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Fashioning the imitation of Christ

by
10 April 2015

Tattoo artists are a new priesthood, helping to mark great life events, writes Ted Harrison

PA

Fan of tattoos: the footballer David Beckham

Fan of tattoos: the footballer David Beckham

ON HIS back there is a picture of a guardian angel; on his neck there is a winged cross; and on his right side there is an image of the flagellated Christ. Unless he has recently returned from the tattoo parlour with yet another piece of body art, David Beckham has, to date, 40 tattoos - many of them based on religious themes.

The footballer is the fashion leader, but the fashion itself has many followers. Tattoos were once the domain of sailors and eccentrics. Tattooing was a discreet and back-street business. Today, the art is thriving. Shops offering tattoos and body piercing are on the high streets. Many thousands of "respectable" men and women shamelessly and openly decorate their bodies.

A modest tattoo might consist of a single design: a lone Chinese character; a butterfly; a peace symbol such as a dove. Christians might ask for a fish symbol or, more daringly, the letters J E S U S and L O V E tattooed on the knuckles.

Some serious collectors have given over their whole bodies to decoration. There are Goths with huge vampires and spiders' webs on their faces and upper bodies. Dragons and mythical creatures are in demand. The pictures selected by tattooists' clients are an intriguing guide, both to society and to folk faith.


ALTHOUGH one should not normally judge character by appearance, in the case of tattoos, arguably a different rule applies After all, the man with multiple body piercings and provocative tattoos of satanic images has chosen to look like that. He deliberately presents himself as hostile to the world. The message is clear: "Don't mix with me."

The sight of someone displaying religious imagery across his or her body might provoke a different response. It can be disconcerting to see a crucifixion on a flexed bicep, or the Sacred Heart of Jesus displayed just above a pair of swimming trunks, but it is more reassuring than studs and devils.

THERE will be those who welcome such open displays of faith. Others might wonder whether the walking art gallery truly understands the significance of what he or she is showing to the world. If people select a deeply significant moment from the life of Christ as nothing more than a frivolous decoration, some will argue that they are committing an offensive act of indelible blasphemy. It is both creating a graven image and taking the name of God in vain, thus transgressing two of the Ten Commandments. Indeed, tattooing is specifically prohibited in the Bible - not that enthusiasts take much notice. The relevant text, Leviticus 19.28, has even been turned into a tattoo.

It is not surprising that religious-themed tattoos are popular, in that tattooing appears to have taken on several of the functions of religion. For a teenager, the first visit to a tattooist is a rite of passage, often encouraged by, or at least undertaken with the permission of, a parent. It has become a kind of secular confirmation, or bar mitzvah, to be undertaken as soon as the law permits. A tattooist may not accept a client under the age of 18, but the law is not always observed.

A few years ago, when making a television documentary about Butlin's Redcoats, I accompanied a young man as he set out to have his first tattoo. He wanted a picture of Elvis on his torso. Although over 18, he submitted to paternal guidance and settled for a more discreet Elvis lightning logo on the upper arm.


MANY of Mr Beckham's tattoos are linked directly with family events. As a pledge of devotion to his wife, Victoria, he had her name permanently inscribed on his body. Not wanting a plain English fount, he asked for it to be written in a Hindi script, but unfortunately, in transcription, it went awry, and now reads "Vihctoria".

There was no mistake made when his children's names were recorded in blue ink. In doing this, the celebrity family was adopting a practice that is now widespread. I know one woman who has the birth dates of each of her children on her arm, not as an aide memoire, but as a celebration of motherhood. The tattooist, like the civil celebrant, is increasingly replacing the priest as the professional who helps to mark significant life events.

Perhaps, too, the tattooist helps to offer absolution. A tattoo can be a symbol of confession. In 2004, a month after allegations of an affair, Mr Beckham had a large angel tattooed on his arm, with the motto "In the Face of Adversity". By way of explanation, he said: "Everybody's got a way of expressing their feelings, and mine is through my tattoos."


A TATTOO can be a talisman, a superstitious sign of protection; but it might also be a declaration of belief, and belonging; thus football-club logos and national flags are much in demand. In some respects, having a tattoo is the equivalent of taking a life vow. At the moment of solemn admission, a new member of a religious order is making a commitment for life. Marriage, too, is "Till death do us part". Arguably, a tattoo is a more permanent step; for abandoning a religious vocation or obtaining a divorce are easier steps to take than having a tattoo removed.

Being tattooed, I am told, can be uncomfortable; even, for the nervous and sensitive, truly painful. For some, however, this might be a necessary and significant part of the process. For subjecting oneself to the many hours it takes for the artist's needle to create a crucifixion scene on the body is in itself an act of piety: a declaration of belief in, and an imitation of, Christ.

Ted Harrison is an artist and writer.

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