Christianity and the rise of a new culture – tattoos

By Marie Goossens

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Nora Caliani two religious’ tattoos on her hand, done by her husband Juan Sanchez.


Madrid houses a few of the world’s most beautiful churches and Spanish culture is enriched with religious traditions. But some of the most famous tattoo artists originate from Madrid as well. The uprising tattoo culture made getting a tattoo in Madrid popular, but this clashes with the original religious Spanish culture. The style of Juan Sanchez, a tattoo parlor in Madrid, brings these two cultures together.

Tattoos – permanent images or words etched with ink – are becoming more and more popular all over the world. Almost everywhere you will very likely see people with tattoos and a lot of different tattoo parlors. Tattoos seem to be especially trending among younger people nowadays, but it has actually been around for a much longer period of time. In fact the oldest tattoo was found on Ötzi, a human who has been mummified for over 5,300 years now – his body contained 57 tattoos. Tattoos have been a part of human societies ever since, but a lot of people still frown upon the popularity of the tattoo culture.

In Spain 67,8% of the population is Christian nowadays and some people are still orthodox Christian who follow the bible strictly. As Spain now hosts some of the worlds most popular tattoo artists, it is hard not to notice the contradiction between the many churches and religious habits of Spanish people and the rising of this tattoo culture in Spain, and in Madrid specifically. Tattoos mainly began to grow more popular in Spain because more and more influential people got tattoos and liked showing them. Soccer is like a second religion to many Spanish people, so when soccer players like David Beckham started getting tattoos Spanish people started to get them too.

But it wasn’t until 1993 that the first tattoo parlor was opened in Madrid. Madrilenians were pretty closed-minded towards the upcoming tattoo culture. But as the tattoo culture rose to its peak in 2002, people started to see more ‘normal’ people with tattoos around them and thus had to start accepting them more. A. Castillo says that he had to cover up his tattoo he got back in 1990, because he was afraid about the reaction of his religious parents, “but now they know. They’re not happy with it, but they can’t undo it either.” Castillo says that his some of his friends got the same experience, they all told their parents about their tattoos a few years after getting them, when tattoos became a lot more popular, because they were afraid of the reactions.

Maria Fernández, who is a Christian, got a small tattoo of a cross on her heart this year. Even tough it is a religious tattoo her religious parents do not agree with it, “we got in a huge fight, my mom was disappointed in me because I did not follow the rules written in the bible.” Maria said that her mom was afraid of the opinions of others if they would find out her daughter had a tattoo. “She immediately associated the tattoo with the criminal world and heavily questioned me,” Maria explains. The relation between her and her mother is getting better, but Maria would never bring up the topic of tattoos ever again with her parents.

The main reason for this view on tattoos in the Western part of Europe has its origin from back in the days when Christianity became the main religion. The Holy Bible actually mentions tattoos specifically only once in Leviticus 19:28: “You shall not make any cutting in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you.” The true meaning here is debatable, but in the Old Testament it was expressly prohibited as seen in the following passage by the influential Saint Basil the Great: “No man shall let his hair grow long or tattoo himself as do the heathen, those apostles of Satan who make themselves despicable by indulging in lewd and lascivious thoughts. Do not associate with those who mark themselves with thorns and needles so that their blood flows to the earth. Guard yourselves against all unchaste persons, so that it cannot be said of you that in your hearts you lie with harlots.” As Christianity grew more popular, people grew to see tattoos as something heathen and unacceptable.

From that point on tattoos were solemnly used to by the Romans to forcibly mark criminals, slaves and prisoners of war in the Western world. But as Western people started to explore and travel during the Golden age, they were astonished by the way tattoos were part of exotic cultures. As they came back with sketches and foreign traditional tattoos on their backs, along with the loosing grip of Christianity on society during the Age of Enlightenment during the 18th century, tattoos as an art form was reintroduced in the Western world.

But as people started to get more tattoos, a new kind of style developed in Madrid. A style that does the unthinkable, mixing the old and religious Spanish culture with the new tattoo culture – religious tattoos.

A tattoo parlor called Juan Sanchez is famous for these religious tattoos, with a motto ‘Tattoos with soul’. Juan Sanchez tattoos everything from images of Jesus Christ and Mother Mary to the whole fresco of the Sixteenth chapel in the most detailed pieces of art. Nora Caliani, Juan’s wife, explains that the parlor has a waiting list of two whole years, and that people from all over the world come to their shop to get religious tattoos. Their customers mostly come from Spain, Mexico and Cuba, but also from other parts of Europe and even from Japan and China. Nora explains that most people come for Christian tattoos, but some do also come for Hindu or Tibetan tattoos, “Juan tattoos everything the client wants. Except for Satan”, says Nora.

Nora herself has two beautifully detailed black and white portraits of both Jesus and Mary on the back of her hands, done by her husband. Nora and her husband Juan are both religious, but they practice religion in an unconventional manner. Her tattoos are part of her way of life; they are her art and culture. She states, “When people look at me or my hands they often only see the art, someone may not like it, but it is fine as long as they do not criticize my way of life.” Nora has never gotten a bad comment about her tattoos, nor did any of her friends, “last week I went to church, to give to the poor, and the priest looked at my hands and he said: wow that is absolutely awesome!”

The rising popularity of the general tattoo culture does make having tattoos more acceptable to society. L. Garcia got a tattoo of an Indian Goddess. When she travelled to India she fell in love with this goddess and got it tattooed on her back, covering every inch. When asked if she ever got a criticized for it, she heartedly laughed and said, “no never, it is just too beautiful.”

It seems that it does depend on the living and working environment of a person with tattoos, if that person can show their tattoos freely and speak about it openly. Time will tell if the tattoo culture will ever become a real part of Spanish culture.


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Nora Caliani

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Religious tattoo of Jesus and angels. Source: mdsoulportraits