Although the existence of tattooing can be traced back thousands of years before Christ, the earliest evidence of tattooing among Christians is sketchy at best. In fact, we do not know precisely where or when it might have begun. However, if we look back to the beginning of the religion itself, there are some clues.
In the first few centuries after the death of Christ, Christians found themselves most heavily concentrated and persecuted in Rome. It was Nero (37-68 A.D.) who blamed the Christians for the great fire of 64 A.D., which destroyed large parts of the city. In doing so, he was capitalizing on an already established public sentiment throughout Europe that found the new religion suspect and unwanted. Indeed, Roman persecution of Christians was to continue for hundreds of years.
Although early Christians may have been exposed to tattooing in many different ways, including traditional practices in their various places of origin, they were almost surely exposed to the type of tattooing common in the Roman Empire: punishment or punitive tattoos. It was common practice for slaves and criminals to be identified as such with the use of facial tattoos. The Romans very likely adopted the practice from the Greeks, who in turn likely copied the Persians, who marked their slaves, convicts, and prisoners of war with facial letters that made them easily identifiable should they have attempted escape. It wasn’t until the Emperor Constantine (307 A.D.), who had converted to Christianity, that facial tattoos were banned. In his view, the scriptures clearly indicated that the human face was made in the image of God and was, therefore, not to be altered.We know that early Christians voluntarily wore the symbols of their religion (the cross, the fish, the chi-rho, and others) as tattoos and that the Romans used tattoos for punitive measures, but we will likely never really know if the two are associated, though it seems likely. Did punitive tattoos give rise to a visual form of rebellion? Did the Roman’s mark of identification become a symbol of martyrdom? Did the early Christians simply make the best of the situation and imbue their tattoos with a positive sentiment? Perhaps even some combination of these likely scenarios is responsible for the incipient use of tattoos among Christians.
In the subsequent centuries, Christian tattooing rarely enters the written record but when it does, it does so in interesting ways. Pope Hadrian I, in 787 AD, banned tattooing (since it was associated with heathen practices) but there was an exemption for religious tattoos since they would “bring spiritual rewards.”In the Medieval period, mentions of tattoos become more numerous including clerics (such as Dominican priest and German mystic Heinrich Suso (1295-1366) who tattooed the name of Jesus over his heart) and also miracles (a German girl in 1501, who may have been tattooed as part of an exorcism).
The scriptures, as in so many other things, are ambiguous on the subject of tattoos. Leviticus 19:28 is a famed example to which both Christians and Jews refer when speaking of the inappropriateness of tattoos: “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the Lord!” In context, though, this prohibition has more to do with imitating heathen practices than with tattoos per se. In the New Testament, Galations 6:7 has Paul stating that “From henceforth let no man trouble me: for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” An incredibly vague statement, he might be referring to anything from a birth mark to the stigmata.