I must be honest, this question has never been much of a problem for me. The thought of having my skin stuck with all kinds of needles and coloured with ink has not been much of a temptation. I don’t like needles and my body—well . . . let’s change the subject! However, tattoos are increasingly a huge part of our culture and many Christians are left wondering whether the Scriptures have anything to say to the issue.
Tattoos are big business and are often at the centre of big conflicts. I recently came across these statistics (for the United States) that give us some indication of the enormity of this cultural fad. Though I could not find any stats on the tattoo industry in South Africa, these probably are proportionately the same here at home; after all, an observant walk through a shopping mall will expose you to a lot of ink.
The annual revenue of the tattoo industry stands at a staggering $2.3 billion. There are some 15,000 tattoo parlours in the United States. Some 21 percent of Americans have a tattoo—23 percent of women, 19 percent of men.
Demographically, 36 percent of 18-to-25-year-olds have a tattoo; 38 percent of 30-to-39-year-olds have a tattoo; and 11 percent of 50-to-64-year-olds have a tattoo. One poll revealed that fifty percent of people think having a tattoo is rebellious.
On average, some ten to fifteen sessions are required to remove a tattoo. There has been a 32 percent increase in tattoo removals over the last year.
But as indicated, tattoos are also often at the centre of big conflicts, particularly as Christians debate the rightness or wrongness of such an undertaking. I am sure that plenty of families have had to wrestle with a teenager imploring their less-than-enthusiastic parent for permission to get a tattoo. So, should a Christian get one? Why, or why not? Does Scripture give us any insight into this question?
Leviticus 19:28 prohibited God’s covenant people from making “any cuts on your body for the dead” or to “tattoo yourselves.” The reason given was quite simple, “I am the LORD.” But does this ancient text speak to us in 2013? What about we who have been saved and who live under the new covenant? May we get one?
The assumption is often made that, since we live under the new covenant economy, this ancient text really says little to us. I would, however, argue that the age of the text is not the issue; rather, the cultural context surrounding this verse is what we must consider when seeking an answer.
As we saw recently, the context of this prohibition against tattoos was that of Canaanite pagan practices, especially with reference to grieving over someone’s death.
Tattooing seems to have accompanied superstitious belief that such an act would have some spiritual significance for those who had been affected by the death of a loved one. Perhaps it was thought that such a tattoo would honour the spirit of the dead or appease the spirit being responsible for the one who had died. Regardless, all such superstitious nonsense was not to characterise God’s people. If in our day a Christian desires a tattoo for similar reasons, he is equally forbidden from doing so. That is, if you think that a tattoo will affect the wellbeing of your life, then don’t get one!
Yet I think it is fair to say that for most, this is not what lies behind their quest for inking the derma. So then, should the debate be dropped, and should we not simply leave such questions as a matter of indifference? Is it simply a matter of “to each his own”? Not so fast!
Though I do not believe that the question of tattoos is one of to-sin-or-not-to-sin, nevertheless there are at least three considerations that will help us to come to a wise decision when approaching the tattoo parlour. Once the Christian has worked through these issues, then it is simply an individual matter of conscience. I would simply appeal to you to make sure that your conscience is suitably informed.
The first question to be considered is in the area of motivation: Why do I want a tattoo?
If the desire is to draw attention to yourself then clearly you should run away from the needle. No doubt, some have tattoos placed on particular parts of their body for the purpose of drawing attention to that region. This can be motivated by sinful sensuality or by wicked pride. Regardless, such motivation is illegitimate, dishonouring to God, and is enough reason to refuse having a tattoo. There may be other sinful motivations that would tempt you and hence such would be sufficient to lead to a no decision regarding having a tattoo.
The second question is related to that of identification: With whom does this identify or associate me in our culture?
This question perhaps does not receive as much consideration as it probably should. Historically, tattoos have been associated with two dominant subcultures in the wider social context.
First is the subculture of the military. Millions of men over the decades have gone to the army unadorned who have returned with some woman tattooed on his biceps, or, as someone recently commented, the word “mom” accompanied with a sword through the word. Don’t ask: I have no idea the connection! Of course, other macabre—even pornographic and evil—designs have also been etched into their skin. At the same time, no doubt, many harmless designs have been tattooed, and so content is the not the main issue here. What needs to be considered is how it came about. I would not want to generalise, but it is safe to conclude that many a soldier has frequented a tattoo parlour during a night out with the boys with the result that they have behaved like naughty boys. And so, either through intoxication or because of some macho response to a dare, he has become, quite literally, marked for life. Neither of these is a Christian way to behave.
The second subculture is that of the rebellious and often “gothic.” I don’t think it is a stretch that most fathers would not be too thrilled for their daughter to come home and informed them that she just met the most wonderful man who runs the local tattoo parlour! Though I do not question the artistic abilities of many tattooists who ply their trade (some of it is excellent and portrays a real giftedness), nevertheless it must also be acknowledged that there is something unsettling about the subculture that is often associated with such. As Christians, we are responsible for being separate (a major meaning of the word “holy”) from the world and therefore we want to be careful of being identified as supportive of a culture that is antagonistic, if not openly hostile, to God. This principle, of course, can be applied to many areas of conscience.
Finally, there is the question of mutilation: What is a tattoo doing to my body?
Though I am aware that, in most cases, having a tattoo is sanitary and safe, what I am referring to here is the result of literally marking one’s body for life. Though through an extended (and painful) process many tattoos can be removed, even then the evidence usually remains.
The apostle Paul argued that the body, for the Christian, is indeed important (1 Corinthians 6:13). He argued that how a Christian uses his or her body has moral implications (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). We are to use our bodies to the glory of God. We, in fact, do use our bodies to make a statement as to whom it is that we are serving: the Lord, ourselves, or some other false god.
Therefore, when contemplating whether to get a tattoo, or what kind of tattoo, one should think through the implications of the long term affect. After all, a tattoo of a lion on a bicep at 25 may look good, but when it starts to sag at 55 then the esteemed member of the big five may look pathetic!
It seems that, increasingly, full body tattoos are becoming more and more popular. This concerns me, for this probably not only violates the motivation question but also the mutilation issue as well. The body was never intended by God to be a canvass on which to display the works of men; rather, the body is God’s through which He displays His gospel glory.
Obviously there is a lot more that can (and probably should) be said about this issue, but suffice for now to chew upon these considerations if you are debating the question to tattoo or not tattoo. Make your decision coram Deo and be content with that. We have no right to sit in judgement upon one who has chosen a tattoo (within certain boundaries of course). All I am saying is, think before you ink!