My Tattoo

[Posted on my Facebook page, November 6, 2017]

I got a tattoo!

In general, I don’t think tattoos are attractive, and sure never expected that I would get one. I mean, I just turned 65, and I had never gotten a tattoo in all those years, so it seemed a safe bet.

But I’ve always thou2017-11-6tattooght it was a beautiful witness, how the Coptic Egyptian Christians get a small cross tattooed on the right wrist, to claim the identity of a Christian. The tradition possibly began when the Muslims conquered Egypt 1500 years ago, and would brand or scar a cross on the Christians who refused to convert to Islam. For Coptic Christians, it is a way of claiming an identity that is somewhat despised by the powerful, and to “glory” in nothing but “the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,” as St. Paul said (Galatians 6:14).

It happened that a friend of mine at church, who grew up in Egypt, was going to have his faded childhood cross renewed. He got his tattoo at the age of 8, from a guy who was working on a sidewalk and a lot of people had lined up. He noticed that the little cup of green dye the guy was using looked like it was mashed-up leaves, and he asked what it was; the tattoo artist said “Arugula.”

I had been thinking about getting a cross tattoo in solidarity with the Christians in the Middle East, especially those who were slaughtered this past Palm Sunday in Egypt. It also marks for my journey through cancer. I am almost finished with radiation. So I told George I wanted to go with him, and a couple of other ladies from the church went along too. We are joking that this will become the gang tattoo for Holy Cross Church.

stayhumbleGeorge had researched to find the right tattoo studio for us. I had pictured any place that did tattoos having a “dive bar” vibe. (I had emailed Coptic Christians and Coptic monasteries and could never find a Coptic tattooer in this country). George found a place called “Stay Humble.” Their website had a video of the owner explaining why he chose that name, and showing him as a husband and father. It was really different from how I picture a “tattoo parlor.”

When we got there, it looked kind of like a coffeehouse/art gallery. It was on the second floor of a building in a hipster section of Baltimore.

I wasn’t able to have the cross right on my wrist, because my old-lady skin is too thin there. So I had it a little further up my arm. The inking itself only took about 5 minutes. It took more time for him to set it up — sterilizing the skin, taping in place the stencil of the cross he’d made, inking it, getting the tools ready, and on.

I was braced for pain, but when he started it was so much less than I expected that I said, “Oh, this is nothing.” About 30 seconds later I was thinking, “Oh, this is not nothing.” It remained not-nothing for most of the remaining time, as it felt like he was digging down along the lines of the Cross. But I thought about how much pain the real crucifixion caused.

I don’t want to overstate it; the pain wasn’t terrible, I didn’t feel like yelling, didn’t even grit my teeth. I just felt like I had to concentrate and -hold on-, sort of. It was over quickly.

My dear husband had been ambivalent about my doing this, but when I showed it to him he said it was beautiful and that he was glad I’d done it. Also, he said, now he can tell people that he’s married to a tattooed lady.

Several remarked in the comments that this was “cultural appropriation” and people should not get such tattoos if they were not Coptic. My response:

I don’t agree that this is a Coptic cultural tradition, so those of other backgrounds should not do it. In my parish there are so many different ethnic backgrounds represented. I counted recently, and just counting the people who are first or second generation, it came to 17 different countries; this in a parish of less than 150 people.

2017-3-24crossesinstalledWith that as my parish-family context, the ethnic lines among Orthodox look very porous to me. We are an Antiochian parish, yet we have adopted the Slavic custom of Pascha baskets. Many of the women who cover their heads use Ethiopian scarves, acquired from Ethiopian members of the parish. Around the walls of the church are painted Orthodox crosses from a dozen different lands; the large crosses on the iconostasis are Celtic, Armenian, Greek, Russian, and Ethiopian; we have parishioners from all those backgrounds.) At lunch during coffee hour, there are dishes from all over the world.

To me, the cultures and traditions of all the many Orthodox lands belong to all of us, and sharing them brings us closer together. (Just as the different food traditions that immigrants brought to America have enriched our common life as a nation; anyone can eat pizza, not just Italians.)

I respect the opinions of people who don’t agree, and I’m not trying to start an argument. Just that, several people had expressed the thought that only Copts should get wrist tattoos, and I wanted to explain how I viewed things.

And a followup post:

I should add that I searched for a Coptic Christian tattoo artist and couldn’t find one (though I asked all my Coptic friends and even wrote to Coptic monasteries). That made me think this is apparently not a tradition that Coptic Christians in America are continuing. It had a specific purpose in Egypt, and in America the same conditions don’t apply.

What conditions do apply, in our current moment? Not outright persecution and martyrdom, which Middle Eastern Christians continue to endure. It’s more quietly insidious than that. Western European (and by extension American) culture, thoroughly Christian for almost two thousand years, is imperceptibly letting its faith slip away. While persecution from the outside can actually make faith stronger, we dwell in a consumerist, pleasure-loving culture that coaxes us to see faith as one more of the products we enjoy, one that we can cast away when we tire of it.

This is much more effective in undermining a living, courageous faith, for it quietly saps our strength. Jesus said that it was the rich who would have difficulty entering the Kingdom of Heaven, and in today’s America ordinary citizens live more richly than many an ancient king.

So it’s a different situation than Coptic Christians faced when this custom began. The forces assail us do so less by outright persecution than by undermining our allegiance to the way of the Cross, by offering endless entertaining images to fill our thoughts and displace prayer, by wedding us most loyally to the comfort of our own bodies, and by the social pressure of elites regarding strong Christians with mockery. This is not like being killed in the Colisseum; it is more subtle and harder to navigate than that.

Under outright persecution, Christians are aware constantly of the choices they make, for or against Christ; but we are in a fog of pleasures and distractions, and don’t even recognize when we *are* making choices. The more clearly we see the situation we’re drowning in, the more consistently we choose faithfulness to Christ despite the subtle undertow, the more we are going to conflict with the world around us.

crucifixongoreme11thccropped-2Conquerors of Christian lands hated images of the cross, of Christ and his saints; sometimes they scratched out the eyes of icons, in a futile attempt to eliminate their power. So I want my faith to be visible to the world.

For some that might mean wearing a prayer bracelet, wearing a cross visibly, a bracelet of small icons—there are many ways to silently bear witness to your faith. Whether times are going to get harder or insidiously softer, bearing visible signs of our faith will keep us aware that our first allegiance is to Christ. They will remind us of where our first loyalties like; they will hearten our fellow Christians and bear witness to our powerful despisers. They will remind us of the decisions and commitments we have already made, in the sacraments we’ve received and the worship we offer, and strengthen our conviction that nothing will turn us back.

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.


  1. Dear Mrs. Matthewes-Green,

    Please forgive me on this Clean Monday. I am very saddened and disturbed to read about this tattoo business. I say this because I believe tattoos are not something that have ever been endorsed by the Orthodox churches, and have been condemned both in scripture and by certain fathers. I have read at least one article but will now endeavor to do more research. Tattooing has ever been relegated to the unholy fringes of society and this is no mystery to anyone. Is not the proliferation of tattooing and the popularizing of it merely one more sign of the insidious fog of morality in our modern times? I am just dismayed that someone in your position with such influence would so carelessly participate in this subculture and then boast about it. Do you really want the thousands of people who follow and admire you to follow this lead? Are you sure about that? You already admit that this sign is not being practiced by the people who are not in the original context.

    You want to show your faith? Start by publicly wearing a head covering. This is perhaps the strongest and yet the meekest message you could send to the culture and strike to the devil you could ever do. It is perfectly biblical, and traditional and western as well as eastern.

    You want to undo the predicament we are in, worse than open persecution? Let us start to dislodge ourselves from it. Turn of television, expel it from our houses. Don't go to movies and sporting events. This is perhaps one of the number one things we need prominent leaders in the church to demonstrate and promote, detaching ourselves from the need for constant entertainment. Also, let us cast off any dependence on usury. Borrowing money to fund our lifestyle is what makes this subtle persecution possible and it puts us in bondage to unbelievers.

    I came to your website this morning looking for your 12 things I wish I'd known to share with someone I have invited to worship with us. I have no doubt this person would eschew the notion of getting any kind of tattoo. Do I want her to stumble on this Orthodox rubber stamp for tattoos?

    It is one thing to seek the lost, a generation of folks out there who have fallen for the passion of tattooing, yet still need Christ. They are still human beings, of course and what's more, may be wonderful people, much better than me, a sinner. But we can not simply say this is OK. Maybe a little cross for the right reason, but really what basis do we have for this. Copts? You said yourself, they are not continuing this, and besides that, they are not Orthodox. That is another discussion, but the point is, that is for them. Yes, you want to show your faith in a concrete way. But to enter the under-world of tattooing… no wonder you couldn't find a traditional christian tattoo artist. No, it doesn't matter that you might find one after all. Please be careful! Once these people enter the Church they will have to learn eventually that we don't mark ourselves any which way we feel like and certainly don't pay unbelievers to do so. If we preach the truth, they will be inspired to remove those markings. I would encourage you to have that little cross removed or just keep it covered and remove your post. I do not mean to accuse you or judge you but I also am not indifferent to it. I mean exhort you as a brother, as we are commanded to do. I am a nobody who just cares about good order in the Church. My Christian conscience can not let me pass over this in silence. I will pray for you. I don't really care if you post my comments, it is for you. We have never met, and you don't know me and I am nobody. But that doesn't matter because you are a public figure and therefore open to public scrutiny. Your personal choices are one thing, but you are a Khouria and a voice of the Church. And you must be careful!

    After writing the above, I did a quick search and found Fr. John Whiteford's excellent and concise treatment of the subject. I am not sure any further research is really necessary.

    FMG: Thank you for your honest thoughts, Justin. Of course it doesn't offend me at all. I hear your concern, both for me and for those I may influence. And your "undo the predicament" paragraph, my husband and I do all those things. We have no cable TV. We have no debt. YouTube is useful because I can watch church services on nights when there is no service at my church. Holy Transfiguration Monastery streams all their worship.

    I didn't get the tattoo in order to reach out to young people. Nobody is under any illusion that I am cool 🙂 and a tattoo wouldn't make me so. But as I said I wanted to bear a cross as a witness, like the Coptics do. I spoke at the offices of the Coptic Orphan charity last week and all the women who were raised in Egypt had crosses on their wrists. It's not that they aren't doing it any more, it's that the custom has not persisted in the US, probably just an aspect of becoming Americanized.

    After I got the tattoo a friend of mine who got his in Jerusalem reminded me that this is a very ancient custom, that a Christian who makes a pilgrimage to Jerusalem gets a tattoo of a cross. The family that gives the tattoos uses a wooden block pattern that is a couple of hundred years old. I went to Jerusalem about 20 years ago but never got a tattoo, so it can stand for that as well.

    I am sorry to have distressed you. I really do hear your concern. May God give us both a good Lent and the ability to hear his will in our lives.

    in Christ, F

  2. Congratulations! You got a tattoo. It is attractive too.

    FMG: Thank you! I went for the simplest, then said "Oh no! It's the logo of the Red Cross!" So now I am trying to think of how to dress it up a little. Maybe put a small Coptic cross inside it, or turn what I have into a Celtic cross.

  3. I have picked out a cross, with a heart in the center, that I want on my wrist. I am 42 and it will be my first tattoo. Hubby is not all that into the idea, but now I am going to use you as defense 😉 LOL In all seriousness, I love your reasons – the last paragraph states perfectly why I want a cross on my right wrist. Thank you for sharing your beautiful tattoo and reasons with us. I just need to find a place here that I want to have it done.

  4. Is that tattoo a Greek cross?

    FMG: I took the form of a cross a friend of mine has, except his has the words "phos" and "zoe" inside. It is called a Greek cross, though there are also other kinds of crosses that are Greek.

  5. Don't worry, the tattoo fad will fade and all the people who have one will be considered uncool and even worthy of scoffing by the younger generation… sort of like those who clung to their bell bottoms into the 1980s.

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