Tattoos In The Pews: What’s Different About Religious Body Art?

WACO, Texas — The number of Americans with tattoos continues to grow, as more people see body art as another form of self-expression. More than a fourth of all adults and nearly half of all millennials in the U.S. now have tattoos. Now, new research from Baylor and Texas Tech universities reveals that faith-based tattoos differ from other tattoos in more ways than motifs.

Researchers found that while most tattoos are directed for public viewing, religious tattoos tend to be self-oriented.

“An interesting discovery in our research is that the religious tattoos of college students are more likely than non-religious ones to face inward, toward the owner (for example, on the inside wrist),” says lead author Kevin D. Dougherty, associate professor of sociology at Baylor University, in a university release.

Religious tattoo
Tattoo symbols express the belief that God is greater than the highs and lows of the owner’s depression. (Photo credit: Kevin Dougherty)

Researchers studied 752 photos of tattoos captured on a Christian college campus and came away with some findings about the intent of body art.

The study results revealed a difference between tattoos that are visible and those that are hidden by clothing. Of the tattoos photographed, about one in five was faith-based. While 26% of religious tattoos faced the wearer, just 18% of non-religious tattoos faced inward.

“Generally, visible tattoos seem intended more toward stories of life and remembrance, which the wearer may be willing to openly discuss,” says study coauthor Jerome R. Koch, a professor of sociology at Texas Tech University.

Koch, who has studied body art on college campuses for more than a decade, has found that with some tattoos, it is about not wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve. When body art can be seen only by those most intimate to the wearer, Koch says the body art likely tells a personal story of self-identity, private memories or emotional conflicts.

Of the tattoos photographed, researchers found that slightly more men (23%) than women (17%) had faith-based tattoos. Men’s tattoos tended to be larger than three inches and more visible, with almost half on their upper arms or forearms. Women’s tattoos were mostly one inch or smaller, with more than two-thirds located in less visible places–e.g., wrist, foot or back.

In other findings, half of faith-based tattoos were of images, most commonly of the cross. More than a quarter were of Bible verses, with a slight majority coming from the New Testament. Of Old Testament references, the book of Psalms was a favorite. Another one in five tattoos combined images with verses.

The research team cautions that these findings may not represent all campuses and that some religious tattoos may have been missed in this study.

They note that because tattoos tell life stories, they are looking beyond the campus setting.

“We have a study in progress on religion and tattoos in a national sample of U.S. adults,” Dougherty adds. “Our research question is: Do religious people in the United States today get tattoos?”

Dougherty hopes to determine the overall percentage of Americans with faith-based tattoos and also understand how they differ from other Americans who either do not have tattoos or have non-religious ones. Eventually, the team would like to expand their study of tattoos worldwide to learn how cultural differences impact acceptance.

“It would be interesting to compare and contrast the path toward legitimation of tattoos in different parts of the developed Western world,” says Koch.

“We have some information from other scholars that, for example, conservative Catholicism in Latin America may continue to stigmatize tattoo wearers.” he adds.

“Conversely, some of our students have reported that the fact their tattoo was religious lent legitimation with their families more than a tattoo of another type might.”

Study results are published in the journal Visual Studies.

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