A statement that sticks
Individual expression and America’s obsession with tattoos
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April Shenberger began pestering her mom for permission to get a tattoo not long after her 16th birthday. But her mom wasn’t having it.
“No! Absolutely not,” she told her daughter.
Shenberger could have waited two years until she turned 18, when she would no longer need a parent’s signature. But instead, she kept asking, and eventually she wore her mom down.
“I think she got tired of hearing about it, to be honest,” Shenberger said.
Several weeks later, she walked into Mr. B’s Tattoo & Body Piercing with her mom and her friend, Perri. She remembers it being filled with loud music and bright lights. And, of course, lots of people covered with tattoos.
According to a 2023 Pew survey, about 1 in 3 American adults has at least one tattoo and 22 percent have more than one. Their popularity has exploded, especially in the last decade. As recently as 2012, only 21 percent of Americans had a tattoo, according to an Ipsos poll.
The rapid journey of tattoos out of the fringes and into the mainstream follows the bigger cultural shift toward individual expression. Kevin Dougherty, a professor of sociology at Baylor University, believes Americans have embraced tattoos as a way to say, “I get to choose for myself who I am and who I declare myself to be.” But these declarations of who we are—or think we are—don’t always last as long as the ink used to make them.
Shenberger didn’t have individual expression on her mind when she went to get her tattoo. She wanted one because she thought “all the cool kids had them.” Her friend Perri, already 18, had multiple tattoos, and Shenberger was a big fan of LA Ink, a reality TV show about a tattoo parlor.
But she’d spent more time thinking about having a tattoo than the tattoo itself. “I hadn’t even thought about what I wanted. I just wanted a tattoo,” she recalled. She leafed through a book Mr. B’s kept at the front of the shop and saw a butterfly she thought would look great on her upper arm.
It only took about 30 minutes to get her permanent artwork. She was happy with it, and after she turned 18, she started thinking about a second tattoo. But this time was different. She wasn’t driven by a simple teenage desire to be cool. Instead, she was wrestling with a dark secret.
TATTOOS AREN’T a modern invention. Many parts of the ancient world practiced tattooing, as evidenced by the oldest human mummy ever found in Europe. In 1991, tourists in the Alps discovered a naturally mummified man scientists believe to be 5,000 years old. Ötzi, as they named him, has 61 tattoos.
Tattoos have never been a mainstream practice in Christian cultures. In the United States, they were initially common only among gangs, prisoners, sailors, and members of the military. But in the latter 20th century, celebrities and athletes began to sport them, and the rest of society soon followed.
Of course, not everyone embraced the trend. Older Americans are less likely to have a tattoo. Surprisingly, men are also less likely than women to have one—27 percent versus 38 percent. America’s most tattooed demographic? Women between 18 and 29. More than half of them have one tattoo.
Tattoos are often deeply meaningful to people who get them. They can commemorate important events like the loss of a loved one or the birth of a child. Some Christians get tattoos to express their faith. But despite their prevalence, studies show they’re often linked to negative conditions.
For her second tattoo, Shenberger decided to get the word Love in Hebrew tattooed on her wrist. She wanted to honor the children of her Jewish best friend who are like a niece and nephew to her. But the tattoo had another purpose: stopping her from engaging in that secret—self-harm.
“The first time I ever did it, I was 10,” she said. “I started consistently doing it when I was 11.” She hoped that if she looked down and saw the word Love on her wrist, it would help her control the impulse to hurt herself.
Researchers have found links between tattoos and self-harm, depression, drug use, and low-impulse control. But motivations can also be positive (such as faith proclamations or inked memorials to loved ones) or merely benign (such as a brand name or sports team logo.)
But Ephraim Radner takes a harder line on tattoo culture. A professor emeritus of historical theology at Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto, Radner believes the popularity of tattoos is a symptom of a broader cultural problem: estrangement from God. “The transgressive character [of tattoos] is unmistakable,” he told me. “We’re claiming a place where the rigid lines that our forebears put forward no longer apply.”
Historically, tattoos were often used to denote group identity. Radner thinks they are still being used that way, but in a different sense. “Young people are desperate for an identity,” he said. “People do all these things to manipulate our body, ultimately to hurt our body, to claim something for ourselves.”
The Bible has little to say about tattoos even though the Israelites would have been familiar with them from surrounding nations. Leviticus 19:28 says, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.” University of Texas professor John Huehnergard, a specialist in ancient Hebrew, interprets this verse as prohibiting tattoos because they marked ownership of slaves, and God had recently rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.
Christians have been slower than the rest of America to embrace tattoos. But the 2023 Pew survey found 47 percent of people who got a tattoo did it to make a statement about what they believe. That includes a growing number of Christians who get tattoos to express their faith.
Baylor’s Kevin Dougherty researches religious tattoos, such as the cross or Bible verses, among college students. He believes Christians who embrace these kinds of permanent symbols are trying to attach themselves to a historic belief system that existed before them and will continue after them. In a sense, they are placing themselves within a tradition of believers. Dougherty believes these Christians also are reclaiming tattoos—a secular method of expressing deeply held beliefs—in an effort to make them sacred.
Radner, however, questions the value of Christian tattoos. He points to verses like Isaiah 49:16, where God tells his people, “I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.”
“If you think in Christian terms, you could say that if anybody’s going to get tattooed, it’s God. It’s not us,” Radner said.
WHILE SHENBERGER had thought a lot about the design for her second tattoo, the decision to pull the trigger was spontaneous. She picked a random tattoo parlor without vetting it. She hated the design the tattoo artist offered but was too shy to refuse. When she got home, part of her skin was loose and when she pulled on it, two of the letters came off.
“I didn’t even want it!” she muttered in self-reproach. Now, not only did she have a tattoo she didn’t want, she had a ruined tattoo she didn’t want. And she soon began to dream about getting it removed.
Nearly a quarter of people with tattoos regret at least one of them, according to the Pew survey. Members of the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery reported applying their lasers to around 164,000 tattoos in 2019, up from 63,000 in 2012, with many more removed at other types of clinics.
It took Shenberger years to scrape together enough money to start removal sessions at a medical spa. She had a total of six, each costing about $200, in an effort to remove both her tattoos.
Amber Elliott is a nurse at ProMD Health, another clinic in Maryland that offers tattoo removal. She sees about 20 tattoo-removal patients a week. Elliott says the most common type of tattoos she removes are homemade. After that, it’s tattoos that are hard to cover—designs on the face, hands, or wrists.
Tattoo removal works by using a laser to heat up the ink particles in the skin. That breaks them down into smaller pieces that are easier for the immune system to remove. “I will be honest, it hurts. But it is extremely fast,” Elliott said.
The process is lengthy, though. Elliott said it typically takes between five and 10 sessions spaced six to eight weeks apart.
Shenberger’s tattoos are faded but still visible. She hopes to undergo more removal sessions but doesn’t have firm plans. She usually wears outfits with sleeves to cover her upper arm. When she wore a sleeveless bridesmaid dress for a friend’s wedding, she asked the makeup artist to cover her tattoos. She wears a watch to hide the one on her wrist.
Shenberger, now 31, finally beat her self-harming habit on Easter Sunday five years ago. She credits prayer and therapy for her progress.
The remains of her “Love” tattoo look as if a child drew on her arm with a marker. During our interview, she rubbed on it frequently.
“Sometimes I’m like, ‘That was so dumb. Why did you do it?’” she reflected. “Then I remind myself, ‘You had a good reason behind it.’”