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GROWING DEMAND: Sid Stankovits says the attitude toward tattoos among Christians has “completely changed.”
Photo by Sophia Lee
GROWING DEMAND: Sid Stankovits says the attitude toward tattoos among Christians has “completely changed.”

Permanent marker

Culture | Once the domain of gangs and outcasts, tattoos have gone mainstream—including among Christians

Issue: "Inside the wire," March 22, 2014

SANTA ANA, Calif.—Cat Brown, 35, sat patiently in Sid’s Tattoo Parlor, legs crossed under a poofy vintage skirt and numbing cream slathered over her back. A high school guidance counselor, Brown had flown from Tempe, Ariz., to Santa Ana, Calif., to see Sid Stankovits, her favorite tattoo artist and owner of the tiny shop in a strip mall.

This was Brown’s tenth appointment with Stankovits, and she was getting the biggest tattoo she’d ever had: a giant eagle stretching across her upper back, etched with the phrases “God is my anchor, I’m under the shadow of his wings”—words inspired by the Psalms. “After this, I’m done,” Brown said: “I’ve always wanted a tattoo on my back, so this is the final one.”

Brown is one of many who profess Christ and literally embody their faith with needle and ink. Although tattooing is a thousands-year-old practice, only in the last two decades has it punctured mainstream culture and become more accepted, even trendy. Previously, tattoos suggested association with gangs, rebels, and deviant culture, but now even the most cookie-cutter Valley girl can flash a tattoo—or 10.

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A 2012 nationwide survey by Harris Interactive found that 23 percent of American adults have one or more tattoos, with 86 percent of the tattooed saying, “No regrets.” Thirty percent of 25- to 29-year-olds have at least one tattoo. Yet even as tattoos gradually lose social odium, Christians still ask: To tattoo, or not to tattoo?

Many older Christians condemn tattoos by quoting the most direct biblical reference to tattoos, Leviticus 19:28: “You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord.” Others seek exegesis from pastors like John Piper, who said in a recent podcast that he receives emails about tattoos “almost daily.” Piper took two episodes to address the issue, and concluded by saying tattooing is not a sin, but be wise and skip it. The Leviticus passage is explicitly anti-tattoo, and “that should at least give us a few minutes’ pause,” said Piper. Tattooing in itself is not intrinsically evil, the popular pastor and author said, but the permanent nature of tattoos—with the painful and expensive cost of removal—may turn them into stumbling blocks later.

Others who profess Christ don’t skip it, but at least think about it seriously. Brown said she considered “long and hard” before she decided to ink her skin. While most of her friends flaunted girly-cutesy unicorn and heart tattoos in high school—which they later regretted—she didn’t get her first tattoo until she turned 30. She says her tattoos are “permanent markers on me that remind me of Jesus. And I like it when people ask. It opens up conversations, and I think tattoos are beautiful.”

I sat with Brown as she waited at Sid’s Tattoo Parlor for Sid Stankovits to arrive. The parlor is a head-whirling cacophony of classic and modern tattoo posters, humorous and grotesque trinkets, and Christian motifs, but the air is cool and clear, the equipment sterilized and neatly tucked away. Brown likes Sid’s because “it’s clean and classy.”

WHEN STANKOVITS arrived, he was slightly frazzled from a long day babysitting his five children, the youngest only 4 months old. He arrived dressed in a checkered shirt and black pants, slammed down a pack of cigars on the counter, then propped his feet up in his office. His gray hair slicked back, Stankovits, 42, still seems young and punkish. He hoots “Gnarly!” and “Trippy!” and “Rad, dude!” as he speaks of his long admiration for tattoos, which initially grew from simple peer pressure: “All the older guys got tattoos, so I wanted to get a tattoo.” But today, he makes tattoos because he likes drawing, and sees tattoos as “100 percent an art form.”

Stankovits, who professed Christ when he was 18, held off getting his first tattoo to ask several pastors if tattoos are sinful. He received mixed answers: Some said no, some said yes, but when Stankovits asked why, they merely quoted Leviticus and concluded, “It’s just wrong.” So he studied that oft-quoted Scripture and concluded that the verse refers to idolatry and paganism, not tattoos themselves. He then got his first tattoo from an ex-punk Christian in a garage, and many more after that. He even has tattoos on his face: a tiny cross under one eye like a teardrop, and an inscription above his eyebrow.

Most of Stankovits’ tattoos are Christian-themed—crucifixes, doves, Scriptures, a portrait of Jesus, Rock of Ages—but he’s also tattooed secular images, mostly “old sailor” classics such as panthers and cobwebs, and his wife Jennifer, a pastor’s daughter, is heavily tattooed as well. (She is the granddaughter of the late Chuck Smith, founder of Calvary Chapel, an evangelical megachurch that once stoked the “Jesus Movement.”) Although her father wasn’t too pleased with Jennifer’s extreme tattooing, he later asked Sid to tattoo a chain with the Hebrew word Yahweh around his wrist, right underneath his watch.

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