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In Japan, tattoos are strongly associated with organized crime organizations known as the yakuza, particularly full body tattoos done the traditional Japanese way (Tebori). Many public Japanese bathhouses (sentō) and gymnasiums often openly ban those bearing large or graphic tattoos in an attempt to prevent Yakuza from entering. The Government of Meiji Japan had outlawed tattoos in the 19th century, a prohibition that stood for 70 years before being repealed in 1948. Read More
In the United States many prisoners and criminal gangs use distinctive tattoos to indicate facts about their criminal behavior, prison sentences, and organizational affiliation. A tear tattoo, for example, can be symbolic of murder, with each tear representing the death of a friend. At the same time, members of the U.S. military have an equally well established and longstanding history of tattooing to indicate military units, battles, kills, etc., an association which remains widespread among older Americans. Tattooing is also common in the British Armed Forces.
Tattooing was also used by the Nazi regime in Nazi concentration camps to tag prisoners.
Insofar as this cultural or subcultural use of tattoos predates the widespread popularity of tattoos in the general population, tattoos are still associated with criminality. Although the general acceptance of tattoos is on the rise in Western society, they still carry a heavy stigma among certain social groups. Tattoos are generally considered an important part of the culture of the Russian mafia.
The prevalence of women in the tattoo industry, along with larger numbers of women bearing tattoos, appears to be changing negative perceptions. A study of "at-risk" (as defined by school absenteeism and truancy) adolescent girls showed a positive correlation between body-modification and negative feelings towards the body and self-esteem; however, also illustrating a strong motive for body-modification as the search for "self and attempts to attain mastery and control over the body in an age of increasing alienation."
Orthodox Jews, in strict application of Halakha (Jewish Law), believe Leviticus 19:28 prohibits getting tattoos: Do not make gashes in your skin for the dead. Do not make any marks on your skin. I am God. One reading of Leviticus is to apply it only to the specific ancient practice of rubbing the ashes of the dead into wounds; but modern tattooing is included in other religious interpretations. Orthodox/Traditional Jews also point to Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De'ah 180:1, that elucidates the biblical passage above as a prohibition against markings beyond the ancient practice, including tattoos. Maimonides concluded that regardless of intent, the act of tattooing is prohibited (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry 12:11).
Conservative Jews point to the next verse of the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De'ah 180:2), "If it [the tattoo] was done in the flesh of another, the one to whom it was done is blameless" – this is used by them to say that tattooing yourself is different from obtaining a tattoo, and that the latter may be acceptable. Orthodox Jews disagree, and read the text as referring to forced tattooing—as was done during the Holocaust—which is not considered a violation of Jewish Law on the part of the victim. In another vein, cutting into the skin to perform surgery and temporary tattooing used for surgical purposes (e.g.: to mark the lines of an incision) are permitted in the Shulhan Arukh 180:3.
In most sectors of the religious Jewish community, having a tattoo does not prohibit participation, and one may be buried in a Jewish cemetery and participate fully in all synagogue ritual. In stricter sectors of the community, however, a community may have a psak (ruling or responsa with the weight of Halakha) that may forbid one's burial in a cemetery that comes under that ruling[dubious – discuss]. Many of these communities, most notably the Modern Orthodox, accept laser removal of the tattoo as teshuvah (repentance), even when it is removed post-mortem (see Tahara). Reform Jews and Reconstructionist Jews neither condemn nor condone tattooing.
Leviticus 19:28 is often cited by Christians as a verse prohibiting tattoos. According to the King James Version of the Bible, the verse states, "Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am YHVH." While it may appear that the passage disallows any markings of the flesh, even applying to the modern-day use of tattoos, it is likely the passage refers specifically to the form of mourning discussed above (see Middle East section). Christians who believe that the religious doctrines of the Old Testament are superseded by the New Testament may still find explicit or implicit directives against tattooing in Christian scripture, in ecclesiastical law, or in church-originated social policy. Others who disapprove or approve of tattoos as a social phenomenon may cite other verses to make their point.
For example, Revelation 14:1, 17:5, and 19:16 are cited as passages in which names are written on foreheads and the thigh of Christ, respectively. In this case, however, it is possibly metaphorical as the language is prophetic. There is no prohibition against tattoo within the Catholic Church, provided that the tattoo is not an image directly opposed to Catholic teaching or religious sentiment, and that an inordinate amount of money is not spent on the process. At the Catholic council of Calcuth in Northumberland in A.D. 786, a Christian bearing a tattoo "for the sake of God" (i.e., a religious tattoo in the form of a cross, a monogramme of Christ, or a saint's image) was commended as praiseworthy.
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (often referred to as "Latter-day Saints" or "Mormons") have been advised by their church leaders to not tattoo their bodies. In the Articles of Faith of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints it states that the Latter-day Saints accept the Bible to be the word of God. Therefore, the church believes that the body is a sacred temple as preached in the New Testament, and that they should keep it clean, inside and out. Tattooing, among other things, is discouraged.48dtu
Sharia (or Islamic Law), the majority of Sunni Muslims hold that tattooing is religiously forbidden (along with most other forms of 'permanent' physical modification). This view arises from references in the Prophetic Hadith which denounce those who attempt to change the creation of God (Arabic: Allah), in what is seen as excessive attempts to beautify that which was already perfected. The human being is seen as having been ennobled by God (Arabic: Allah), the human form viewed as created beautiful, such that the act of tattooing would be a form of mutilation.