Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
Tattoo You: An East West DialogueTattoo You: An East West Dialogue

Tattoo You: An East West Dialogue

Ink on skin, philosopher Adam Barkman illustrates, can mark the meeting of cosmic justice and cultural confusion.

Adam Barkman
12 minute read

In many ways, my wedding was a meeting of two worlds: my family and friends come from European backgrounds, while my wife’s family and friends come from, largely, Korean ones. My side of the family has, for the most part, a Christian worldview, while my wife’s, despite some of them being Christian, live within a Confucian ethos. Yet in spite of these differences, nearly all at my wedding shared one thing in common: discomfort with my best man’s heavily tattooed arms. Of course, this “one thing in common” actually springs from sharing two things in common: piety (a form of justice emphasizing respect for one’s superiors) and ignorance (with respect to what piety looks like in particular circumstances).

That is, both the Judeo-Christian tradition and the Confucian one insist that it’s just or pious that both God and one’s parents/ancestors be deeply respected: the reasoning being that since justice means treating each as it ought to be treated, and since God and one’s parents occupy elevated positions, justice demands they be treated piously. None of this I have a problem with. The trouble, however, is that in both the Bible and the Hsiao King, there are statements linking tattoos, or rather, choosing to get a tattoo, with impiety – the body of the inferior belonging, in a sense, to the superior: be it one’s Heavenly Father (the Bible) or one’s earthly father (the Hsiao King).

Because neither the uncontextualized Bible verses condemning tattoos nor Confucian philosophical reasoning in respect to tattoos is properly understood, the result is a Christian-Confucian confusion over the ethics of tattooing. My goal herein is to dispel this confusion.

Jews and Christians alike accept that the Torah, or the books of Moses in the Old Testament, is a part of Scripture or instances of what theologians call “special revelation.” What this means exactly is far from clear; however, what is agreed is that these books and their content – taken either in minute detail or in a more general sense (depending on who you talk to) – have been sanctioned or approved by God. Jews and Christians often claim to be rationally justified in believing the Torah (and for Christians, the Bible) primarily, though not exclusively, on the basis of faith. In order for faith to be rationally justified, Jews and Christians maintain two things. First, the existence of God – in one shade or another, either as the Creator, the Good, Heaven, Truth, Love, or a combination of these and others – can be known by all such that all who want to know God can know Him. Second, those who want to know God are open to hear His voice, and so when they read the Torah or Bible, they can hear God testifying to them, saying, in effect, “these are my words.” The testimony of God (a person who exists) to the reader (another person who exists) is a form of knowledge by acquaintance – what the French call connaître – and this knowledge is what Jews and Christians mostly mean when they talk about faith. Thus, when Jews and Christians read Leviticus 19:28 – “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh on account of the dead or tattoo any marks upon yourselves: I am YHVH” – Jews and Christians claim to have gained knowledge, specially revealed knowledge, about an ethical command. (Deuteronomy 14:1 and 1 Kings 18:28 re-enforce this command.)

Consequently, on pain of both ignorance and impiety (i.e., ignoring the commands of a superior), neither Jews nor Christians are safe to ignore this passage about tattooing. However, few things in ancient writings – Scripture included – are clear to modern readers, and so the context needs to be unpacked.

Prior to the writing of Leviticus, Israel had been chosen by God to be a nation “set apart.” It wasn’t that only Israel could know of God’s existence nor that only Israelites could be reconciled with God after man’s fall from grace; rather, Israel, as a “pure” nation, was to be a sign to all nations of the perfect Holiness, Righteousness or Justice that is God. Indeed, some non-Israelites were more pious and better than some Israelites: Abraham, the grandfather of Isaac (later named Israel), paid tribute to Melchizedek, the priest-king of a Canaanite city-state, and even Jesus is identified with this non-Israelite priest. Thus, the point of Israel being set apart was for it, as a nation, to reflect perfect doctrinal, and from this moral, purity.

Furthermore, because the nations surrounding ancient Israel practised either self-laceration (as a means to remember the dead, such as in Canaan) or tattooing (as in Egyptian fertility cults) as part of their impure religious teachings, Israel was forbidden to practise these. Indeed, because in nearby Mesopotamia being tattooed was also associated with being owned by a cult (Mesopotamian temple slaves were tattooed), there was a strong sense that Israel, as belonging to YHVH, ought not to be “owned” by a lesser god and thus be associated with these unjust practices (unjust, of course, because to honour a lesser god over the greatest God is not to treat each as it ought to be treated). Israel, as a doctrinally pure nation, was to be the metaphorical bride-wife of YHVH, who is pure Righteousness or Righteousness itself.

Two things follow from this. First, nothing in Leviticus implies that tattooing in and of itself is immoral or unjust. Second, what is equally as clear is that insofar as impure belief systems make tattooing a part of their practice, Israel is forbidden to engage in such practices: distinctions, it seems, need to be both visible and invisible. It’s for this reason that Orthodox Jews, even to this day, see those who choose to get tattoos as immoral or impious and hence are usually, upon death, forbidden burial in a Jewish cemetery. For Christians, the case is a bit different. Because Israel was to be a sign of purity to all nations, the spirit, not the letter, of the law in Leviticus is what really matters: in other words, it’s not obvious from the passages in the Old Testament that a person would necessarily be impious for choosing to get a tattoo. Nevertheless, there are still some passages in the New Testament that cause some Christians confusion over tattoos.

The majority of Christians throughout history have erroneously understood the prohibition against tattooing in Leviticus as being true to the letter for all time. Their mistaken understanding of this verse is reinforced by further misunderstanding another verse, this time in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 of the New Testament, which reads: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore, honour God with your body.” Of course, there is nothing in this passage that explicitly forbids tattoos and thus would link them with impiety. In fact, if a person reads this passage properly, that is, from within its proper context, it’s clear that God via Saint Paul is talking about what happens when a man engages in sexual relations with a temple prostitute of an impure religion. Ink on one’s skin is a red herring; the point, as in the Old Testament, is to preserve sanctity and the argument for this is as follows.

God created the first man, Adam, and gave him authority over the entire planet. Adam was created in a just state, but because he was given the faculty of free will, he was able to choose between justice and injustice: treating the greatest thing (God) as the greatest thing or treating a lesser thing (Eve) as the greatest thing (God). Adam chose the latter and hence “fell.” Because anyone who chooses to act unjustly even once can’t enter into the presence of the burning purity that is perfect Justice or Righteousness (God), all who act unjustly even once are consigned – as the most ancient Hebrews, Mesopotamians, Greeks and even Japanese knew – to the underworld, or the land where the spirits of the dead dwell.

Yet even if man can’t save himself, insofar as God became man and dwelt among us as the Christ, He can do two things. First, he can represent all people since He has greater authority than even Adam: insofar as Adam, our first father, could pass on the curse of Original Sin (the disposition to prefer injustice to justice), the Christ, as the “Second Adam,” can take all under His authority and pass on forgiveness of injustice by virtue of his authority. Second, even this wouldn’t be possible if the Christ weren’t perfectly just or righteous; only because He is without injustice is He able to enter the presence of the Father so-to-speak and be in harmony with Him. And insofar as people speak justly, confessing both that they can’t save themselves (they can’t remove all the stains of their injustice) and that the Christ can, these people, by the graciousness and authority of the Christ, can be accredited as just or righteous and hence be reconciled with the Father, who is perfect Joy.

Thus, when 1 Corinthians says “you are not your own,” it refers to those who have freely acknowledged the authority of God over all of what they are, including their bodies. Taking care of one’s body as God has ordained bodies to be taken care – here in respect to sexual matters (“The body is not meant for sexual immorality” [1 Corinthians 6:13]) – is an act of justice, and because God is one’s superior, it’s also an act of piety. Nonetheless, there is nothing at all here that says getting a tattoo is a form of misusing one’s body and hence acting impiously.

Confucius lived around 500 years before the birth of Christ. As a self-confessed “lover of the ancients,” he sought to align his teachings with the most ancient Chinese sages and to make their vague instructions more deliberate (hence Confucianism is often called “the deliberate tradition”). The teachings of these sages can be traced back to the beginning of Chinese civilization, which began around 2700 BC, roughly a hundred years after the ziggurat of Eridu in Mesopotamia (also known as the Tower of Babel) was abandoned. At this time, the first Chinese emperor, Huang Di, built a temple to the One Supreme God, known to the Han Chinese as Shang Di. There never was, nor is there to this day, an image made to represent Shang Di since he is beyond all representation. This was the beginning of Chinese religious practice and the subject with which the sages of the ancient world were most concerned.

When Confucius compiled the Classic of History (The Book of Documents), which describes the oldest accounts of the Middle Kingdom, he was careful to note not only that Shang Di is the Supreme Lord on High but also that “it is virtue that moves Heaven.” In the Book of Rites, Confucius wrote that “his will extends everywhere.” We are told in Classic of History that “Shang Di sent down calamities on the Xia Dynasty. The ruler of Xia had increased his opulence. He would not speak kindly to the people, and became utterly immoral and foolish. He was unable for a single day to bring himself to follow the path marked out by Shang Di.” Mencius, the second greatest Confucian after the Teacher himself, thus perfectly agrees with the ancients when he writes, “It is by the preservation of one’s heart and the nourishment of one’s character that man is able to serve Heaven.” Shang Di, or Heaven – God, we can say – was the source of true morality and justice, and the goal for the ancients, as for the earliest Confucians, was to look to Heaven to discern how to act on earth. Piety, then, was “the root of all virtue.”

Of course, Confucians, just as much as Jews and Christians (and many others), saw the scope of created reality not merely as an ontological hierarchy between God and man, but also as a hierarchy taking into account differences of age, gender, ability, character, rank and so on. On the top was Shang Di, and below him were those belonging to the created heavens (lower case h) – the shen or nature spirits and the zu xian, or the spirits of the blessed ancestors – and below these were those belonging to earth – first and foremost the just emperor and then a myriad of hierarchies encompassing gender, age, ability, character and rank distinctions. Piety – the form of justice concerned with treating a superior as a superior – ought to be shown first and foremost to Shang Di and then down the ranks to one’s father.

Confucius’ Hsiao King, or treatise on filial piety, is the text often cited when discussing the impiety of tattoos. The piety discussed in this book is toward one’s father, though since to honour one’s father is to honour the way of Heaven, Heaven itself is honoured when fathers are honoured: “In filial piety there is nothing greater than the reverential awe of one’s father. In the reverential awe shown to one’s father, there is nothing greater than making him the correlate of Heaven.” In this vein it should be pointed out that even minor acts of injustice – minor when comparing one’s father to God – offends Heaven and brings about trouble: “Shang Di will pour down calamities on those who do evil. We must not neglect to do small acts of righteousness because it is by the accumulation of these that the nations celebrate. We must not neglect to avoid acts of unrighteousness because it is by the accumulation of these that an entire generation is corrupted.” This, then, leads us to the relatively minor, though still vitally important, question as to whether getting a tattoo was, or, more importantly, ought to have been, considered an act of impiety according to Confucius and early Confucians.

In Hsiao King, Confucius remarks, “Our bodies – to every hair and bit of skin – are received by us from our parents, and we must not presume to injure or wound them: this is the beginning of filial piety.” Here we should immediately note two things. First, Confucius doesn’t explicitly mention tattooing. And second, injuring or wounding one’s body is only a prima facie prohibition since to wound one’s body to protect one’s family or in service of the emperor would have been praised, not condemned, and even suicide to remove the shame of a misdeed plaguing one’s family was, and still is, generally accepted by Confucians. So, why, then, have Confucians linked tattooing with injuring one’s body and thus with dishonouring one’s father?

Racism is the likely explanation. Because the Han Chinese tended to look down on the ethnic minorities in their kingdoms, and because many of these minorities practised tattooing (such as in Quanzhou and Taiwan), tattooing was associated with uncivilized peoples. Because of this, if a son were to get a tattoo, he would, in effect, shame his father by linking himself, and thus his father, with what they thought were lesser peoples and lesser practices. Moreover, because the minorities living in Han kingdoms were treated as inferior peoples, they couldn’t get the best jobs and were often forced into criminal activities. Tattoos, inferior people and criminals were thus linked in the mind of the ancient Chinese, and so it was easy for Confucians to interpret their master’s prohibition against wounding one’s body as a prohibition against tattooing.

But notice this: just as much in Confucianism as in Christianity, tattoos themselves aren’t really the problem: the problem is what they are associated with and the subsequent embarrassment they can cause one’s parents. If tattoos weren’t associated with lower status or immoral people (criminals), then it’s not clear that they would be a source of shame to one’s parents. Indeed, legend has it that the mother of the famous Chinese general Yue Fei tattooed on her son’s back the words serve the country loyally, which suggests that getting a tattoo for the right reasons – namely, out of pious obedience (as Yue Fei submitted to his mother’s needle) or as a reminder to be pious (as the words on Yue Fei’s back implore) – may have had some legitimacy in ancient China and so among the earliest Confucians.

Of course, just as much for a Confucian as for a Jew or a Christian, if one’s superior – one’s father, in this case – thought that getting a tattoo was a sign of disrespect, then, insofar as the son or daughter owes the father respect in this matter – that is, insofar as they are still under the father’s authority – they must not get a tattoo. For to get one would be considered impious and unjust and thus an offence against Heaven itself.

I agree with Christians and Confucians that piety – the justice shown toward one’s superiors – is indeed admirable and proper, yet I disagree with what many Christians and Confucians have understood piety to look like, particularly in respect to remaining free of tattoos. Neither the Bible nor the works of Confucius allow us to say that tattoos in and of themselves are bad, and indeed could be good, not only for aesthetic reasons but also, as we saw with Yue Fei, for didactic purposes as well. Nevertheless, because justice is more important than both aesthetics and mere reminders to be just, if a person finds himself under a legitimate superior who has, in that relationship, a legitimate claim to one’s obedience, then to disobey the moral or non-moral commands of that superior would be impious and unjust.

If a Christian or Confucian parent forbade a child from getting a tattoo (or from dying his or her hair, getting a piercing and so on), then it would be impious of that child to disobey. As Confucius says, “When a youth is at home, let him be filial.” However, when the child moves out and is no longer under the authority of the parent (I don’t say no longer owes the parent respect and certain duties), then the child – the man or woman – may legitimately opt for ink: Heaven, very likely, doesn’t have a problem with this.

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