The Art of Tattoos on a Christian Campus

by Josethe Schatz, ’13

Look around you. Chances are, four out of ten people you see have a tattoo. If those numbers don’t sway you in your seat, try 45 million. That’s the number of Americans with tattoos – about 14 percent of the U.S. population. In 2012, a third of adults aged 18 to 25 had one tattoo or more. So, if Whitworth students are following the national pattern, every third student on campus has at least one tattoo.

Keegan Shea, ’14, has four. “It really is just about expressing yourself,” Shea says. “We have skin and sometimes it’s cool to decorate it.” Shea’s “decorations” come in several forms. As “expressions of his soul,” two of his tattoos are quotes, one of which is in Latin. Inked on his left shoulder blade is a lion surrounded by the words “Veritas Aequitas,” meaning “truth and justice”. Look a few inches to his left and you’ll see a tattoo of a pirate on his shoulder.

 “This was before I even knew I was coming to Whitworth,” Shea says as he pulls up his T-shirt sleeve to reveal the inked pirate. His initial motivation for the piece was “to look cool,” but the pirate had a deeper meaning: family. “My dad was a Whitworth Pirate,” Shea says. A “great experience” for Shea, he adds, was that “my dad and I actually got matching tattoos."

Shea’s tattoos are more than images upon his skin. A conversation starter, they are also a way to communicate with others. For some, Shea believes it leads to a positive response from those who like his body art. But from others, he feels he’s a target for negative judgment. “Sometimes that happens, but that’s fine, too,” Shea says. “All art has its critics and supporters.”

Just as works of art can be loathed or admired, Stefan Moore, ’15, appreciates tattoos as an art form, but not for himself. Moore considered going under the needle but was halted by personal reasons.

Moore’s opinions on people with ink depend on the person. “I don’t look at people who have a couple tattoos differently,” Moore says. “But when every visible part of a person is covered in tattoos then I start to get uneasy, just as most other people do.”

Moore expresses a judgment that tattooed individuals face. For some, hostility occurs on a daily basis. Those who have tattoos have faced a long-standing, negative stereotype. The negative feedback hasn’t always been there. The history of tattooing goes back more than 5,000 years. Historians have found evidence of tattoos in many ancient cultures from Polynesia to Japan to Egypt. Historically, tattoos were a way of expressing cultural beliefs and signifying individualism. Some were purely for decorative purposes. Historians have noted the ornate depictions of art and story-telling by way of tattoo were meant to be valued from a cultural perspective.

Yet in American culture, tattoos have always carried a social stigma. Shea, a history major, says that tattoos have often been associated with criminals. That negative connotation draws out the unfavorable stereotype.

Wayne Forrest, a tattoo artist and owner of Screamin’ Ink in North Spokane, knows how big a role the past has played in today’s view of tattooing. “Even 20 years ago it was a different kind of person who got tattoos,” Forrest says. “It was more the undesirables. You know, the navy guys, bikers, and the not-so-higher class.”

Another tattoo artist at Screamin’ Ink, Peter Hamilton, believes that people who aren’t so heavily tattooed are more accepted. Still, he feels all tattooed people are frowned upon – especially in Spokane. “Tattoos are probably accepted in society, it just depends on what society you live in. Spokane is not one of those [accepting] societies,” Hamilton says.

Derek Martin, ’12, is also familiar with the critical outlook. Having four tattoos, Martin believes they cause judgmental attitudes because they make him different. “People instinctually dislike difference,” he says. “Why in the world would another person truly care what my body has on it, unless they simply dislike that I am different?”

Similarly, Hamilton thinks people judge him because of ignorance. “They don’t know enough about the actual art,” he says. Adding that some think people with tattoos are evil people, Hamilton referred to the view as “that old school mentality.”

To those who have a negative opinion on inked individuals, Hamilton said that they should get to know others before making misleading assumptions. “Just because [a person is] covered in tattoos doesn’t mean they’re an evil person,” says Hamilton. “We have so many tattoos because we’re fun people, and we like to express that.”

Hamilton believes his tattoos serve more of a purpose than self-expression. To him, the ink helps to overcome difficult things. “[Tattoos help] figure out that you can deal with pain and not just have to hold things in,” he says. “It’s not just a way of making you look beautiful, but a way of releasing something that needs to be released.”

One hardship Hamilton has faced is the religious aspect towards tattoos. The New Living Translation of Leviticus 19:28 states that “Do not cut your bodies for the dead, and do not mark your skin with tattoos. I am the Lord.” Though raised with a Christian background, Hamilton hasn’t been deterred by the Bible’s “warning” against ink.

Shea also believes it seems silly to look to the Bible for reasons not to get tattooed. “In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul talks about marking up your body and says not to get piercings” he says. Shea thinks if that were the case, people wouldn’t get their ears pierced.

“I think that the Biblical evidence against tattoos is most likely a product of the historical and cultural context,” Shea adds. “I know that people value the Bible differently. It comes down to your individual level of belief or your perspective.”

For whatever reason they have, some people are undecided on getting tattoos. Shea thinks it’s about comfortability and being secure. “It’s just about you and what you want on your body,” he continues. “If you get a tattoo for the right reasons and people still don’t like it, then it shouldn’t bother you.” Shea thinks that should be the true test and asks, “Are you getting a tattoo because you want people to think you’re cool? Or are you getting one because you want to decorate your body?”

Believing that a tattoo can represent whatever the person wants it to, Shea adds, “[Tattoos are] about the act of expression that affirms that you’re an individual.”