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.
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.
When Stankovits first started tattooing professionally 18 years ago, few tattoo artists were Christians. Today, the attitude toward tattoos among Christians has “completely changed,” he told me, especially in California. He’s tattooed numerous priests and pastors and says the market for Christian tattoos is growing and giving rise to niche groups such as the Alliance of Christian Tattooers, a fellowship of Christian tattoo artists. Tattoos are sometimes even becoming a tool for missions.
I visited five other Los Angeles tattoo artists to get a sense of who gets tattoos. Despite infamous stories about people stumbling drunk into tattoo parlors and waking up with the wrong name inscribed forever on their skin, all the tattoo artists I talked to said they turn away people who act intoxicated or are under 18. They also told me that most customers want something personalized and sentimental, not trashy or clichéd, even if it costs more to get custom tattoos. “Nobody wants to meet a stranger in the streets with the same tattoo,” one artist said.
Most customers do their research before getting a tattoo. They know precisely what design they want, and they choose their artist carefully. After all, tattoos last to the grave, and they aren’t cheap—prices typically start at $80 and go up, depending on the size and intricacy of the design. Finding the “right” tattoo artist is like finding a personal hairdresser: You want someone you personally like, who isn’t pushy about your choices, whose artistic style matches yours, and who uses clean, high-quality tools.
Stankovits said his tattoos have often “opened doors to witnessing the gospel,” and spoke of Japanese interviewers who asked about the Christian meanings behind his tattoos: “They were asking me, ‘Who is Jesus and why the cross?’ I’m like, raising eyebrows, going, ‘Oh, really? You want to listen? OK.’ And I was kind of laying out what the gospel meant. They probably would not have had this conversation if not for the tattoo.”
But tattoos understandably don’t meet with approval everywhere. Cat Brown, with her band of vibrant tattoos—many Christian-themed—circling both upper arms, wishes she could start more conversations about her tattoos, but the school where she teaches isn’t thrilled about them, so she often slips on a long-sleeved cardigan. She remembered the first time a tattoo needle pricked her skin and shot a sensation similar to “a butter knife digging in.” She panicked, thinking, “Oh my God, what did I do?” But once she stepped off the chair with a freshly inked, raw-pink arm, she decided, “Well, that wasn’t so bad! I think I can do that again.”
Then there are people like Sylvia Hur, 26, who left the tattoo parlor still thinking, “Oh no, what did I do?” Hur got a 3-inch inscription of the word “Remnant” on the arch of her upper back—a reminder to be a faithful Christian in a secular world. The moment the needle pierced her skin, Hur regretted her decision. “It was so painful, I thought I was going to die,” she told me, adding, “Don’t ever get a tattoo!” Today she doesn’t wear anything that reveals her tattoo, but makes a reluctant exception for the beach.
Luke Tse, a psychology professor at Cedarville University, published a study on Christian college students’ perception toward tattoos in 2008, after a female student approached him with the idea. That student had several Christian friends who have tattoos or were considering getting a tattoo but didn’t want to disobey God. Tse’s survey (limited to white, evangelical students) revealed that many young Christians find no theological objections to tattoos, though few consulted their pastors or spiritual mentors beforehand. Many students he interviewed went ahead and got one after a parent forbade it. “Even if tattooing is not a sin, the fact that they acted out of disobedience, that is introducing a fault, a sin,” Tse said.
Tse said he’s met ministers who get tattoos with a clear missional purpose, such as a couple in a punk-rock Christian band whose ministry targets “people in the punk world who can’t find an easy acceptance in typical churches.” The wife told Tse that without her numerous tattoos, she would have a tough time reaching that punk-rock demographic. But is it necessary to take such extreme, permanent measures for the sake of evangelism? I asked Tse whether he would allow his daughter to get a tattoo, and he laughed. “My wife would say no, absolutely no. I don’t care to have a tattoo myself. I don’t think I personally need to carry my testimony on my skin.”