A Proclamation And A Reminder: The Faithful Embrace Religious Tattoos

Religion used to be a deterrent to tattoos. But a new study based at Baylor University found that’s changing.

By Laura Rice & Kristen CabreraFebruary 18, 2020 1:00 pm,

Americans are inked these days. The stigma associated with tattoos is long gone, as is the idea that they fly in the face of polite Western society. More than a quarter of American adults have at least one tattoo, and they’re especially popular among those born during the 1970s and later. Tattoos communicate identity and belonging, and for some, faith.

With that in mind, researchers at Baylor University and Texas Tech University recently published a study about religious tattoos at Baylor, the largest Baptist university in the world. Kevin Dougherty is a co-author and an associate professor of sociology at Baylor University. He says religious tattoos indicate a major shift in how the faithful feel about marking their body.

“For a long time in the United States, religion acted as a deterrent to tattoos,” Dougherty says. “For generations of Americans, the idea of a tattoo as an acceptable means of communication and a self-expression was really foreign.”

He says tattoos used to be associated with men, not women, and with sailors and with those who were incarcerated. Now, Dougherty says he sees them all over college campuses, especially at Baylor.

The study identified tattoos that were identifiably religious, like a cross or Star of David.

Courtesy Kevin Dougherty, Baylor University

Women were more likely to have religious tattoos in inconspicuous places on their bodies.

Researchers looked at how often religious tattoos were outward-facing versus inward- or self-facing. They found that religious tattoos were more often designed to be seen by the person wearing them. For example, the owner would have a tattoo on their forearm written or oriented in a way that’s only legible to them.

“In addition to being a proclamation of identity, the religious tattoo seems to be a reminder of identity, a way for an individual to encourage themselves to think about identity, maybe to think about acting in accordance with their own religious convictions and beliefs,” Dougherty says.

Religious tattoo preferences also fell along gender lines, Dougherty says. Men preferred larger tattoos on more visible places like the upper arm. Religious tattoos on women tended to be smaller and on less conspicuous places like their wrist, foot or back – “places that can be covered with clothing,” Dougherty says.


Written by Caroline Covington.