In Response to R. R. Reno’s article “The Tattoo Fashion”

I do not know R. R. Reno, nor had I ever heard of him until I was reading Dr. Scott Clark’s blog, which said, “R. R. Reno is thoughtful and always worth reading.” Normally this wouldn’t have caught my eye, except that I saw the blog post title “Tattoos as a Search for Fixity in a Liquid World” on Dr. Clark’s blog. This is a statement that makes you think a little more than just the typical blog post.

Today, I’m not dealing with the issue of tattoos, nor the theology behind it in “yes they are a sin,” or, “no they are not.” However, being younger I have a totally different way of thinking in America’s postmodern culture when it comes to dealing with those that have tattoos. This may be something that those who are older should stop and think about; then again, maybe not. But after a little dialogue with Dr. Clark about the issue, I wanted to make mention of the article on my blog and write a response to a few issues I have personally with Reno’s post.

Issue #1 – Tattoos: A Fad or Not?

Reno starts his post looking at how Tattoo’s are a fad; that is, something that has only just come about and will soon be gone. He make’s comments like:

Everybody tossing off the horrible, oppressive conformities of bourgeois culture—together.

I’ve often looked at young men and women with tattoos and shaken my head. Don’t they realize how quickly fashions change? You can throw away the old bell-bottom pants, but a tattoo?”

I’m fairly sure that the tattoo fashion will expand.

Mr. Reno, I am sorry to inform you, but tattoos are not a fad, nor some sort of mere fashion among the postmodern culture. They have been around as long as 5000 B. C.

Don’t fads come and go? Fads are long hair, bell-bottoms, bleached hair, leather pants, shaving your eyebrows, wearing Chuck Taylor’s with your suit. Fads are the 80’s big-hair, or the Nike shoes that said “A-I-R” on the side in the later 90’s. Fads are not a way of culture that has existed since Ancient Egypt in the practicing of tattooing Mummies and Pharaohs. We know that Egyptians Mummies were tattooed, European Tribes were tattooed, even Julius Caesar, in his fifth book titled Gallic Wars, mentions tattooing in his culture. Lastly, Asian tattooing has been part of their culture for as long as we know, and the largest influence in the American culture was the European soldiers who had been influenced by the Polynesia islands–their culture and their tattooing.

My point is that tattooing has been a part of many different cultures throughout all of history. Just because of its more recent growth in American (which I agree has happened) doesn’t make it a fad, nor does it make it a negative fad just because it is something you do not understand or agree with. Whatever your view is on tattooing, it is always important to look at the “thing”—which here is tattooing—and see that no matter where it has been done, and when it has been done, that it is always placed with a culture and done for longer than 30, 40, 50, or even 100 years. It stays in the culture.

Issue #2 – Dealing with Tattoo’s and Professionalism in a Non-Offensive Way

My second issue in Reno’s post is dealing with his ending statements on tattooing and being a professional of whatever your job may be.

In Reno’s post he says,

“And it will become socially acceptable, perhaps even fashionable. Because at the end of the day, manipulation of our bodies creates an impotent symbol of permanence.”

And the following statement:

Thus, absent strong cultural forces that encourage and enforce limitations on the will, in the coming decade we will see all sorts of strange self-mutilations and radical commitments of the body. Self-mutilation will provide a powerful symbolic compensation for our inability to commit and bind the soul.”

If tattoos in many cultures reflect one’s spiritual convictions and beliefs, why can’t mine do the same for Christianity and Christ? And to many—believer or non-believer—tattoos do exactly that: they show what a person is, what they like, what they feel, and what is a part of their everyday life. So when dealing with the issue of tattooing, any negative notation is always going to offend a person who has them. My concern is that I should try not to offend the non-believer when dealing with them about tattoos in order to keep the heart, mind, and conversation open to relay the Gospel message to them.

It is funny to see how at times the Reformed faith is no different than that of the Fundamentalist or the Dispensationalist in the way they think and live. The Fundamentalist will preach that a professional minister must not drink, must wear a suit, must wear his or her hair a certain length, cannot smoke, etc. How is it any different when the Reformed faith does the same thing saying professionally you must be fine wine and cheese… wear nice clothes, drive a nice car, wear a tie, cannot have tattoos, and must smoke a cigar.

Mr. Reno paraphrases Martin King Jr. saying, “It’s the content of your character that matters, not what you do with your skin. Like tattoos, clipping off the tops of your ears or removing your little toe won’t stand in the way being a slave to your desires and society’s demands. Tasteful self-mutilation is perfectly consistent with any life-trajectory.”

The fact that you say “self-mutilation” is perfect with the flow of life, I’d agree if you were taking about sin; but this is talking about tattoos. You will never get your point across to, nor will you effectively reach, those that are unregenerate and have tattoos. But then again, maybe you do not want to do that.

Being a professional of a particular trade is not your skin, nor what you place on it. It is how good you are at what you do. If I have a tattoo on my neck or my arm, does that make me any worse at the skill of my profession? To the old generation, they say, “yes.” To the new and young generation, they say, “no,” because we truly understand what it means when you so happily paraphrased Martin King Jr. saying, “It’s the content of your character that matters, not what you do with your skin.”

In case you were wondering about Dr. Clark’s blog posting, you can read the dialogue that went on over there yesterday afternoon. But I am done for now, and not wasting much more time on this topic. But always, feel free to comment.

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4 Comments on “In Response to R. R. Reno’s article “The Tattoo Fashion””

  1. niclazz says:

    Michael,
    Thanks for this, you are articulating things in a clear way that I have not had the time to do and would take me too long. Thanks. There are much bigger issues at stake than, ‘whats on your skin.’ Seems like the older generation is addicted to their worldview of ‘professionalism’ and ‘unprofessionalism’ being ‘not tattooed’ or ‘tattooed’

  2. Kyle Borg says:

    To argue that tattooing is not a fad because the Egyptians and Julius Ceasar did it is not supportive of your claim. The Egyptians tattooed for pagan religious rituals. In early Roman times tattoos were seen as associated with barbarians and were later used to mark slaves and army deserters. Plato thought those guilty of sacrilege should be punished by getting tattoos and Caius Suetonius writes that Emperor Caligula had people tattooed to fulfill his lust for sadism. Americans don’t tattoo themselves for any of these reasons. Rather its done for the purpose of self-expression, individualism, or the coolness factor. It’s practically become a recreational sport. So I guess I’m not convinced that tattooing isn’t a fad based on historical claims. That’s like saying Air Jordans weren’t a fad because people have been wearing shoes for thousands of years. Do you see what I’m saying?

  3. Mike,

    Re: the first point, I do not think that he meant tattoos are necessarily the fad, but what you put on them is. When I was in highschool the rage was Warner Bros. characters: Bugs, Speedy, etc. When I was in college it was Japanese/ Chinese letters. For awhile, tribal things were all the rage. So, I think that point one is misunderstood.

    As for calling it self-mutilation, I have no problem with that term, as long as earrings are in the same category.

    As for whether tats are sin…. remember when Piper said in “Don’t Waste Your Life” that asking ‘what is permissible is the wrong question; the right question is ‘how do I best glorify God?’

    So are tats sin? As you said…. that’s for another post. 😉

  4. wayne link says:

    Hmm,,, Has any serious thinking Christian seen a tat magazine lately they’d have the gall to set out on their coffee table? That circle of tattoo aficionados represent quite a debased sub-culture to say the least. Maybe some postmodern entrepreneurial Christians might come up with their own magazine to maybe tidy up that tattoo culture image just a bit – just maybe? Won’t take long. Can’t wait to see it. 🙂


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