With Easter once again upon us, religious symbolism can be seen everywhere. From crosses to eggs, even the most innocuous of Easter images have religious origins. So too do many forms and styles of tattooing; while it is a common myth that tattoos go against standard religious beliefs, the truth is much more…colourful.
As we’ve discussed in previous posts, the earliest known tattoos were often religious in nature – images of worshipped animals, symbols representing gods, and designs intended to ward off evil spirits are incredibly common in numerous cultural histories. But what about more recent times? Any of us that grew up in Christian environments have likely had Leviticus 19:28, the verse in which “cutting or marking the flesh” is strictly forbidden, quoted to us more than once. It is this verse that has led to the belief that tattoos are not permitted in many religions. Biblical scholars, however, argue that it is not tattooing itself that is forbidden, but a specific kind of ritual in which tattoos are employed. In fact, many Christian groups throughout history, such as the Knights of St. John and the Montanists, used tattoos to show their allegiance, and more recent groups, including Croats and Coptic Christians, tattoo themselves as a form of protection and declaration of faith.
In Hinduism, tattoos are not only permitted, but often encouraged. Markings on the forehead are thought to enhance spiritual health and open chakras. Women tattoo their faces with dots around the eyes and mouth to ward off evil, and men will tattoo Aum on their hands and arms to improve their karma. Several Hindu deities are portrayed with tattoos and other similar markings.
Neopaganism, an umbrella term for various forms of witchcraft, new-age spiritualism, and traditional belief systems, has no single policy on tattooing, but it’s safe to say that it is not generally frowned upon. In fact, many pagans utilize tattoos to memorialize their spiritual journeys or declare allegiance, often adorning themselves with their chosen gods and goddesses, pagan symbols, and sacred geometry. Others use tattoos as part of their private rituals, getting fertility symbols, images of talisman and amulets, or scenes from favourite myths. Gerald Gardner, a well-known figure in paganism and Wicca, had several tattoos depicting what he considered magical symbols, including a dagger, snakes, dragons, and anchors.
These are just a handful of spiritual paths that allow and encourage tattoos – there are many more, including traditional Japanese, Egyptian, and African religions, many Buddhist sects, and more progressive sects of Islam. On this Easter weekend, perhaps we can all take a few moments to appreciate the interconnectedness of symbolism and body modification throughout the world, and its history.
When I logged into Facebook the other day, this picture, along with this article, were staring me in the face. A group I frequent was debating – and I do use that term loosely – why anyone would do such a thing to themselves. A fair question, I suppose, but one that has no concrete answer. People tossed out everything from mental illness to low self-esteem to a desperate desire to be different, but, having worked in the body mod industry for several years now, none of these replies were satisfactory to me.
So why do people get such extreme mods? What compels people to pierce their heels, or tattoo their entire face? Why would anyone want a 0g tunnel in their labret, or spike implants in their head? The truth of the matter is, only they know. There is no single answer to this question – and that is, in and of itself, the best answer of all. Each and every person that delves into the more extreme side of body modification does it for their own reasons. Daniel, the possessor of the Achilles piercings, didn’t ever offer a reason for doing so, but many others have, and the answers are as varied and controversial as the mods themselves.
Stelarc, a well-known artist and body mod enthusiast, talks about his rather extreme mods – including an “ear” implanted into his arm – in artistic, transhumanist terms. For him, these modifications offer insight into “the increasing intimacy of machines and the human body”. Russ Foxx, world-renowned body-mod artist, offers a vaguer reason behind mods like eyeball tattooing, saying only that the eyes are “a strong communication tool” and that the ink injections can create “amazing and beautiful effects”. James Keen, a young, heavily modified eunuch, cites extremely personal reasons that include a feeling of gender-neutrality and a “primitive urge” to modify.
When looking at, and into, these extreme mods, it seems the relevant question is not “why”, but “what”. They whys are often far too personal, and too difficult, to articulate. It’s the what – the message one hopes to communicate, or the result one hopes to attain – that goes a long way in explaining the desire to have these extreme modifications, and the willingness to push the envelope. Whether the ultimate goal is artistic, philosophical, historical, sexual, aesthetic, religious, or something entirely different, there is a universal theme that runs through them all. Each and every one of these extreme mods is a declaration of autonomy, a powerful and unapologetic claiming of one’s own body. And perhaps that’s where the real discussion should begin. Rather than question the sanity of the people who enjoy these mods, we should be asking ourselves why autonomy is something to be questioned.