Tattoos and Christians
I've been visiting tattoo parlors since I was a teen, and got my first tattoo in the mid 1990s. At this point I’m marked up from my chest, down my arms and onto my hands. And I am planning on getting a lot more. I often get questions from Christians about tattoos and wanted to address the common questions and issues here. But first, what exactly is a tattoo?
A tattoo is a mark on the body made by inserting indelible ink into the dermis through puncturing or incision. While tattoos have come to experience mainstream popularity in recent decades, people have been getting tattoos for thousands of years for a variety of reasons. Some were tattooed for beautification, others for military identification, some for religious significance, and in many cultures social status was identified via tattoos. There has never been just one reason people get "inked."
But, doesn’t Leviticus 19 condemn them? Even if tattoos are permissible, aren’t there other reasons to avoid getting tattooed? In this article I will address what the Scripture has to say about tattoos, offer ten reasons not to get a tattoo, and then offer some advice for those ready to get a tattoo.
Tattoos and Scripture
Bad guys wear black, good guys wear white. The quaint cowboy movies and television shows of years past made it easy to spot the baddy—look for the black hat. Of course real life is never that simple, and sometimes good guys wear black (see Johnny Cash and Chuck Norris).
Tattoos have an overly simplistic stereotype as well. People out of touch with what is happening today might still think that only sailors, bikers, and convicts get ink, but the reality is very different. This art form has gone mainstream and is now found on soccer moms and CEO's, honor roll students and officers. But the popularity of a cultural trend does not mean it is good. We want to be biblical, wise, and careful in all things.
Lev 19 and Idolatrous Tattoos
You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the LORD.
This prohibition falls in with several others given to Israel to separate them from the Canaanite pagan practices around them. The cutting of the body was related to the religious mourning process when relatives died. Tattoos were made in the same vein, and associated with specific idols and false religions. God calls Israel, as his nation, to look different from the pagans around them, and many of these commands had more to do with associated pagan beliefs than the actual practices in and of themselves, like cutting the sides of the beard (:27).
Isaiah 49 and Divine Tattoos
Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me. Isaiah 49:16
In Isaiah 49:16 God is assuring his people that he will not forget them, indeed he cannot forget them. Just as a nursing mother cannot forget her child, neither can God forget his children. And he decides to use an illustration that surprises some. He figuratively spreads out his hands and says, "Look, I have written your name on my hands." This is most likely a reference to a kind of tattoo, a mark made with indelible ink. Of course God does not have actual arms, and therefore he does not have any real ink. But the point is clear enough. He uses a picture his people will understand, and is essentially saying, "How can I forget you when I have tattooed your name on my hand. I cannot even put my hand to work in anything without being reminded of you and the promises I have made to you."
Some scholars even suggest that Jews began tattooing their hands to remind themselves of the temple and the Lord. (see Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible; and note Is. 44:5)
No, God does not condemn tattoos outright. Such marks, when associated with pagan theology and worship, were forbidden. But, removed from an idolatrous context tattoos are merely a cultural artifact; one God appears to have found to be a fitting picture of how he remembers us.
Jesus' Thigh Tattoo?
On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.
I have heard a few pastors point to the depiction of Jesus' second coming in Revelation 19, and the "name written" on his "thigh" as a tattoo. At best it is unclear if this is a tattoo, but it seems much more likely that this name, "King of kings and Lord of lords" is written on his garment, not his actual leg. John records that the name was written on his robe and on his thigh, and it seems most likely that the lower part of the robe, covering the thigh area, carried the name. I haven't yet come across any scholars who argue this was a tattoo.
Your Body a Temple?
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
- 1 Corinthians 6:19-20
One of the most common passages of Scripture brought up to argue against tattooing the body is 1 Corinthians 6:19-20. The argument is that our bodies are not our own, we belong to God body and soul, and the body we have functions as a temple of the Holy Spirit. So, we must glorify God with our bodies, and tattoos desecrate, rather than decorate, the temple.
The problem with this argument is that it begs the question. Yes, we must glorify God with our bodies, but this passage does not address whether or not tattooing dishonors God or the body. In fact the context moves us in another direction.
Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
- 1 Corinthians 6:18-20
Paul is confronting sexual sin in the church, and argues that sexual immorality defiles the body/temple. Using this passage to argue against tattoos (or smoking, or eating red meat) does injustice to the text and leads us away from the powerful truths reveled therein.
Of course, how we treat the body matters. We do belong to God, body and soul. We are wholly his because he has created us and redeemed us, meaning we are doubly his. So how do we glorify God in the body we possess? That questions must be carefully answered using the Scripture which is our authority in all faith and practice. Godliness is directed and determined by the word of God alone. We glorify God by loving him, trusting him, and keeping his commands. As Paul says,
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
- Romans 12:1–2
Scripture does not condemn tattoos themselves. But that does not mean one should get a tattoo. In fact when people tell me they are thinking of getting tattoos I caution them to think soberly and long before heading to the tattoo studio.
10 Reasons Not To Get a Tattoo
I believe tattoos are "lawful" for the Christian. It isn't tattoos that are forbidden in Scripture, but pagan tattoos (Lev. 19:26). Ultimately scripture neither presents the idea that tattoos somehow harm the temple of God (our body) or dishonor God. In fact, God uses the idea of a tattoo favorably when he speaks of his remembrance of his people.
However, while tattoos are permissible it is not always wise to get one. In fact there are a number of questions one needs to work through when considering tattoos. Just a few of them are:
Can I do this with a clear conscience, in faith, and honor the Lord? (If not, you should not get a tattoo.)
Will tattoos create an unnecessary barrier to my ministry or vocation?
What does my spouse think?
When people, especially young people, start talking to me about tattoos I try to talk them out of it. I figure if I can talk them out of it they really have no business getting one.
Here are my top 10 reasons to not get a tattoo.
10. It's mainstream and unoriginal. Everyone has them, why follow the trend?
09. It stinkin' hurts.
08. You might regret what you get, what size it is, or where it is placed.
07. It could turn out bad. I mean really bad. You have no idea how many people pay a lot of money for what turns out to be a very ugly (or even misspelled) tattoo.
06. It's expensive, can you really justify the cost?
05. It will draw attention. If you don't like people staring at you this could be a bad decision. If you do like people staring at you there are some heart issues that need to be dealt with. No tattoo for you.
04. You will be judged. Even though tattoos are mainstream and broadly accepted, you will still encounter people who think less of you for the ink.
03. It's permanent. If you want to "say something" why not go for a cool t-shirt?
02. Tattoo removal is expensive and even more painful than the needle.
01. It stinkin' hurts. It bears repeating.
I have talked people out of getting ink, and I have taken people to get their first. My father got his first tattoo at 50. So, you are set on getting a tattoo. You have thought on it, prayed on it, and no one is talking you out of it. (Are you really sure you want to do this?) I hope you will listen to a few pieces of advice from a guy who has a lot of tattoos and over 20 years of of living with them.
I know you're dying to get that first tattoo. You think about it a lot. But now that you have made up your mind it's time to be patient. Wait. You can't go wrong waiting, but you things can go very wrong if you rush into it. Take your time. Figure out what you want. As you begin to figure out what you want consider the various styles of tattoos that will best suit your concept: American traditional, traditional Japanese, portrait, Celtic, typographic, biomechanical, black and gray or color, etc. Once you have a direction in mind, you still have more waiting to do. But the next step is seeking out the right tattooer.
There are a lot of tattooers today, and a lot of them are terrible. Don't simply find the nearest tattoo parlor and show up with money in hand. You want to find the right artist, one who is gifted in the style you are interested in. Check their portfolios and look through their work carefully. If you like what you see schedule a consultation to discuss your desired tattoo. You may need to visit with a few different artists until you find the right fit.
Once you have found your tattooer be sure to heed their advice. They want to create something you will love, but they also know what works, and what will not. You might want something very small that simply will not work on skin. If you found a good artist, they know what they're talking about and will steer you toward something good.. Listen up.
Tattoos can be spendy. But you also need to factor in a tip. Most tattoers in a shop will not keep all the money they charge for their work. They share significant percentage with the shop, so come ready to tip (20% is a good place to start). If you like the work, bless your artist!
Tattoos aren’t for everyone, but they aren’t inherently sinful. Tattoos are permissible, but that doesn’t mean you should get one. If you do get some ink, do so with a clear conscience, in faith, unto the glory of God.
This is an adaptation of a series of posts originally published at joethorn.net