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Religious tattoos: Two men of faith explain the stories behind their ink

A close up of the Reverend Fie Marino's Samoan tattoo.
The Reverend Fie Marino plans to undergo a full body tattoo next year.

ABC RN: Tiger Webb

Uniting Church minister Fie Marino was 16 years old when he received his first tattoo.

He was with his three brothers, and as the eldest, it was his duty to go first.

Mr Marino tried not to reveal his pain; a difficult task considering his tattoo was done in the traditional Samoan way — with ink hammered into his skin using the teeth of a boar.

This process simultaneously inks and scars the skin, creating a slightly raised tattoo.

In Samoan culture, tattoos mark the transition from boyhood into adulthood and, for some men, it culminates with a full body tattoo, called a pe'a.

This can only be performed with the permission of man's parents. At 35 years old, Mr Marino says his parents have only just agreed.

Uniting Church Reverend Fie Marino in black shirt.
Mr Marino says he's careful not to offend churchgoers with his tattoos.

ABC RN: Tiger Webb

"It's a process where both sides of the family have to feel that you've earned [pe'a]," he says.

"If your mother's family isn't happy that you're doing it, [it's believed] the left side would hurt a lot.

"And if your father's family isn't happy, then it's your right side."

When faith and culture meet

These parental blessings are a pre-Christian tradition, but Mr Marino says Christian faith is now embedded in Samoan tattooing culture.

"[Culture and religion] are so intertwined that tattooing has to be part of who we are, as a people of faith," he says.

But Christian beliefs weren't always compatible with Pacific Islander traditions.

Shirtless back of Uniting Church Reverend Fie Marino. Tattoos on arms.
Getting a boar tooth tattoo is an extremely painful process.

ABC RN: Tiger Webb

Missionaries banned cultural tattooing in Fiji and Tonga, and although Samoans were allowed to continue the practice, it was deeply frowned upon.

"Tattooing and traditional dancing, the missionaries viewed as heathen, and said to us that [they] symbolise satanic rituals," Mr Marino says.

"It was just their understanding of it at that time. But these days [Samoans] are beginning to reclaim it, and say, 'No, let's not be ashamed of that.'"

When Mr Marino receives the full body tattoo next year, he says it will serve as a reminder of Christ's suffering.

"Christ rose again in the end — and that, for us, is what we look for."

Despite the excruciating pain of boar tooth tattooing, Samoan men are instructed to hide their anguish.

"If a person doesn't finish [the tattoo], it's a very, very bad thing," Mr Marino says.

"It's a mark of disrespect, and dishonour, on you and your family. And it's a shame that the family carry for a long time."

The full tattoo, which covers three-quarters of a man's body when complete, can take between two weeks and two months to complete.

"It was [at 16] that I realised I probably couldn't do a full body tattoo until I was totally ready, because it's extremely painful," he admits.

Building understanding

As a teenager, Mr Marino was also unprepared for the negative reaction he received from school community after returning with a tattoo.

"They were very upset, so my parents had to come in," he recalls.

"They were like, 'Your children have tattoos; it's not a very good thing.' My parents just said, 'No, it's a traditional Samoan thing.'"

He says schools today have a much greater understanding of the cultural practice.

"Especially in areas with lots of Samoans, like the Western part of Sydney, schools understand that," he says.

But as the multicultural ministry consultant for the Uniting Church, he recognises that sensitivities still exist.

"I work not just with Pacific Islanders, but also with Asian, African and Middle Eastern parts of the church," he says.

"Those parts of the church do not like tattoos at all — [they] view it as a sinful thing. Traditions [exist] where Paul in the Bible says it's a waste of blood."

Keen not to offend, Mr Marino covers his tattoos around churchgoers, particularly on Sundays. But he's happy to show them during cultural programs.

A turning point

Western Sydney boxer and gym owner Jacob Najjar has more than 20 tattoos on his body.

The 30-year-old was first inked at the age of 18 with the Islamic phrase 'There is no other God but Allah'. The tattoo marked a turning point for Mr Najjar, whose turbulent teenage years had been marred with shoplifting and fighting.

Boxer and gym owner Jacob Najjar stands in boxing ring.
Gym owner Jacob Najjar says tattoos were taboo among Muslims communities when he was first inked.

ABC RN: Tiger Webb

"My life took a turn and I'd seen the light, if you want to put it that way," he says.

Mr Najjar says at the time tattoos were not only looked down upon by the wider society — they were taboo among Muslim communities.

Despite this, he decided to embark on the Islamic pilgrimage of Hajj, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

His decision to wear the most sacred word in Islam on his body — while being in Islam's holiest site — led to confrontations with other pilgrims.

Tattooed back of gym owner Jacob Najjar.
Mr Najjar's back tattoo shares an Islamic phrase: 'There is no other God but Allah'.

ABC RN: Tiger Webb

"I still remember once, when performing our duties, a dark-skinned man came running up to me and said, 'That is forbidden, that is forbidden!'

"It makes me laugh, because nowhere in the Muslim book does it say anything about tattoos being forbidden."

Pure arms and good deeds

That conversation didn't deter Mr Najjar, who went on to get more Islamic tattoos, including verses from the Koran, and the word 'Ali' on his right arm.

The name is a reference to Imam Ali, who was the fourth caliph in Islam and remains a significant figure for Shia Muslims like Mr Najjar.

"As a young kid, he was a huge influence in my life, and when we went to the mosque his name was everywhere," he says.

The Imam Ali tattoo is on Mr Najjar's right arm, as are all his other religious tattoos.

A close up of a muscular man with no shirt on, and tattoos on his arm.
Western Sydney boxer and gym owner Jacob Najjar has all his religious tattoos on his right arm.

ABC RN: Tiger Webb

Mr Najjar's placement is strategic; it's influenced by the Islamic belief that the right arm is the "pure" arm, which plays a crucial role on the Day of Judgment.

On the skin, in the heart

For both Mr Marino and Mr Najjar, religious tattoos are an outward expression of internal faith.

"At the end of the day, religion is not [just] on pen and paper, it's not a picture, or a statue," Mr Najjar says.

"It's what is in your heart."

Jacob Najjar tattoos
Mr Najjar is primarily tattooed on his right arm, as it's believed to be 'pure' by Muslims.

ABC RN: Tiger Webb

They agree that tattoos — especially religious ones — should carry meaning.

"It's not just something you get with your mates — get drunk and get a panda or something," Mr Marino says.

"So long as it has a significant meaning to you, and you know the purpose … I think that's what is important."