Document 97543

Journal of Psychology and Christianity
Copyright 2008 Christian Association for Psychological Studies
2008, Vol. 27, No. 3, 195-204
ISSN 0733-4273
Christian Student Perceptions of
Body Tattoos: A Qualitative Analysis
Michael W. Firmin
Luke M. Tse
Janna Foster
Cedarville University
Tammy Angelini
We used qualitative research methodology in appraising 24 evangelical Christian college students’ perceptions (15 female and 9 male), voluntarily recruited, of their tattoo choices. After coding the transcribed
interviews, four predominant themes emerged. First, students believed that the Bible did not forbid their
tattooing practices. Second, special religious significances were ascribed to the tattoos’ meanings by most
of the participants. Third, few students described making rash decisions when becoming tattooed, but
rather, thought through their decisions rather carefully. And finally, friends generally were encouraging of
the participants’ decisions to tattoo while family members were more discouraging. In sum, participants in
our study did not portray rebellion or deviance in the choice to tattoo, but rather, viewed the decisions as
spiritual expressions.
sociopaths, some tattoo seekers in recent
decades have shown differences from their predecessors. Tattooing has become more prominent in society and tattoos sometimes are
accepted as a form of fashion statement. Tattoos
sometimes are seen among fashion models,
movie stars, and popular sports figures (Brown,
Perlmutter, & McDermott, 2000). Several studies
have noted that while only a small estimated
percentage of the population sport tattoos on
their bodies, its popularity is increasing. Up to
9% of the general population indicated that they
have permanent tattoos. For adolescents, that
percentage could be as high as 16% (Roberts &
Ryan, 2002). Tattoo designs vary in complexity.
Millner and Eichold (2001) purported that “a tattoo is never just what the appearance is. . . . Tattoos are indicators or little vents to [the owner’s]
psyche” (p. 429).
Visible tattoos are more likely to make an
impression, whether good or bad, than tattoos
that individuals choose to cover (Armstrong,
Roberts, Owen, & Koch, 2004). Drews, Allison,
and Probst (2000) found that men tended to
have tattoos on their arms and shoulders, while
women were likely to obtain tattoos on their
backs. Tattoo designs typically ranged from the
size of a quarter to the size of a small dinner
plate. Common designs among the college-aged
sample included flowers, celestial objects, butterflies, mottos, and reptiles.
In an effort to better understand the influences
of image, identity, family, and friends on tattooing practices, Armstrong et al. (2002) gathered
data from 520 college students, adolescents,
career women, and military recruits. They reported that less religious participants were more likely to have tattoos. Generally, both tattooed and
Tattooing has had a long and, albeit, controversial history. The practice of this art form has
been documented in nearly every culture and
used to communicate a number of messages,
including group identity, religious commitment,
and individuality (Armstrong, Owen, Roberts, &
Koch, 2002). During the Greco-Roman era,
Greeks and Romans used tattoos to punish or
identify people as property (Schildkrout, 2004).
Authors of antiquity, according to Schildkrout,
condemned the practice, claiming it to be barbaric. Ancient literature was sometimes
inscribed onto the skin of saints so as to preserve the Christian message and to serve as
reminders of God’s work for generations since
the indelible messages would be seen by children and grandchildren. In the early days of
Christian church history, many pilgrims traveling
to the Holy land also adopted the practice of
tattooing as a sign of religious observance. Nevertheless, most scholars of the Quran and the
Bible have interpreted the sacred texts as prohibiting tattooing (Forbes, 2001). Among Christians, Scriptural passages such as “Do not cut
your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on
yourselves. I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:28,
New International Version) have been cited as
direct prohibitions from God.
For the past century, Western societies have
increasingly adopted the practice of tattooing.
DeMello (1993) indicated, that while most Western social leaders have continued to associate
the practice with the rebellious, criminals, and
Correspondence regarding this article should be sent
to Luke M. Tse, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology, Cedarville University, 251 N. Main St., Cedarville,
OH 45314. [email protected]
non-tattooed individuals held a relatively positive view of those who were tattooed, claiming
they were enjoyable, interesting, and unique.
Reactions from friends tended to be positive,
while reactions from family members tended to
be either negative or non-responsive. The more
tattoos individuals had, the more likely they
were to know others who also had tattoos. Consistent with other findings, the authors determined that tattooing has become an increasingly
popular art form and, as opposed to earlier societal perceptions, it generally has become less
associated with deviant individuals.
Where associations with deviant behaviors are
concerned, studies among individuals with tattoos have yielded mixed results. For example,
Forbes (2001) suggested that tattoos might not
always connotate signs of rebellion or impromptu actions in drunken states. Additionally, Coe,
Harmon, Verner, and Tonn (1993) examined tattooing among males at a Southern military college. Common designs included patriotic themes,
cartoon characters, and dragons. The tattoos
were small with few colors, and one was selfinscribed. Interestingly, all the study’s participants had tattoos that were not visible without
removing clothing. Spontaneous tattooing was
infrequent and most were initiated in groups,
making the process socially-oriented and premeditated. The majority of the tattooed participants acknowledged that their families either did
not know about their tattoo or were not supportive of it. The study concluded that tattoos generally were not marks of defiance, but rather,
primarily were characterized by collaborative
elements—particularly among peers. Coe et al.
concluded that a lack of seeming defiance in this
population was due less to personal character
qualities than to the effects of a military-style
demand for individual discipline.
In their analysis of national surveys involving
6,072 adolescents, Roberts and Ryan (2002) discovered that a significant correlation existed
among adolescents who have permanent tattoos
and such high-risk behaviors as sexual intercourse, substance use, violent behaviors, and
school problems. Similarly, other authors also
have reported that tattooed participants in their
sample displayed more risky and promiscuous
tendencies than the non-tattooed persons. But
such individuals did not perceive themselves
necessarily as being defiant but, rather, as having
an imaginative flair (Drews, Allison, & Probst,
2000). Particularly, those who chose to have tat-
toos were more likely to describe themselves as
adventurous, creative, artistic, individualistic, as
well as risky when compared to those who
chose not to tattoo themselves (Roberti, Storch,
& Bravata, 2003).
As alluded to above, tattoos are contributing
factors to self- and peer-acceptance. Evidently
they often are obtained in conjunction with the
desire for peer recognition. Some individuals who
have tattooed themselves did so on impulse and,
subsequently, want to have their tattoos removed
(Lynne & Anderson, 2002). Tattoo removal procedures such as excision, dermabrasion, or laser can
be painful, tedious, and costly. Some scarring or
skin color variations will likely occur (Contemporary Health Communications, 2007).
As cultural acceptance of tattooing has
increased, some evangelical Christians also have
participated in this growing trend. According to
Heinrichs (1999), tattooing has become a mounting issue among the Christian evangelical subculture. Many Christians have sought to use tattoos
as a context to proclaim their faith. Heinrichs
also noted that over 100 tattoo parlors in America have joined an organization known as the
Christian Tattoo Association (CTA). The CTA
website ( includes, among other
postings, articles which either support or challenge the practice of tattooing. It also provides a
forum for discussions relating to the topic of the
Bible and tattoos. In fact, the internet has provided a common locale for many to post their opinions and convictions on such practices through
individual webpages (e.g., Watkins, 2007) and
numerous online chatrooms.
The present study further explores this construct of tattoos as Christian expressions. Little
data exist regarding this specific subject, particularly empirical information. Consequently, we
employed qualitative research methodology.
While a number of investigative strategies were
plausible, qualitative research often is the
method of choice when exploring terrain where
relatively few studies previously have been conducted (Maxwell, 2005). A cogent need at the
present stage of development in this domain
seems to be some depth of understanding, best
gar nered via phenomenological research
means. Consequently, we identified a pool of
research participants who assisted us in better
understanding this construct of religious meanings in the context of evangelicals who tattoo
Participants for this study consisted of 24 students from a comprehensive university (based
on classifications created by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 2000
and as used by the U.S. News & World Report)
located in the Midwest. The institution is a member of the Coalition of Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU), an organization of institutions
with distinctive evangelical mission statements,
doctrinal statements, and practices. Each person
identified themselves as having obtained one or
more tattoos. Individuals selected for the study
were gleaned from a group of 64 students who
responded to a campus-wide email solicitation
for participation. Selected participants met criterion: their tattoos did not include a Scripture verse
or possess explicit Christian themes (e.g., cross
or dove). The rationale for this was two-fold.
First, homogeneity of sample generally is preferred to heterogeneity in qualitative samples,
when possible (Firmin, 2006a). Consequently,
mixing the two here did not seem to be most
apt. Second, a separate study of religious symbols in tattooing practices was intended that
would provide focus to the specific construct.
The participants were European-Americans
whose ages ranged from 18 to 32, including
freshmen through seniors. Fifteen of the subjects
were female and nine were male. Obviously,
names used in the present article for reading
clarity are pseudonyms. The research team consisted of two university professors and two
undergraduate students. All researchers participated across all phases of the study.
Following Firmin’s (2006) protocol for conducting interviews in waves, all students participated in two sets of interviews for this study.
The first wave consisted of semi-structured,
detailed interviews administered to all 24 participants. Following analyses of data, a second
wave was conducted to probe in-depth information from 17 of the participants. Prior to the first
wave, each participant also completed a demographic questionnaire. Both interview waves
were tape recorded and later transcribed for
analysis. Questions during interviews gathered
information concerning choices of design, personal reasoning, influences, and future intentions. Due to the varieties of tattoo locations on
the bodies, participants were not asked to reveal
their tattoo. They did, however, provide either a
picture or drawing of it.
The constant-comparison method of analysis
was used for analyzing data. Following the traditional model of Glaser (1992), we avoided theoretical interpretation models when describing
our findings. Rather, following Flick (2002) we
approached the data inductively—using disciplined restraint in attempting to keep our own
biases at bay. This is a qualitative protocol
whereby authors bracket (Raffanti, 2007a) their
own biases and existing theoretical structures
when analyzing data—providing as much of an
inductive approach to data reporting as possible.
Collaborative meetings among members of the
research team helped to provide comparative
checks, enhancing internal validity of the findings (Berg, 2001). Some initial themes were later
discarded due to lack of sufficient, supportive
data. Other themes were collapsed and combined, where appropriate, in order to enhance
the organization of findings. In the end, our
results provided what we considered to be an
apt grounded theory (Raffanti, 2007b).
Four themes emerged from the data collected.
These included Biblical understandings of tattooing, personal significance of the designs, the
extensive and meticulous planning process, and
substantial influences from family and friends.
The themes are discussed below with illustrative
support, supplying voice to various Christian students in our sample.
Biblical Understandings
It was evident that the participants had varying
ideas as to what the Bible teaches about tattooing.
However, given the fact that individuals for this
study have obtained tattoos for themselves, they
generally do not believe that the Bible speaks
against such practices. For example, Jeff said:
I don’t know if the Bible speaks
directly to tattoos, because you won’t
find the word tattoo in the Hebrew
or Greek translation. It does talk
about marking your body and that
type of thing in the Old Testament.
Obviously since I got it, I don’t necessarily think that applies to tattoos.
Similarly, Jackson stated: “I don’t personally
believe [the Bible] says anything wrong about
[tattoos] or else I wouldn’t have them.” In short,
our participants not only believed that tattooing
was appropriate, but they also expressed confidence that the Bible provided no regulations
against tattoos. They portrayed themselves as individuals with Christian integrity. The tattoos they
made on their bodies, from their vantage points,
were not inconsistent with God’s instructions.
A few participants were somewhat more precise in how they communicated their Biblical
understandings. They expressed a dispensational
understanding of Scripture as their basis for justifying tattoos for New Testament Christians. For
example, Beth believes: “[The Bible says] that
you shouldn’t do it. I can’t give you the exact
verse but it is something about not tattooing
your body or I think there is something about
piercing in there too.” However, individuals, like
Beth, further explained that they believe tattoos
were forbidden within the context of the Old
Testament. They believe that such passages are
no longer applicable to New Testament Christians. Bob illustrated:
The only thing I really ever found in
the Bible is in the Old Testament. It
says, “do not mark on yourself.” But I
think it was more of a ritualistic
thing, aimed towards idolatry and trying to actually carry out a ceremony
to worship other gods. So I don’t
really think the Bible says anything in
particular about modern-day tattoos.
Likewise, Erin emphasized that her decision to
get a tattoo did not violate Biblical teachings,
believing that they were in the Old Testament
laws which have no present-day applications:
Well I know there’s that verse that is
like keep your temple pure. And I
know there are verses about tattoos
but I was always under the impression that those passages were the old
law. Like, the same kind of thing
where you are supposed to cover
your head and all that stuff. I just
didn’t think it really applied anymore,
well I kind of know it does not apply
anymore. I wouldn’t have really gone
against it.
In addition to Scriptural teaching, participants
believe that choices in designs are significant.
Generally, they believe that tattoos are permissible by God if they promote a positive or even a
neutral message. For example, one participant
commented: “It’s one thing if you’re going to get
a demon tattooed on your body, but for something harmless like Greek letters, it’s like a
reminder; I don’t think there’s anything wrong
with that.” Overall, statements and expressions
regarding the designs of tattoos communicated
personal relevance and significance. Kelley’s
view summarized this thinking:
I think that if you’re just tattooing
your body for sexual reasons . . .
those things are not spoken well of
in Bible. If it’s something . . . like a
promise that you want to make to
God, to yourself, or to other people
then I think that it’s okay. It is something that is showing that you really
do care about what you’re saying
and that I think that God would
honor that.
Design Significance
Expressions of religious commitments through
tattoos were a consistent theme in participants’
interviews. Regarding his lighthouse design, Paul
described: “When I looked at myself in the
morning in the mirror, it would remind me that I
was to be a lighthouse—a light to the world.”
When asked about her Chinese symbol tattoo,
Wendy similarly articulated: “I try to think of it as
spiritual intimacy—just a little reminder. I see it
all the time because it’s me, but it just wasn’t for
everybody else to see.” To students in our sample, the spiritual meanings attached to tattoos
overshadowed other variables in their thinking.
Kristen illustrated this as she spoke metaphorically concerning her rose tattoo:
Talking about giving the rose of your
life to God . . . would remind me constantly of the decision I had made
that I was giving my entire life to
God. . . . My life with Christ is eternal.
I got the idea from a speaker at the
camp I work at. He talks a lot about
making sure that we’re giving all of
ourselves to God, in purity, and just
in our everyday lives, not just giving
him part of it. With a rose you can
peel back petals and it still looks like
a rose, but we want to make sure
that we’re giving him all of the
petals, and we’re not burning up the
ones that are in our past.
The spiritual significance of students’ tattoos
sometimes was seen as a springboard for ministry enhancement. The selected symbols sometimes serve as reminders of this spiritual focus.
Peter illustrated:
I was really inspired by Japanese culture . . . so I searched it on the internet for different words. There are
these Japanese calligraphies called
“sonkei;” they mean do your best and
respect, and it just reminded me . . . I
always want to do my best in everything I do, and I always want respect.
. . . I’m going in the ministry now and
I need to take the next step of
putting my best step forward. . . . I’m
not working for any man, I’m working for God. In the book of Colossians it says, “Don’t work for men of
the earth—work for God.” My work
is not going to be noticed by men so
I wanted a constant reminder, “Peter,
do your best, respect those around
you, and do your best.”
Jackson also illustrated this principle by selecting
a word with spiritual significance, rather than a
symbol: “The second tattoo I have is in Greek
and it says ‘Theraputis.’ My name . . . is of Greek
origin, which means ‘Healer.’ That is what ‘Theraputis’ means—healer.” Similarly, Matt found
conviction and assurance in the reminder provided by his tattoo. He noted: “The first [tattoo] is
‘our strength is made in weakness,’ so basically it
is a reminder that when I am at my weakest
point I know that Christ is there to give me the
For some students, spiritual significance is portrayed in the perceived connection the symbol(s)
provide. Jeff, for example, described his Greek
lettering tattoo:
It’s the three Greek letters of the fraternity or Christian organization that I
am in here on campus. It was simple
and plain and something easy. I
think our Christian organization is
something that we believe that our
best friends for life are going to come
from there and it was kind of more
of just like a keepsake of ‘remember
the good ol’ days’ type thing.
Additionally, spiritual significance is possessed
through the remembrance it provides. In a hum-
bled tone, Kelley explained her choice to permanently engrave a meaningful word:
My boyfriend decided. . . . Through a
long series of events, we ended up
having sex, and because we did not
want to do that again, we decided
we would make a pact with each
other. . . . It’s like a theme in our lives
at the time, we decided on the word
broken, and then we got tattoos just
to remember that a broken and contrite heart, the Lord will not despise.
. . . Just a recognition of who we are
in that we are broken, we are sinful,
we’re not perfect, and we make mistakes all the time.
For others who used tattoos as remembrances,
the meanings were memorials to others. Nancy
explained: “It’s a purple rose laying on it’s
side. . . . The style isn’t very big, maybe a couple
of inches. My cousin died a couple of years ago
and my family got tattoos in her memory.” In
short, memory was an important construct to
many students in our sample as it related to tattooing decisions.
Deliberate Considerations
Whether individuals chose to tattoo as personal expressions or as symbolic reminders, most
did not choose their tattoos in rash manners.
Instead, much time was spent in the decisionmaking stage. Most undertook extensive and
meticulous processes as they contemplated
desirable, significant tattoos. Some participants
spent as many as four years forming ideas and
linking meanings with designs before they had
them permanently etched onto their skins. Few
went into tattoo parlors without distinct ideas of
what they wanted for a design and the rationales
behind their decisions.
Most participants indicated a common contemplative sentiment as expressed, simply, by
Eileen: “It was something I had intended on
doing for awhile.” Ron concurred, indicating a
long-standing desire:
I have wanted a tattoo since I was
seventeen and had actually drawn
out the tattoo when I was seventeen.
After four years of staring at it and
thinking about it, I knew I wanted it.
I think of it as a personal decision
that I was willing to make and wanted to make.
Similarly, Danielle expressed: “I knew I wanted
to get it done. It was fun though, like to go in
the store and you know I was nervous but it
wasn’t enough to go ‘no, I don’t want to get this
done.’ I had no second thoughts.” Likewise,
Kirby stated: “I had already thought through it all
the way, and I was really excited about it.”
Christian participants in our sample described
themselves as taking the tattoo decision very
seriously. As such, they tended to investigate
various options, making deliberate, rather than
impulsive choices. Almost as a way of giving
advice, Dan remarked:
Basically, you have to know what
you want. You have to look at a lot
of pictures as far as fonts and texts.
As far as the graphics, you need to
have some sort of idea; a lot of people just go to get a tattoo. For me, I
had some sort of idea going in and
then it was multiple visits to the tattoo parlor so that I could have what I
Certainly, the intentional process was related to
the permanence of the design. Relaying this concern, Peter elaborated:
I got saved when I was nineteen. I
started making qualities that I wanted
to stick with and one of those things
was if I made a decision, I didn’t
want to have any second regrets. I
had really thought about this for a
year, so it was a decision that I made.
I knew it was permanent.
In addition to the lengthy decision process,
many of the participants acknowledged that
much care was given when selecting the tattoo
parlor. Denise related: “I really was careful about
where I went and that it was a real reputable
place.” Wisely investigating her tattoo parlor with
deliberation, Danielle expressed: “It seemed like
it was very professional. When I walked in their
store, it was very clean, all the things they used
were very clean, and they were very nice people.” Bob also checked his options, having
health issues as his motivation:
Some people talked about some
Hepatitis B or Hepatitis C issues and
obviously AIDS; but I checked to
make sure that this place was sanitary, used clean needles, and
scrubbed up before they did it
(which was kind of weird for a tattoo
place). That was how I decided
where I would get it.
Cindy was attracted to her locale based on the
attention to details shown by the operators:
It was not dirty or anything but when
I saw a person reach over the
counter, the guy totally flipped out
and made sure the person would not
do that again. They have a little border that you cannot walk over if you
are not the one that is getting the tattoo or piercing. I knew it was a good
place to go.
Dan described cleanliness and licensure to be
the factors giving him the greatest confidence in
the parlor he selected:
Both places I went were really clean
and had a good reputation as far as
their cleaning machine, as well as,
they had their certificates and all that
stuff. I was confident I was not in
harm’s way too much because of the
process they go through with new
needles and whatnot.
John likewise found cleanliness to be a prime
selection criterion:
There were three tattoo parlors that I
inquired about. I asked to see their
equipment. I asked to see what kind
of health protection they used and
how clean the equipment was that
was used. How could I verify that it
was clean? I did research; I went to
the library and read what [characterized] good practices and what did not.
Influences from Friends and Family
Individuals involved in this study reported that
they have received both encouragements and
discouragements from friends and family members. Despite pre-meditated ideas of designs,
participants generally reported that friends often
were helpful in the choice-making process. A
few of the participants even decided on a tattoo
along with friends or selective family members.
Kristen was encouraged to pursue tattooing by
a family member: “My sister and I just kind of
had a bonding moment and went and got tattoos
together.” Nancy also was encouraged by family
My cousins in my family and my
brother because when my cousin
was in the hospital, she died of a
brain tumor. She was only 22. And so
when we were in the hospital, we
would talk to her. . . . She was in a
coma for like the last week. . . . We
were like “Chrissy, we’re going to get
tattoos in your memory and they’re
going to be awesome and we’re
always going to remember you.” So
we talked to her because we
believed that she could hear us and
everything so . . . and then finally
when she died, like a few days later,
my cousins got them and I was like
“Oh that’s such an awesome way to
remember her, I want to do that too.”
Others, like Jeff, were influenced by friends: “Six
out of twenty friends all got them around the
same time and so I think it was just a [domino]
effect, we all just decided to go get them.”
Discouragements came mainly from immediate
family members. Debbie, for example, recalled:
“I don’t think mom and dad ever like specifically
said ‘you will not get a tattoo.’ They weren’t
happy about it when I did.” Beth’s parents
squarely were against the idea of her getting a
tattoo: “My dad always said if we were living
under his roof, and got a tattoo that he would
cut it off our body—not that he would
really—but obviously they didn’t want us to get
one while we were living at home.” Erin’s parents also illustrate the difficult time most parents
experienced in accepting their child’s tattoo:
My dad still won’t look at mine. He
always said it was a joke. I told him I
was going to get one, but they kept
thinking I was joking. So when I did
get it he was like ‘why did you do
that,’ but before hand he would just
laugh it off not really discourage me.
My mom always says ‘you ruined
your body,’ but it is in a place you
can’t see. But since, she complied
and said that it is cute for a tattoo.
Although most discouragements came from
immediate family members, participants also
reported having friends who also gave negative
feedback. For example, Rachel reported facing
difficulties from her peers:
I was actually just discouraged by a
lot of kids here at school because,
what I got all the time was, ‘How’s
that going to influence your job.’ I
never really understood the whole
argument because it’s on my arm, if
I’m like a businessman, I’ll be wearing a suit, so it’s not like I’ll ever see
it. I’m a graphic design major so I
really don’t think it’s socially unacceptable for a graphic designer to
have tattoos, actually most of the
ones I know do have them already.
As noted, students in our sample generally
believed their decisions to tattoo themselves did
not violate Biblical principles. That is, they
believed that Old Testament references to tattooing either were culturally non-applicable or dispensationally irrelevant. By “dispensational,” we
refer to the classic hermeneutical model, outlined by Ryrie (1965), on which most premillenial theology is based. This model asserts that
the New Testament church is not a spiritual continuation of Old Testament Israel; therefore, the
Old Testament teaching from the law does not
apply to New Testament Christians. Dispensational theology is taught in the Bible classes
where the students from our sample attended,
although the university Bible professors would
not necessarily endorse how the students interpreted or dismissed Old Testament passages—
e.g., Leviticus 19:28—in the apparent manner
that they did. To the students, personal attributions of unique meanings or spiritual significance
to the tattoos overshadowed any Biblical instructions on tattoo practices.
From another perspective, the participants did
not refer to any Biblical affirmations as rationale
to support their decisions. That is, in their deliberations, since the Bible did not prohibit the practice explicitly, they were free to engage in the
behavior. None of the students in the study referenced Scriptural passages that would encourage
or permit believers to engage in tattooing practices. We noted that students, overall, did not
seem to engage in a thorough study of Scripture
on this matter prior to making their decisions. At
best, they knew vaguely about a couple of Scriptural references and that seemed to be the extent
of their Biblical considerations. At worst, they
were either ignorant of any Scriptural references
or their knowledge was based upon hearsay.
While participants were college students in an
institution that required Bible and theology classes, not everyone had completed the required
courses at the time of our interviews. In any
case, tattooing did not seem to be a particular
theological concern for all of them. That is, any
spiritual connotations were individually ascribed
rather than theologically based. Moreover, while
students anticipated that their tattoos were permanent dedications for life, none considered the
possibility that later Scriptural understandings
might show their present decisions to be imprudent, and none expressed potential regret for
their decisions to have the chosen designs indelibly marked on their skins. Students made no
mention of consulting with Bible professors, pastors, or others spiritual mentors to help them
explore Scriptural teachings in this area. While
these observations are not meant to be criticisms, we observed that students in this study
seemed to have given minimal considerations to
specific or relevant passages in the Bible or to
any potential ramification for later reinterpretations of Scriptural teachings in this practice.
Instead, the primary persuading factor for
obtaining tattoos seemed to be a personal attribution of the tattoos’ purpose and significance.
Regardless of Biblical teachings or parental influences, a number of individuals perceived the tattoos as being symbolic of their personal
commitments to be at their utmost for God. Some
also believed that their tattoos could serve as conduits for conversations that could lead to sharing
the gospel. By this phrase, they meant that tattoos
might naturally lead to conversations where they
could explain the Bible’s teaching of salvation by
grace through faith to unbelievers. To these students, tattoos serve as a personal, sometimes public, declaration of devotion to God.
Additionally, we underscore that generally students’ parents were discouraging of the tattooing
practice. It was not the intent of the study to
probe into the family dynamics of the participants’ lives. Nonetheless, we take note of the
Bible’s instructions to honor one’s parents (Exodus 20:12, Ephesians 6:1-3). The majority of students in our sample did not indicate spending
time with their parents and receiving, perhaps,
what the book of Proverbs refers to as their “wise
counsel.” For the few who did discuss with their
parents, their decisions appeared to run counter
to their parents’ wishes. Instead, they seemed to
place greater weight in the counsel of their
friends. Simply, these students seemed more
influenced by friends than by their parents.
Unfortunately, this finding is not surprising given
the general conclusions of many studies that
peers have greater influences upon individuals
than do their parents. The finding in this regard
is consistent with the previously cited literature
regarding general disapproval shown by parents
for tattoos on their children (Armstrong et al.,
2002; Coe et al., 1993).
The method of sampling used in the study was
straightforward as described earlier. The e-mail
was sent from the account of the psychology
department secretary. Viz, a general request for
self-identification was issued via a campus-wide
e-mail. There were no individuals responding to
the query who showed pathological tendencies
in their tattoo practices—such as shock or to
inflict pain on their bodies. We have no a priori
reason to suspect that anything in the recruitment
process might have scared off such a potential
subgroup of students. In short, the participants in
the study, from observable and rational perspectives, appeared to reflect the population of tattooed students on this particular campus.
Finally, the evangelical Christian students in
our sample notably did not associate tattoos with
unruly individuals who, sometimes, stereotypically have been associated with tattooing practices (e.g., bikers, sailors, etc.). Their mindsets
were more consistent with the new attitudes suggested by the literature on tattooing. That is, we
previously noted that secular society seems to be
accepting tattooing practices more today than
they have in previous generations. Two percent
of the student population (at the university being
studied) responded to an email solicitation for
participation. Considering the potential number
of students with tattoos who did not respond to
the open solicitation, the number of students in
this CCCU evangelical institution who have a
permanent tattoo may fall within the norm of the
general population (3% to 5%). Students in our
present sample spent most of their developmental years in the new millennium and seem to
reflect these changing societal values. Stated
plainly, as the world has become more accepting
of tattoo practices, so have the evangelical students in our present sample.
Tattooing remains a controversial practice
among Christians. While some believe that any
prohibition is irrelevant in the New Testament
context, others remain adamant that such practice
denotes, at least, defiance and disobedience and,
at worse, a courting with the demonic—that is,
practice influenced by the devil (e.g., Watkins,
2007). It is clear that participants in our sample
who obtained tattoos do not possess a clear or
comprehensive Biblical theology on the subject.
Consistent with other studies on spheres of
influences, peers play a larger role than do parents. Decisions were based primarily on personal
constructs of right/wrong or pragmatics, not
parental insights or Scriptural specifics. In other
words, for this group of evangelical Christians,
neither frequency of practice nor rationales (for
or against) tattooing seem any different from
those of the general population. We believe this
conclusion is consistent with recent developmental literature. For example, Lashbrook (2000)
reported that when shame or embarrassment
was at stake, peers generally outweighed
parental influences—even for older teens. Additionally, Wheeler (2007) reported that contemporary college students, unlike previous
generations, likely fit extended adolescent models of human development, rather than young
adult models. In sum, the salience of peer influence on our study’s participants is congruent
with experts’ current thinking in this domain.
Limitations and Future Research
To some degree, all qualitative research suffers
from deficits in external validity. Thus, although
we followed principles to enhance generalizability as much as possible in the present study
(Firmin, 2006b), our findings are limited in this
regard. Results from qualitative research best
achieve external validity through replication. That
is, as qualitative studies are repeated across multiple contexts, cultures, and time periods, grounded theory emerges in its most robust form
(Rafannti, 2006). Consequently, future researchers
should repeat this study in other contexts of
Christendom, both inside and outside of
academe, to compare our present findings with
those across varying milieu.
Participants in the present study were European-Americans. No attempts were made at
excluding minorities from our sample. Rather,
the study’s sample simply reflected that only 6%
of the student body at this university was minority. Consequently, future researchers should replicate our findings with evangelical students from
minority populations. A comparative analysis
would prove most interesting. Additionally,
future studies in this domain where both Euro-
pean-Americans and minority students are represented would strengthen the research design.
The students in the present study came from a
sample where the institution was located in a
rural, Midwest small town. Moreover, the university possesses a national reputation for being relatively conservative—with a fundamentalist,
historical tradition. We believe that further studies should assess this topic with students from
more open or progressive, evangelical traditions. In order to understand best the dynamics
of how evangelical Christian young people view
tattooing practices, gauging various samples
seems necessary due to the heterogeneity of the
population. We do believe, however, that the
present study makes a significant contribution to
this overall understanding. Given the paucity of
previous research conducted with evangelical
Christian populations on this topic, we believe
that the present research will be heuristic for
future researchers.
Future research studies in this area should
consider drawing from random samples of CCCU
institutions, employing survey methods. Findings
from the present research should provide highly
useful data for generating apt questionnaires.
Such research could compare individuals who
receive tattoos with those who have not chosen
to be tattooed. Additionally, future researchers
may wish to account for the sizes and locales of
tattoos. Using same-gender researchers and participants (only) may enable the researchers, with
permission and pre-informed consent, to view
various tattoos. This may help to factor potentially moderating variables that influence tattoo
decisions, such as colors, shapes, symbols, body
locations, and the like into our overall understanding of tattooing practices.
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Michael W. Firmin (Ph.D. Syracuse University) is professor and chair of the psychology department at
Cedarville University in Cedarville, OH. Dr. Firmin is a
licensed psychologist in the state of OH. His research
interests include professional human service analyses,
quantitative studies in intelligence, and qualitative
research, serving as editor of the Journal of Ethnographic
& Qualitative Research.
Luke M. Tse (Ph.D. in Psychology & Counseling, New
Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, 2000) is Associate
Professor of Psychology at Cedarville University (OH).
Dr. Tse is a National Certified Counselor and a Licensed
Marriage & Family Therapist. His research interests
include issues pertaining to marriages and families,
cross-cultural relationships, and Biblical Counseling &
Spiritual Formation.
Janna B. Foster (B.A. in Psychology, Cedarville University, 2007) is enrolled in a Psy.D. program at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Tammy L. Angelini (B.A. in Psychology, Cedarville
University, 2006) is a Foster Care Caseworker at Aldersgate Youth Service Bureau (PA).