The Christian world has had a love-hate relationship with tattoos for centuries. While the abundance of Christian-themed tattoos is testament to the popularity of the practice among Christians, the official position of various church officials through time has occasionally included prohibitions of one type or another.
In an ironic little historical twist, the first known ban regarding tattooing that took place in Christianity came not from a Pope but from a Roman emperor – but of course not just any Roman emperor.
Flavius Valerius Constantinus was born sometime in the late 280s CE as the son of an army officer. But by CE 324, he had become emperor of all the Roman empire, after the usual bloody run of civil wars, betrayals, and political machinations, eventually adopting Constantine the Great as his byname. On his rise to power though, he underwent a religious conversion, adopting Christianity and putting a halt to the persecution of that group that Rome had seemed to enjoy so much.
While Constantine didn’t put a halt to tattooing, since it had enjoyed a long use among the Romans as a penal tool, used to mark slaves and criminals, he did prohibit tattooing the face. The Theodosian Code preserves his dictum from 316 CE: “If someone has been condemned to a gladiatorial school or to the mines [or quarries] for the crimes he has been caught committing, let him not be marked on his face, since the penalty of his condemnation can be expressed both on his hands and on his calves, and so that his face, which has been fashioned in the likeness of the divine beauty, may not be disgraced.”
The church proper finally took a hand in 787 CE by expanding on that dictum when Pope Adrian I banned all tattooing as pagan and barbaric.
People on both sides of the issue will cite Biblical scripture in support of their positions, as is also the case with other religions and their attitudes toward tattoos. Below are a selection from the numerous types of designs that are drawn from the rich symbolic tradition of Christian art and tattoos.
Christian Tattoo Symbols
Alpha and Omega
Alpha Mu Omega
Crown of Thorns
Rock of Ages
Salome and the Head of John
St. George Slaying the Dragon
Virgin Mary of Guadalupe
Cross of Equal Lengths
Cross of Golgotha
Cross of Hope
Cross of Philip
Cross of the Archangels
Cross of the Evangelists
Cross of the Pope
Cross Over Globe
Diagonal Cross with Vertical Line
Greek-Russian Orthodox Cross
Heart with Cross
The labarum is also known as the Chi Rho since these are the Greek letters which make up the symbol. Used in the early Christian church, the Chi Rho stood for the first two letters of “Christos.”
Other than a cross, there is probably no other symbol more evocative of Christianity than its principal figure, Jesus Christ, seen here with a halo and the crown of thorns.
Popular in Old School tattooing styles and amongst mariners who might be hoping to cling to something in a stormy sea, the Rock of Ages tattoo takes its name from a famous hymn.