When Emily McGowin was completing her Ph.D. in theology at the University of Dayton, she was struck by the theologically significant tattoos of many of her peers. So when she finished the program, she decided to get one of her own.
McGowin hung Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketch of Mary Magdalene on her fridge for a year before she decided to ink it on her shoulder. As a woman who felt compelled to answer a calling to leadership in the church, McGowin — who in addition to teaching theology at Wheaton College also serves as an Anglican priest — places high importance on the role that Mary plays in the gospel story. In the written accounts, Mary is the first to learn about, and proclaim, Jesus’ resurrection.
“For that moment,” McGowin said, “Mary was the church. She was the first person who had seen Jesus after his resurrection.”
In the tattoo, Mary Magdalene’s head and shoulders are sketched in black, brown and reddish hues which blend into the natural pigmentation of McGowin’s skin. The woman’s head is bowed reverently downward.
McGowin recognizes that in some Christian spaces, tattoos are looked at with suspicion. When she was hired at Wheaton in 2018, she says she checked the staff handbook to be sure tattoos weren’t prohibited. And yet, despite her worries that others might perceive it as strange or attention-seeking, McGowin has never experienced a negative reaction to her body art.
Upon first arriving at Wheaton, she visited a church on a muggy summer day when covering her tattoos in clothes wasn’t a comfortable option. “I remember this older lady, who we later found out had been [at the church for] years and years and years,” McGowin remembered. “She came up to me and introduced herself and said ‘I just love your tattoos, they’re beautiful.’”
On campus, McGowin’s tattoos are a source of fascination for some of her students. She says her goal is never to stand out, but after all, she is a theologian and a pastor in an environment that doesn’t always affirm women in these roles.
“I’m already sort of ‘out there’ for a lot of people, so I’m not sure why I would bother hiding my tattoos,” she said. “It’s just who I am.”
The history of tattoos is a history of contradictions. In some cultures they’re mainly a form of remembrance. In others, they’re symbols of liberation. They can mark rebellion or they can mark belonging. They are sometimes associated with marginalized groups, and yet they can be a lucrative fashion statement.
The history of tattoos in evangelicalism is perhaps even harder to characterize.
Some Christians apply Leviticus 19:28, which forbade the Israelites from cutting or tattooing their bodies, to modern body art trends.
In contrast, some prominent evangelical leaders wear their tattoos proudly, almost as a part of their personality. For others, the silence of the New Testament on the issue makes tattoos a matter of Christian liberty, certainly not required but also not off-limits.
At Wheaton College, there is no prohibition against tattoos in the Community Covenant or the Student Handbook. The Covenant simply calls for the college community to reflect 1 Corinthians 6:19 and “treat our own bodies, and those of others, with the honor due the very temple of the Holy Spirit”.
Among the tattooed members of the Wheaton community, there is no way to make generalities about why they decided to get a tattoo.
Ezekiel Smith ‘21, grew up immersed in biker and tattoo culture and soon decided to get his own tattoos. He was born and raised in Wheaton to parents who are both tattoo enthusiasts.
“My parents had big and bold tattoos and had more than other people, which I always thought was super cool,” he said over a video call.
Both of his parents recently got “sleeves,” tattoos that cover the entire arm, even though they are in their 50s and 60s. While this decision might have been unusual among his peers at Wheaton College, it wasn’t unique in his family’s circle of friends.
His father co-founded a motorcycle club and ministry called Take Up Your Cross, which meets at the Smith family’s house every week. Smith describes this group of people as stereotypical bikers: big beards, leather, vests with patches on them and large crosses on the back of their jackets.
Smith quickly inherited his parents’ enthusiasm for tattoos. The cross tattoo on his sternum is made of two simple lines, an echo of the crosses on the bikers’ backs. As a studio art major, he chose to focus his studies on sculpture because it let him leave the page and create art with many different materials. Now his body is another sculpture, an extension of his sketchbook.
A tattoo’s personal significance does not always reflect its level of visual quality, as Smith can attest. The patchwork of tattoos on his calf — a section playfully mislabeled as “SKECH BOOK” in uneven handwriting with backwards K’s — is filled with doodles and blobs of ink that may not appear aesthetically pleasing to strangers. But to Smith, each tattoo in the ‘sketchbook’ represents a memory.
One entry in this book is a scribbled line where his brother, who bought tattoo equipment from a family friend, tested a new needle. There’s also a splash of yellow-orange where Smith tried out a colored ink with his own set of tattoo equipment. Over the last few months, he has let his friends tattoo small things ranging from dinosaurs to the chemical structure of dopamine to a doodle of a bug that Smith drew on his papers in elementary school.
Tattoos are permanent because the particles in the ink are too big to be absorbed into the bloodstream. The body tries in vain to attack the pigmented intruder with white blood cells, but the ink resists the very processes that the body uses to defend itself, in a way defying life. It also defies death.
Jordan Burton, a senior Bible and theology major from Akron, Ohio, lost both his mother and his grandmother in the years before coming to Wheaton. They live on in the almost-complete sleeve tattoo on his left arm, memorialized in his skin with two doves and a handful of roses.
“My mom and I were best friends,” he said. He remembers going with her everywhere on what seemed like pointless shopping trips as a child. But as he grew older, he depended on her for advice and she encouraged him in his faith. Shortly before she died, she commented on one of his Instagram posts, “I’m so proud of you.”
“That statement alone has been one of the main reasons I am still making it here,” Burton tells me. His mother’s words, like the ink on his skin, live on.
When the conversation turned to his grandmother, Burton said that what he remembers most is the name she gave him. “She used to call me Mr. Wizard all the time because she thought I was the smartest child in existence,” Burton said.
Then there was her cooking. She gave him the recipe for her holiday sweet potatoes, but she measured ingredients with intuition, not tablespoons, and Burton has been unable to replicate the dish. Sweet potatoes, butter, sugar, brown sugar. Burton lists the ingredients and hesitates. “I’m forgetting something. I don’t know what I’m forgetting.”
The outer surface of the skin — the epidermis — is constantly refreshing itself. On average, one person loses eight pounds of dead skin cells in a year, so even our skin is not permanent. Yet tattoos are injected into the second layer of the skin and remain engraved there forever. This has led some students to see their tattoos as permanent reminders, as a way for them to constantly reflect upon the virtues and values they cherish.
One of the largest images of Burton’s sleeve — a pair of hands folded in prayer, surrounded by mountains, sea and sun colliding in the limited space of his arm— serves as a theological reminder of God’s power.
“It shows that God is greater than all of those things because he created them,” Burton explained.
Burton detailed a phenomenon common among tattooed persons: forgetting that they have tattoos in the first place. Like anything that becomes familiar, it’s easy to take their presence for granted. Every so often, they catch a glimpse in the mirror and remember what’s written on their skin. The first tattoo of his sleeve, which he got just after he turned 18, is a note to that effect. DO NOT BE AFRAID — a command repeated throughout scripture.
“I’ll just look at my arm every once and a while,” Burton said. “It always happens to be at a time when I’m trippin’ and really need the reminder.”
Peter Macolino, a senior English writing major, also has a tattoo that serves to remind him of the values he cherishes. After dreaming about his tattoo for five years, Macolino knew he wanted to get three words, written in an angular, runic script: wisdom, courage and compassion.
“I always wanted something I could grow into for the rest of my life,” Macolino said. “A tattoo is permanent and that was what I wanted to be permanent.”
The runes that make up his armband tattoo are one of several languages that he developed himself, this one combining elements of Hindi and Norse. The writing system, which he calls Mevhalian, is a piece of the fantasy world that Macolino has been designing for several years. Macolino has written over 300 pages about the history and culture of the world, and he is in the process of writing a novel that takes place there. If it sounds J.R.R. Tolkien-esque, that’s no accident.
“Tolkein’s ideas on subcreation — on creating as a way to get to know God better — definitely drive a lot of my theology and my work,” Macolino said.
Not every student’s tattoos are so carefully planned. Some of junior business economics major Jackson Punzel’s tattoos are the result of impulsive decisions, each with a different story behind them.
Originally from Naperville, Ill., Punzel has a cheap tattoo from high school that he got in a hole-in-the-wall shop in Indiana. He drove across the border because it’s illegal to get tattoos under the age of 18 in Illinois. He has an intricate snake wound around his forearm that a tattoo artist friend in Nashville drew freehand on a recent trip to Tennessee. He has a tiny smiley face that was zapped onto his ankle on a whim. He has a butterfly on the back of one tricep and a bee on the other, each with a piece of the famous Muhammad Ali quote printed below it: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
Significance and silliness are side by side on Punzel’s skin. One of his more meaningful tattoos includes the words “Amazing Grace,” the title to his grandfather’s favorite hymn. Punzel grew up visiting his grandfather’s farm in Wisconsin, and one summer in middle school, he stayed there and built a four-octave marimba with hardwood collected from the forest behind the farm. His grandfather always asked Punzel to play “Amazing Grace” on the piano for him when they visited his church, but he died before Punzel got around to it.
“I always kicked myself for it,” Punzel said. “And I made sure as soon as he passed that I learned how to play it.” Ironically, his old-fashioned, raised-in-a-small-town grandfather never really approved of tattoos.
Punzel is a wrestler and confesses it’s not always easy for him to love his body as he contends with the pressure to lose or gain weight. However, in the same way that physical training is both an act of love and an act of improvement, adding beautiful art to his body allows Punzel to appreciate what he has.
“My body is a temple,” Punzel said. “I want to glorify God with my body. A lot of that comes through wrestling, and a lot of that comes through taking care of myself. And a lot of that also comes through art.”