultimately simple and yet strong expressions of personal devotion. In a recent article by Miliann Kang and Katherine Jones in the e-zine New Tattoo Sub-Culture they share:
The tattoo speaks to the ongoing, complex need for humans to express themselves through the appearance of their bodies. The tattooed body serves as a canvas to record the struggles between conformity and resistance, power and victimization, individualism and group membership. These struggles motivate both radical and mundane forms of tattooing. The popularity of tattoos attests to their power as vehicles for self-expression, commemoration, community building, and social commentary. At the same time, the tattoo’s messages are limited by misin- terpretation and the stigma that still attaches to tattooed people.
Without entering into a full-fledged discussion of religious aesthetics and meaningful religious iconography, religious tattoos serve as powerful vehicles for self-expression and whether they are beautiful or boring, contentious or cool, they act as an interpretive tool for people to understand religion, their own or others’. All religious art serves a dual purpose as a hermeneutic of a theological truth (for the artist, or the inked) and as a window through which outside observers interpret a religion and its adherents. In the end, religious tattoos, just like a Christian fresco or an artistically scribed Qu’ran, serve as interpretive vehicles through which humans give voice to their religious devotion and allow others to apprehend religious truth through art.
In the case of religious tattoos in Thailand the Culture Minister does have a point; religious tattoos will bring about interpretations, and misinterpretations, of Buddhism and other religions in Thailand and abroad. The real question is whether or not Thailand’s government, or any religious authority for that matter, can stop such a potent form of religious self-expression. Combining “an ongoing, complex need for humans to express themselves through the appearance of their bodies” with a strong religious devotion and offering the inked a way to convey and interpret their faith, religious ink seems to be permanently tattooed as a feature of religious art and expressionism.