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Tattoos – Sacred or Profane

Tattoos – Sacred or Profane


Unlike in the past, tattoos continue to gain prominence in Western culture. Tattooing was a ritual that was often associated with indigenous tribes and religions. It was commonly used as a rite of passage as well as a symbol of religious and communal affiliations to a particular religion or community. In the contemporary world, tattoos are commonly used as a symbol of self-expression and desire to establish control over one’s own body. There are also certain individuals who embrace the sacredness of tattoos as they make use of them to communicate religious messages to others or to symbolize their affiliations and commitment to a certain religion. Other tattoos are considered to have sacred meanings like fertility and protection from evil. However, some individuals consider tattooing to be a profanity, given that it is linked with deviant behaviors and is against the beliefs of certain religions like Christianity. The symbolic interactionism and psychological perspectives have been used to shed light on both the sacredness and profanity of tattooing. Durkheim’s perspective on religion and tattooing has also been incorporated in the paper.

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The popularity of tattoos in Western culture is increasing rapidly, and the behavior of tattooing has become more acceptable in the current society. This may be linked to sports icons and celebrities with tattoos appearing in magazines and television shows. According to Kertzman et al,[1] tattooed individuals have always been perceived as foolish, immoral, undesirable, crude, and unstable, whereas others considered them appealing, desirable, self-confident, unique progressive, and interesting. Researchers have strived to understand the various motives and ideas behind tattooing. For some people, tattoos are considered a form of self-expression and identification. Over the years, it has been established that tattoos play an integral role in various religions. Tattoos have been utilized for thousands of years as significant tools in traditions and rituals. Whereas Islam, Christianity, and Judaism have often been hostile to the use of tattoos, some other religions, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism, make extensive use of them.[2] Tattoos form an important part of individuals’ culture and identity. However, some cultures consider tattoos to be highly profane, and these tattoos are considered taboo and a sign of rebellion. This paper will focus on an argument of whether tattoos should be considered sacred or profane. Whereas critics claim that tattoos are profane because they are supposedly linked to witchcraft, gang affiliation, and other deviant behaviors, research shows that tattoos are a form of self-expression, a form of control over one’s body, and a rite of passage that affiliates one to their divine nature and to their community.

Contemporary Use of Tattoos

Tattoos have always been labeled as deviant due to the behavior that was originally linked to the individuals who have them. This is based on the reactions and assessment of other people in the society. Previously, tattoos were often linked to criminals, sailors, circus entertainers, and savage races. As a result, based on the status of such individuals in society, tattoos have always been associated with individuals who are considered socially undesirable. Some scholars argue that while tattooing, the body becomes a form of symbolic cultural investment, and is promoted by the identity-making efforts of an individual.[3]

In the contemporary world, some of the common functions of tattoos are as follows. Firstly, tattoos can be considered a ritual. In a culture where there are few rites of passage and rituals outside religion, tattoos can play the role of a physical mark of a particular life event. Additionally, tattoos can function as identification for a group or an individual. It can also function as a talisman to safeguard the bearer from harm or as a form of decoration. Generally, in the current society, tattoos are considered as individuals’ attempts to establish control over their individual bodies.

Psychological Perspectives of Tattooing: Profanity of Tattoos

In the medical community, tattoos have been associated with deviant behavior since individuals with tattoos are often considered to have low self-esteem, and are linked to deviant sexualities, impulsiveness, drug and alcohol abuse, as well as other forms of psychiatric medical problems.[4] Such negative implications of linking deviance with tattoos have caused tattoos to be labeled profane. Whereas some studies have proved that tattooing behavior is linked to high-risk behaviors and low self-esteem, others have shown no significant differences between individuals with tattoos and those without.[5] With the high-risk behaviors associated with tattooing, tattoos are considered by some to be profane.

On the other hand, tattoos constitute non-verbal communication and are considered a way of presenting or expressing oneself. Individuals with body modifications are said to have the need to communicate in a radical manner, and they do this using their own bodies as a way of communicating their own authentic way of feeling and being.[6] Therefore, tattoos are commonly used as a way of developing a unique identity and hence attaining an improved self-image. The most common motives cited for tattooing behavior among college students include: “to attain control and mastery over the body,” “to express myself,” “to consolidate identity,” identity creation and self-affirmation,” and a way through which one “builds personal distinctiveness.”[7] The meaning of tattooing in the current society is varied and mostly includes cultural rebellion but also self-definition and personal expression. Gaining mastery over one’s body is considered highly sacred in some religions like Buddhism, where tattooing is a common practice. Therefore, tattoos are considered sacred by some religions and individuals.

The Theory of Symbolic Interaction: Profanity and Sacredness of Tattooing

One of the major premises of symbolic interaction is that meanings are usually construed and made sense of through one’s interaction with other people. For one to understand meanings, one has to understand the cultural and situational context in which these meanings are developed. Symbolic interactions, therefore, see meanings as social products. That is, meanings are creations formed in and through the defining activities of individuals as they interact with each other and with their surroundings.

Erving Goffman is one of the most influential sociological writers who has helped shed light on symbolic interaction. Goffman focused on face-to-face verbal interaction as the primary process of interaction. However, other sociologists argue that individuals can exert agency through nonverbal communicative mechanisms like appearance and dress.[8] Tattooing is one of the ways through which individuals communicate nonverbally.

Whereas tattooed individuals obtain various meanings from their tattoos, such as a religious symbol of protection or a form of self-expression and beauty, some non-tattooed individuals might construe other negative meanings from these tattoos. In most cases, tattoos are often considered unprofessional. It is not uncommon to see a tattooed individual with similar qualifications with a non-tattooed individual rejected for a job based on the way they look. Furthermore, some individuals believe that tattoos are damaging to the body. They also believe that tattooed individuals are, more often than not, prisoners, members of a gang, or thugs. This happens regardless of the meaning of the tattoo that one has.

Profanity of Tattoos

By deriving negative meanings from tattoos, the art of tattooing is often regarded as profane. In Leviticus 19:28, the Bible says, “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the Lord.” Tattooing is often associated with pagan worship and sorcery. Some people consider tattoos to be a sign of witchcraft, pagan symbolism, or idolatry. The stigmatization of such negatives as witchcraft, gang affiliation, and other deviant behaviors has resulted in stigmatization. According to Larsen, Patterson, and Markham,[9] the term stigma originates from the Greek process of marking slave and criminal bodies with tattoos. Therefore, stigma has been passed down to refer to a mark of infamy, a physical mark that denotes disgrace or shame. Stigmatization is common among tattooed individuals. In most cases, the labeling theory is usually used to explain deviant behaviors among tattooed individuals.[10] Furthermore, tattooing and body piercings have been linked with homosexual tendencies as well as sadomasochism and sexual risk-taking.[11] Other scholars who have focused on prison populations have also found relations between criminality and violent behaviors.[12]  Some researchers suggest that clinicians need to use tattooing as an indicator for more investigation into risk-taking behaviors in adolescents.[13] All these are considered deviant behaviors which are highly profane.

However, over time, tattoos have become more culturally acceptable, and the negative connotations such as their link to witchcraft and idolatry are not as common as in the olden days. In fact, the Pew Research Center reveals that over 40 percent of millennials have tattoos.[14] It is no longer the outcasts of society or the sailors alone who have tattoos. In fact, in the current society, tattoos with religious themes are more common. Individuals are said to proclaim their faith in their bodies when they get tattooed. One religious member claims, “There’s a lot of people that I know and have talked to who’ve been sitting in my chair getting tattooed that have undergone a major life change and found some sort of god in their lives, and it has completely altered their life for the better.”[15] Individuals who consider tattoos to be sacred base their assumptions on the meanings associated with such tattoos.

The Sacredness of Tattoos

For millennia, individuals around the world have tattooed their skin as a way of communicating different sociocultural, psychosocial, and ontological concepts encompassing cultural identity, position, and status, as a symbol of beauty, for supernatural protection, and for medicinal purposes. As a system of transmission of knowledge, tattooing has been and continues to be a visual language of one’s skin, in which culture is inscribed, preserved, and experienced in various specific ways.[16] Across the indigenous world, tribal people rarely refer to tattooing as an aesthetic or artistic practice. Instead, tattooing is deeply engraved in the religious life and social fabric of the community. The tattooed skin is a potent source of pride because it reenacts mythological and ancestral traditions. Wrapped in images of spirits, ancestors, and gods, tattoos have become venerated as symbols of genealogy, tribal unity, and protection. However, it is important to note that tattooing is oftentimes used for beautification and is sometimes considered an artistic endeavor.

For various citizens of modernity, religious ritual is not a part of life. Turned off by the formulaic or archaic nature of many religious rituals, individuals no longer wish to take part in the traditions that are passed down within their own cultures. Without rituals to delineate the different life stages, some individuals believe that the younger generation might be missing out.[17] Without rituals, life is likely to lose its meaning and rhythm. Tattooing is said to have the ability to connect the body to the soul and divinity.[18] In Megan’s opinion, tattooing provides the affirmation of the body as a religious implement and an intrinsic need in every human being for ritualized and marked existence. Whereas some religions cite the need to ignore the body for more spiritual and abstract existences, tribal religions emphasize the need to embrace the body and realize one’s physical capability to connect to the divine. The body can no longer be disgraced, but manipulated, tested, adorned, and eventually respected.[19] Therefore, Megan believes that tattooing and other body modification forms are valid religious experience forms that offer an individual a more comprehensive and fulfilling religious experience. Tattooing, therefore, should not be looked at as a profanity or relic but as a potent for rediscovering ritual and the enormous possibility it can offer the modern world.

Tattoos have recorded the identity, triumph, and pain of about every indigenous culture in the whole world. In Thailand, tattoos are said to give the Muay Thai fighters super strength and are also used to safeguard elephant trainers from attack and make soldiers impenetrable to gunfire. The Buddhist monks of Thailand have made use of the same tattoo methods for centuries, passing this art from master to disciple and leaving the tradition of sak yant untouched.[20] Sak refers to tattoos, whereas yant means mystical insignia. The tattoo is administered by the temple ajarn (senior monk), who is often wrapped in a robe, sitting on a cushion, and flanked by pots of holy water and ink.[21] The senior monk determined the design that one needs to have and the placement after reading the aura. The soul is often believed to reside in the head, and therefore the closer the tattoo is to the crown, the more power the tattoo is expected to have. The sacred designs of sak yant normally combine geometric patterns with khom or Sanskrit, which is the sacred calligraphy of the primordial Khmer language.[22] Some of the most recognized designs include the Paed Tidt, which is the 8-direction yant containing 8 mantras written in 2 concentric circles, said to offer protection in whichever direction one chooses to travel and ward off evil. The Gao Yord (9 spires) represents the 9 peaks of Mount Meru, which is the center of the universe according to Hindu and Buddhist mythology.[23] A small Buddha sits at the top of every spire with a unaalome above him, which is representative of the path to enlightenment. Unaalome refers to a spiral that symbolizes the path of life, at first it meanders through the earthly distractions of everyday life, but then it gradually becomes straighter as one grows older and wiser, hence attaining true enlightenment.[24] Lastly, the Hah Taew (5 sacred lines) represent various sacred blessings that are bestowed by the ajarn, and the verses range from loving kindness, protection from evil, good luck, and great charm.[25]

In the Samoan culture, tattoos also have a sacred meaning. Receiving a tattoo in the customary Samoan way was a highly excruciating experience. Men were expected to go through about 4 months of inking as a rite of passage. During the session, which lasted till dawn or until the pain became unbearable, the artists tapped designs into the skin with a tattoo comb and mallet dipped in ink, following simple marks as a guide.[26] The family of the man would then throw a party in celebration of the completion of the tattoo that stretched to the knees from the mid-torso, and the tattoo master would shatter a water vessel at the man’s feet to symbolize that the agonizing experience had ended. The healing process would then commence, and this could take months of washing in salt water to prevent infection and impurities. Within about 6 months, the designs would begin to emerge on the skin, and in a year, the man would be wholly healed. The ordeal was so severe that death by infection had become a legitimate concern. However, social pressure ensured that most men would undergo the experience lest they be considered cowards and have other members of the tribe shunned from them. Individuals who succumbed to the pain wore the incomplete ink as a badge of shame for a lifetime.[27]

Unlike in modern-day experience where one enters a tattoo parlor and discusses various designs with the tattoo artists and goes under an electric needle for a few hours, the ordeal in ancient Polynesia was the norm, and tattooing was fraught with taboos, steeped in social status and associated with deep spiritual beliefs. The Samoans believe that tattoos are a gift from heaven to humankind. The sons of Ta’aroa, the supreme Creator, were the first to be tattooed up. Given its divinity, some believe that tattoos are meant to preserve one’s health, fertility, and sense of balance. Some signs are for protection. The current Polynesians who choose to be tattooed do so as a personal act of commitment to the culture of Polynesia. Individuals are currently free to put into the tattoos the beliefs and meanings that they want.[28]

One of the most well-decorated skin can be traced to Indians. In Hinduism, there are special types of tattoos that are said to give people a way to spiritual disassociation from the harm they usually endure as the lowest caste in the caste system. In the Hawaiian culture, deities are recognized as aumakua. It is often believed that if these personal deities are honored, then they can offer protection, but if they are mistreated or neglected, they can be destructive and cause bad fortune. The aumakua can be made manifest through animals, occurrences in nature like thunder and lightning, as well as through inanimate objects. As a result, it is very common for Hawaiians to show honor to the gods by tattooing their aumakua on their bodies. The traditional Mayans were among the first ancient cultures to practice the art of tattooing as a form of sacrifice and honor to the gods they believed in.[29]

Durkheim’s Perspective on Tattooing

The interest of Durkheim in religion was in its roots, the genesis of the social system as opposed to the metaphysical truth. Religion is said to have worked when social groups shared a set of beliefs that tended to separate what was sacred from what was profane.[30] Religion was said to be all about the community. Durkheim placed certain importance on rites that reproduce and order the profane and sacred. The pop concert can be considered a rite, with the performer constituting the object of ritual as he accomplishes all the conditions needed to do justice to the belief systems of the fans.[31] Additionally, the concert becomes a primary interaction ritual and is considered a sacred place, existing in a different place from the profane life after or before the concert. The concert is also considered a site for collective effervescence, a state of ecstasy, frenzy, and excitement, for which Durkheim suggested that religious ceremony offered an outlet.

Durkheim considered tattooing to play an integral role in sacred forms in general and that tattooing cannot die out in the present society.[32] Tattooing is said to be the most expressive and direct means through which the communion of minds can be affirmed. The best way that one can testify to others and to oneself that one belongs to the same group is to place a similar distinctive mark on their body. The purpose of the image or tattoo is not to evoke or represent a certain object but to testify that a particular number of individuals share a common moral life. In Durkheim’s perspective, tattoos are similar to symbolic emblems and totems, which are meant to be representative of one’s group affiliation and a way of enhancing group solidarity.[33] Therefore, tattoos are considered highly sacred.


Tattoos have always been looked at with contempt because of the associations that most religions and individuals have placed tattoos with profanity and deviance. In the past, tattoos were common among sailors and other individuals who were looked at with contempt in society. In the indigenous religious system, tattooing was a religious practice that was deemed highly inappropriate by some, even though tattooing was essential to the tribal religions in the world. Tattooing was so common among indigenous people that it would be hard to find any tribe that did not practice the art form. In most religious tribes, tattooing was considered a rite of passage. For some, it was a symbol of their affiliation to society or to a certain religious group. Some symbolize protection, whereas others are a form of honor to gods. However, critics argue that tattooing is profane, often citing the Bible. Some claim that tattooing is linked to deviant behavior like gang membership, drug, and alcohol use, and even cultic affiliations or witchcraft. Whereas this might be true, studies show mixed results. More people are getting tattoos today, and this is even common among religious members. The increased tattooing tendency shows individuals’ need for self-expression and identification. Generally, tattooing continues to gain popularity as a sacred and not profane activity.

[1] Semion Kertzman, Alex Kagan, Omer Hegedish, Rina Lapidus, and Abraham Weizman, “Do young women with tattoos have lower self-esteem and body image than their peers without tattoos? A non-verbal repertory grid technique approach,” PloS one 14, no. 1 (2019): e0206411.

[2] Noah Scheinfeld, “Tattoos and religion,” Clinics in dermatology 25, no. 4 (2007): 362.

[3] Luzelle Naudé, Jacques Jordaan, and Luna Bergh, ““My Body is My Journal, and My Tattoos are My Story”: South African Psychology Students’ Reflections on Tattoo Practices,” Current Psychology 38, no. 1 (2019): 177.

[4] Bo-Kyung Hong, and Hyo Young Lee, “Self-esteem, propensity for sensation seeking, and risk behavior among adults with tattoos and piercings,” Journal of public health research 6, no. 3 (2017): 1107.

[5] Anna Pajor, Grażyna Broniarczyk-Dyła, and Julita Świtalska, “Satisfaction with life, self-esteem and evaluation of mental health in people with tattoos or piercings,” Psychiatria Polska 49, no. 3 (2015): 559.

[6] Sabrina Cipolletta, Elena Faccio, and Samantha Berardi, “Body piercing: does it modify self-construction? A research with repertory grids,” Pers. Constr. Theory Pract 7 (2010): 93.

[7] Myrna Armstrong,  Alden E. Roberts, Jerome R. Koch, Jana C. Saunders, Donna C. Owen, and R. Rox Anderson. “Motivation for contemporary tattoo removal: a shift in identity.” Archives of dermatology 144, no. 7 (2008): 880.

[8] Molly Catherine Sween, “Tattoos and the interaction process: managing a tattooed identity,” (2008), 17.

[9] Gretchen Larsen, Maurice Patterson, and Lucy Markham, “A deviant art: Tattoo‐related stigma in an era of commodification,” Psychology & Marketing 31, no. 8 (2014): 678.

[10] Richard L Dukes, “Deviant ink: a meta-analysis of tattoos and drug use in general populations,” Deviant Behavior 37, no. 6 (2016): 665.

[11] Sean T Carroll, Robert H. Riffenburgh, Timothy A. Roberts, and Elizabeth B. Myhre, “Tattoos and body piercings as indicators of adolescent risk-taking behaviors,” Pediatrics 109, no. 6 (2002): 1021.

[12] Carroll et al, p.1021.

[13] Wendy Heywood, Kent Patrick, Anthony MA Smith, Judy M. Simpson, Marian K. Pitts, Juliet Richters, and Julia M. Shelley, “Who gets tattoos? Demographic and behavioral correlates of ever being tattooed in a representative sample of men and women,” Annals of epidemiology 22, no. 1 (2012): 51.

[14] Jay Halzlip, “Is It a Sin to Get a Tattoo?” The Huffington Post, 2013, Retrieved from

[15] Holly Meyer, “Believers mark their faith with tattoos,” USA Today, 2013, Retrieved from

[16], Lars Krutak, “The cultural heritage of tattooing: A brief history,” In Tattooed skin and health, Karger Publishers, 2015, p.2

[17] Megan Rae Summers, “Marking the Body, Marking the Soul: The Religious Dimensions of Body Modification,” PhD diss., University of Georgia, 2007, p.6.

[18] Megan, p.3

[19] Megan, p.3

[20] Emily Hill, “Sacred Tattoos: Inside the Thai Tradition of Sak Yant,” Wanderlust,2019, Retrieved from

[21] HIll

[22] HIll

[23] HIll

[24] Ibid

[25] Ibid

[26] Jonathan Dehart, “Sacred Ink: Tattoos of Polynesia,” The Diplomat, 2016, Retrieved from

[27] Dehart

[28] Dehart

[29] Sarah Ash, “Sacred Tattooing,” The Global Multicultural Magazine, 2020, Retrieved from

[30] Bethan Jones, “Fannish tattooing and sacred identity,” Transformative Works and Cultures 18 (2015): 13.

[31] Bethan, p.13

[32] Bethan, p.13.

[33] Scott Jacques, “What criminals’ tattoos symbolize: Drawing on Darwin, Durkheim, and Lombroso,” Deviant behavior 38, no. 11 (2017): 1304.


Armstrong, Myrna L., Alden E. Roberts, Jerome R. Koch, Jana C. Saunders, Donna C. Owen, and R. Rox Anderson. “Motivation for contemporary tattoo removal: a shift in identity.” Archives of Dermatology 144, no. 7 (2008): 879-884.

Ash, Sarah. “Sacred Tattooing.” The Global Multicultural Magazine, 2020. Retrieved from

Carroll, Sean T., Robert H. Riffenburgh, Timothy A. Roberts, and Elizabeth B. Myhre. “Tattoos and body piercings as indicators of adolescent risk-taking behaviors.” Pediatrics 109, no. 6 (2002): 1021-1027.

Cipolletta, Sabrina, Elena Faccio, and Samantha Berardi. “Body piercing: does it modify self-construction? A research with repertory grids.” Pers. Constr. Theory Pract 7 (2010): 85-95.

Dehart, Jonathan. “Sacred Ink: Tattoos of Polynesia.” The Diplomat, 2016. Retrieved from

Dukes, Richard L. “Deviant ink: a meta-analysis of tattoos and drug use in general populations.” Deviant Behavior 37, no. 6 (2016): 665-678.

Halzlip, Jay. “Is It a Sin to Get a Tattoo?” The Huffington Post, 2013. Retrieved from

Heywood, Wendy, Kent Patrick, Anthony MA Smith, Judy M. Simpson, Marian K. Pitts, Juliet Richters, and Julia M. Shelley. “Who gets tattoos? Demographic and behavioral correlates of ever being tattooed in a representative sample of men and women.” Annals of Epidemiology 22, no. 1 (2012): 51-56.

Hill, Emily. “Sacred Tattoos: Inside the Thai Tradition of Sak Yant.” Wanderlust, 2019. Retrieved from

Hong, Bo-Kyung, and Hyo Young Lee. “Self-esteem, propensity for sensation seeking, and risk behavior among adults with tattoos and piercings.” Journal of Public Health Research 6, no. 3 (2017): 1107.

Jacques, Scott. “What criminals’ tattoos symbolize: Drawing on Darwin, Durkheim, and Lombroso.” Deviant Behavior 38, no. 11 (2017): 1303-1317.

Jones, Bethan. “Fannish tattooing and sacred identity.” Transformative Works and Cultures 18 (2015): 1-17.

Kertzman, Semion, Alex Kagan, Omer Hegedish, Rina Lapidus, and Abraham Weizman. “Do young women with tattoos have lower self-esteem and body image than their peers without tattoos? A non-verbal repertory grid technique approach.” PloS one 14, no. 1 (2019): e0206411.

Krutak, Lars. “The cultural heritage of tattooing: A brief history.” In Tattooed skin and health, Karger Publishers, 2015.

Larsen, Gretchen, Maurice Patterson, and Lucy Markham. “A deviant art: Tattoo‐related stigma in an era of commodification.” Psychology & Marketing 31, no. 8 (2014): 670-681.

Meyer, Holly. “Believers mark their faith with tattoos.” USA Today, 2013. Retrieved from

Naudé, Luzelle, Jacques Jordaan, and Luna Bergh. “My Body is My Journal, and My Tattoos are My Story”: South African Psychology Students’ Reflections on Tattoo Practices.” Current Psychology 38, no. 1 (2019): 177-186.

Pajor, Anna J., Grażyna Broniarczyk-Dyła, and Julita Świtalska. “Satisfaction with life, self-esteem and evaluation of mental health in people with tattoos or piercings.” Psychiatria Polska 49, no. 3 (2015): 559-573.

Scheinfeld, Noah. “Tattoos and religion.” Clinics in dermatology 25, no. 4 (2007): 362-366.

Summers, Megan Rae. “Marking the Body, Marking the Soul: The Religious Dimensions of Body Modification.” PhD diss., University of Georgia, 2007.

Sween, Molly Catherine. “Tattoos and the interaction process: managing a tattooed identity.” (2008).


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Tattoos: Sacred or Profane

Research paper (10-12 pages) on a course topic or one agreed in advance with the instructor.

Tattoos - Sacred or Profane

Tattoos – Sacred or Profane

  • compare two methodologies.
  • take a for position on the topic. it has to do with body mutilation; more recently, with identity and membership in criminal gangs or societies through the ages. But it might also have cultic significance, as in being “marked” for God or gods.

Look up in anthropology journals the subject of tattoos.

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