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To Tattoo or Not to Tattoo?

"Where are their pastors?" my Chinese colleague asked incredulously as she counted the visible tattoos on the arms and legs of some of the newly arrived Christian English teachers. "How can their pastors allow them to have tattoos?"

It was summer and we were preparing a new group for their year of teaching in China. It was round about the time that the popularity of tattoos was skyrocketing in the US, including among Christians. I and my colleges in China had not really been paying attention to this emerging trend, but there was no escaping it now.

We responded that in some cases the pastors themselves probably had tattoos as well, something which she couldn't even begin to process. "Shoubuliao!" she said. "Unacceptable!"

I thought about this recently when I read a blog post by Russell Moore titled "The Church Needs More Tattoos." The main point of the piece is that "if the Spirit starts moving with velocity in this country, our churches will see more people in our pews and in our pulpits with tattoos."

Now, what I don't mean by that is that we need more Christians to tattoo crosses or Bible verses or Psalms in Hebrew or the Apostles' Creed or the sinner's prayer across their arms or necks. That's not a sign of gospel awakening; it's just, at best, personal fashion and, at worst, more marketing in an already over-marketed evangelical church.

Tattoos don't mean what they used to. They don't signify necessarily, by a long shot, the kind of "tough" image they used to. I spoke with a friend who mentioned that as he walked through an upscale resort in south Florida, almost everyone in the pool was wearing ink. But, what if the tattoos, in some cases, do signify a tough back-story? That's what I want to see more of.

While I whole-heartedly agree with what he is saying (and with his dislike of tattoos), my mind kept returning to the conversation with my friend in Beijing because in China tattoos still do mean what they used to mean.

Which brings me back to the exchange with my Chinese colleague. Knowing full well the answer, we asked her to tell us what kinds of people in China have tattoos. "Gangsters and prostitutes," she said, without hesitation.

This meant that we now had a half dozen or so Christian teachers hoping to be salt and light in communities, but they were adorned in a manner that these communities still consider debased. Furthermore, some were going to universities in conservative parts of the country where female teachers weren't even allowed to wear earrings. How would a foreign teacher with a tattooed arm be viewed? We advised the teachers that when they were in the classroom teaching or at other official functions, that they must have their tattoos covered (long sleeves, long pants).

But this begs a bigger question: while tattoos may have become an acceptable part of the mainstream culture in the West, many cultures where Christians serve they are not (and may never be). If someone is preparing for overseas service, shouldn't that matter?

In light of that, here are three suggestions:

  1. If you have a tattoo and are considering serving in China, be aware that tattoos are not yet accepted in the mainstream of society, and definitely not in the church.
  2. Therefore, be prepared to (joyfully) keep your tattoo covered, especially in official settings, like work and church services.
  3. If you are considering service in China and do not have a tattoo, resist the temptation to get one! It will just save you lots of headaches down the line!

Photo by Deanna Wardin, via Flickr

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University... View Full Bio