The term 'religious tattoos' usually inspires thoughts of specific Judeo-Christian imagery, but there are many more religious tattoo traditions beyond this one type. Interestingly, Judaism and Islam are probably two of the least common religions to be associated with tattoo, because both of these religions view tattooing as against the will of God. With Christianity, there is more debate.
Although Leviticus prohibits tattoos, many people believe that the Christian book in question only prohibits pagan tattoos, while others believe that the laws of Leviticus do not apply to Christians. Fewer Jews see the issue as debatable. Very few Muslims feel tattooing is permissible. Unlike Christianity and Judaism, which see tattooing (at worst) as reprehensible and sinful, there are Islamic scholars who cursed those with tattoos. However, there are a few Muslims with facial and hand tattoos.
There are many popular Christian tattoo designs. Cross tattoos are probably the most prevalent, as even the non-religious seem drawn to them. Crosses, although associated with Christ, have a long history outside of mainstream theological contexts.
The Celtic cross and celtic tattoo designs existed long before Christianity became popular within Ireland and morphed the cross to suit this new religious purpose.
Alpha and Omega designs are very popular because, in the Bible, God is referred to as the Alpha and the Omega, or the Beginning and the End. God is all encompassing.
In Catholicism, images of saints and rosaries are common motifs.
Tattoos of praying hands, sometimes combined with the rosary, and ichthys, or Jesus fish, are two other favorite designs.
Followers of Christian religions might get lettering tattoo designs of verses, references, or entire biblical passages.
In Mexico, tattoos of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a specific Virgin Mary design, is a popular tattoo choice. Interestingly, Christian religious tattoos are very common symbols in prisons and gangs.
Orthodox Judaism prohibits tattoos, but many people are culturally Jewish without being religiously Jewish. These people might choose tattoos that represent their culture and heritage, but also symbolize the faith. Tattoo designs like the Star of David, named for an ancient king, might be the most popular symbol. It is also featured on the Israeli flag. Hebrew script tattoos are growing in popularity, both with those who speak Hebrew and beyond. Middle Eastern symbols, like the hamsa or hamesh, is another Jewish tattoo motif. Hamsa designs are used in both Judaism and Islam as superstitious protection charms and amulets. They are sometimes placed in homes or above doorways. The hamsa supposedly protects people from those who would do them harm, particularly gossip. This hand design often features the evil eye in the center of the palm. Other symbols that represent the culture might also be tattoos, like eating a kosher diet, Hanukkah celebrations, etc. Check out our articles on Jewish tattoo designs and Hebrew tattoo designs for more information.
Body art and modification is a large part of Hinduism, but tattooing is not traditionally included. Temporary tattoos are used to decorate females for certain ceremonies, like weddings. More and more, though, followers of Hinduism are getting permanent tattoos. There are many, many deities that represent the Hindu God, Brahman. These individual deities are favorite designs for traditional artistic media, like paintings and sculpture. They are also becoming popular tattoo designs. Perhaps one of the most commonly tattooed deities is Ganesh, an elephant-god that removes obstacles.
Vishnu, a blue god with many arms, known as the preserver, is also a commonly chosen deity.
Buddha (see Buddha tattoo designs), most often associated with Buddhism, is considered an incarnation of Vishnu by some Hindus, but this is a very controversial belief as Buddha taught against many aspects of Hinduism.
The Om symbol is popular as a tattoo design, particularly in certain locations. An Om tattoo is forbidden on some body parts, like the feet, which would be very offensive in Hindu culture. The Om is often combined with a lotus flower and is equally important in Buddhism.
Buddhism is an interesting example of religious tattoos because, for a long time, tattoos have been an important part of some Buddhist cultures. In Thailand and Cambodia, in particular, Buddhist monks perform traditional, hand-poked tattoos called Sak Yant, or Yantra, tattoos. These tattoos serve as protection and are specifically tailored to the person getting the tattoo. Designs are chosen by the monks specifically for each individual.
The tattoo process is very spiritual and ritualistic, involving blessings. In a few societies, only men may be tattooed with the sacred designs by the monks. Although Buddha tattoos are common around the world, strict Buddhists are unlikely to choose his image as the design for a tattoo. Buddha discouraged the use of images and worship, because there is no personal god in Buddhism and each person must journey on their own path to enlightenment.