By: Steven Nelms
Let’s deal first with the most infamous of verses dealing with tattoos. It’s one of those verses that even non-believers know. I’ve met at least a few devout non-believers who have said to me, “Doesn’t your Bible forbid tattoos?” This verse that they are usually referring to is Leviticus 19:28, which states;
"You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord.”
That seems straightforward enough. So, what’s the problem? Context. Context is always the problem. Who was the original audience of the book Leviticus? What was their culture? What was going on in the world around them? Once we figure that out, we have a much better chance of understanding what this verse is actually saying.
So who was the audience? A bunch of Jews. Honestly. Well, maybe not honestly. Truthfully, it was a bunch of Hebrews. But they were well on their way to becoming Jews. It was a traveling entourage of freshly freed Hebrews roaming about in the desert. Moses, their head honcho, was handing down a bunch of rules and regulations that were being dictated to him by God himself.
What was their culture? They were about to head into a land filled with cultures that were all radically different from their own. Some of these cultures practiced some pretty crazy rituals. The pagans in the area of Canaan practiced all sorts of self-mutilation for various events from funerals to worship services. God was specifically commanding the Hebrews not to adopt these kinds of practices.
So in order to apply this verse to our lives today, we have to understand that this was meant for Hebrews who were confronting pagan rituals. The pagan practice was for the purpose of worshipping false gods and honoring their dead. Therefore, God didn’t want his people practicing this kind of self-mutilation because it would mean participating in the worship of idols. Tattoos at your local shop aren’t part of any worship ritual so this verse doesn’t really apply to our decision making process.
The second verse that says something about tattoos is in Revelation 19:16. Usually when a Christian wants to justify his or her reason for getting a tattoo, this verse might come to mind:
“On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.”
This verse is describing Jesus’ appearance in Heaven. It seems to suggest that Jesus had some sort of writing, whether permanent, temporary, or even metaphorical, on his leg. So again; who was the original audience of Revelation? What was their cultural context?
John, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, is the one who saw the visions that he wrote down in the book of Revelation. The beginning of the book identifies seven churches that he is going to send this book to. So we have seven different churches spread throughout the western coast of present-day Turkey.
What was the culture of these churches in Turkey? Luckily, their cultures don’t really matter to a better understanding of this verse. That's because this verse is part of an apocalyptic prophecy. That sounds crazy, and in all honesty it is. It means that there is a lot within the book that we don’t understand because it speaks of things that haven’t happened yet and things that will occur in Heaven, which is a cultural and historical context that is completely unknown to us.
So in short, this verse doesn’t provide much commentary on the permissiveness of tattoos either way. We can’t say for sure that it is even a tattoo on Jesus’ thigh. This verse is in much too much of an interpretive gray area to be used either for or against a decision to get tattooed.
So the Bible doesn’t actually say anything in regards to the contemporary art of tattoos in the context of Christianity. Now, that’s not to say that we are without any direction or guidelines when making a decision on getting a tattoo. And if we decide to get a tattoo there are certainly biblical principles that can be practiced in determining what to get, where to get it, and when to get it.
So here are 5 principles that we think can help you with your tattoo decision.
Motive. What’s the reason you want to get a tattoo in the first place? You gotta understand first and foremost that a tattoo is a life choice. It’s permanent and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. You also need to be fearlessly honest with yourself, and make sure you’re not looking for any kind of self-fulfillment in a tattoo. Tattoos carry a certain image with them. People who have tattoos, depending on their fashion, are thought of and perceived differently. When deciding to get a tattoo, it shouldn’t be for the purpose of completing an outfit; really nailing that hipster look with a nature-oriented half-sleeve may not be the best motive. Remember, it’s permanent. More than likely the trendy fashion statement of 2014 isn’t. Your identity isn’t dependent on what you wear or how you look. Your identity is much more essential than that, and a tattoo should bear no influence on how you see yourself, value yourself or how you want others to see or value you. But inevitably, it will alter how people think of you, especially with first impressions. Different tattoos and amounts of tattoos are going to encourage different judgments from people. But at the end of the day, simply acknowledging the fact that other people, even strangers, will have an opinion is all that is necessary. If your motive is not dependent on creating an identity or how others perceive you, then what others think of your having a tattoo shouldn’t effect whether or not you get one. It’s simply the reality of having a tattoo, not a reason for or against getting one. Thinking that a tattoo will fulfill a desired image of yourself, however, is certainly a reason to reconsider exactly why you think you want a tattoo. So first, you need to understand that this is a permanent thing and therefore your motive needs to be thoroughly thought through.
Authority. Does your tattoo explicitly go against a household rule or workplace dress code? Depending on where you are in life, you might legally be of age to get a tattoo but still be living under your parent’s roof. Or you might not be living under your parent’s roof but are still in some way financially dependent on them to some extent. If your parents have a rule against tattoos, then it is respectful of their authority to not go against their rules while depending on their support. It’s kind of a “don’t bite the hand that feeds you” mentality with a twist of “respect your elders”. If getting a tattoo before you’re financially independent is that important to you, then a calm, sit-down conversation about your motive with your parents might be helpful. Also, if you currently work, or ever think you might want to work in an environment that generally frowns upon visible tattoos, then it’s at least something to think about before you go get those knuckles done. Again, since it’s a permanent thing, you need to think long-term, not just about what your current job is but about what kind of job you might want in the future. A suggested rule of thumb is to keep the tattoos where they can be covered by a T-shirt and jeans. If you’re willing to wear long-sleeve shirts in the summer time, go for that forearm tat. Just understand what your potential workplace’s dress code might require.
Content and Placement. What are you getting and where are you getting it? If you are deciding to get a tattoo, a question that needs to be asked is whether the tattoo is appropriate or not. Is the tattoo glorifying something that Scripture specifically condemns? Is the tattoo immodest in its depiction of a bodily form? Is the tattoo unnecessarily offensive? If your tattoo is being motivated by something that is important and meaningful to you, then as a Christian is it congruent with your faith? Another thing needing consideration is the location of the tattoo on your body. I’m not condemning any particular placement of a tattoo, but you have to recognize whether it would be immodest for others to see your tattoo. If it is, then you have to accept that your tattoo is for you alone, with the exception of your spouse. If getting a tattoo in a private area is going to tempt you to dress immodestly to show it off, it would be unwise to get it there. So what you’re getting and where you’re getting it needs to be congruent with your faith and consistent with modesty.
Money, money, money. Is this the best use of your financial resources? Whether or not you think tithing was something meant only for the Old Testament, it is clear that in 1 Corinthians and 2 John that financial support of missionaries/itinerant preachers is strongly encouraged. We have responsibilities to support the work of the church toward the expansion of God’s kingdom. Tattoos require investment. But so do every other hobby you might invest yourself in. There is no better financial justification for fly fishing than for getting a tattoo. Both require monetary investment and you can’t get away from that. Luxury is expensive and no matter how you slice it, any interest, hobby, or extracurricular that you pursue outside of essential food and shelter is a luxury. We’re not discussing whether luxury is moral, but whether getting a tattoo is a wise use of your money. So first, I’d ask whether I’m financially contributing to the work of God’s Church. Am I giving to the church? Am I paying off my debt? Is getting a tattoo withholding funds from other financial obligations, like rent, bills, tuition, etc.? It’s a matter of prioritization. Some people will drop thousands of dollars to support their hobby so the same questions should be asked before investing in any personal luxury.
Medical Concerns. What’s the risk of my skin falling off? Just kidding. But really. What are the realistic medical concerns that come with a needle piercing my skin with ink thousands of times a minute? I think there’s probably some misconceptions of what a tattoo shop is like for those who are not familiar with them. The first thing to do when deciding to get a tattoo is shop around. Use the internet. Read reviews. Pick a few shops and go visit them. If the place is reputable enough to have a website and have good reviews, then it’s more than likely a clean, well-kept shop. Tattoos are more and more popular and there is more and more competition for shops and artists to keep business coming in. Every tattoo I’ve gotten and every tattoo I’ve witnessed others getting begins with a process of the artist putting on plastic gloves and individually unwrapping each brand new, unused piece of equipment. From the needles to the ink, it’s all being used for the first time to do your tattoo. If it’s your first tattoo, there is no shame in going to the shop you think you’ll use and asking the front desk about their equipment and cleanliness. Today, tattoos are cleaner and safer than ever before. In 1996 the CDC did a survey of the root causes for all 13,387 cases of Hepatitis and only 12 of those cases were tattoo related. There are some allergy concerns with specific colors of ink, but they’re rare. All in all, there’s less medical concerns with getting a tattoo than there are with visiting the dentist, which by the way was responsible for 43 of the recorded hepatitis cases in the CDC’s survey. And one last note: it’s going to hurt so just be ready.
In conclusion, the Bible doesn’t specifically speak to the issue of tattoos in particular. But it does provide principles as guidelines in our decision making for any such issues of life choices and investments in hobbies. We’ve outlined 5 principles that we feel are rooted in Scripture and hope that these will serve to help navigate you through your decision and even your opinion about tattoos.
xx sincerely, your friendly neighborhood tattooed Christian.