'Inked' for Christ? Tattoos and the Church

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A fresh wave of ink is hitting the U.S. right now:  tattoo ink.

Almost half of all Americans under 30 have one, and 40 percent of adults 26 to 40 have a tattoo.

It's big business for enterprising tattoo artists like Chris Bowman who sees a variety of clients.

"You get all the way from the stay-at-home mom who just wants a little tattoo on her ankle, to the businessman, to the biker," he said.

The Appeal of Tattoos

A 2004 Harris Poll shows a third of tattooed Americans say tattoos make them feel sexier.

"It's like people who work out, you want to look good," explained Vaughn Jackson, as a tattoo artist finished work on his fifth tattoo.

A quarter of Americans say tattoos make them feel more rebellious, and a fifth say they feel more spiritual.

Spiritual?

Bowman says many of his customers want to express their faith.

"We do a lot of religious tattoos, a lot of crosses, a lot of virgin mary's" he explained.

Churches across the country are finding more and more people in their congregations have tattoos.

We visited Crossroads Community Church in Kokomo, Ind. -- very much the heartland of the country with cornfields, car plants and conservative values. It's also a church with a number of members and visitors who have tattoos.

"If where they are is with a tattoo, we try to meet them there," Pastor Kevin Smith explained. "Our job is not to condemn or judge them but to welcome them."

Tattoos as Witnessing Tools?

One young father told us after the service about his tattoos. Matt York said his two crosses "are kind of a statement - a witnessing piece, a testimony."

Mike Lupoi says his Christian tattoos keep him accountable.

"I love Christ," he said. "That is what has changed my life. It's given us a good foundation in our home to raise our children, but it also is obvious in front of everyone because there's no hiding it. That's what it's there for."

And it's not just Christian men who've bought in. Amber Lupoi at Crossroads told us that a lot of women in the church have tattoos. You wouldn't know it because they're more discreet about it.

Regret?

But in the bigger picture, a recent Harris Poll shows 17 percent regret their tattoos.

For example, Beth Elser is spending several thousand dollars to get her seemingly non-offensive bit of ankle artwork removed. Her young daughters are the reason.

"When our first daughter was about three and we would try to tell her that you write on paper and not furniture and not on yourself," Elser said. "Then she started to say 'but mommy you drew on your ankle.'"

Dr. David McDaniel uses laser therapy to remove tattoos. It's often painful and requires multiple treatments. But McDaniel says many of his patients feel trapped by their permanent artwork.

"You have a tattoo of a name of a boyfriend, girlfriend or ex-spouse and it's a daily reminder of a mistake or pain from the past," he said.

American Churches' Stance on Tattoos

Not long ago, most American churches frowned on tattoos, but modern times have softened the stance. As church leaders begin to re-think the issue they're drawn to Paul's passages on freedom in Christ and loving our neighbor.

And just how relevant is Leviticus 19:28, which says "You shall not make...any tattoo marks on yourselves," today?

Presbyterian Pastor Joe Mullen says we can't ignore Leviticus.

"I think we need to ask ourselves whether we're trying to create a special identity that marks us -- and really, in Jesus, we have our special identity," Mullen said.

Other Christian leaders worry about tattoos' pagan origins and links with witchcraft.

But Jayme Whitaker sees no problem with his identity in Christ and love of tattoos. As head of the Christian Tattoo Association he works to build bridges between the tattooed and the non-tattooed.

For Whitaker, tattoos are possible because of our Christian liberty. He says he's excited about using them to lead others to Christ. He recently designed tattoos representing the Holy Spirit for new believers Brent and Melissa Cohick.

"What Christ has done to me in my life, it was such a dramatic change, that I I wanted to have a visual expression of him in my life," Brent said.

Ultimately, Whitaker says he wants the Church to reach out to those with tattoos.

"We're called to love above all things, and I think that's what we'd really like to see people get -- where we can get to the point where we can embrace, where heavily tattooed people can walk into a church and feel like everyone just loves them," Whitaker said.

For many Christians, loving those with tattoos is the easy part. But what remains as an issue for some is whether a practice that has offensive pagan roots -- is one that should be encouraged.

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Heather Sells

Heather Sells

CBN News Reporter

Heather Sells covers a variety of issues for CBN News ranging from immigration and religious liberty to human trafficking, privacy issues and food.

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