Tattoos are wildly popular right now, but many Christians are unsure if it is acceptable for them to get a tattoo. They know that their bodies are meant to be treated like temples of God. The question, of course, is whether or not tattoos are seen as defilement or decoration. Temples, after all, often have vivid and beautiful decorations. Solomon’s temple was constructed using the finest materials in the ancient world. While most churches and synagogues today are not made with large amounts of gold, it is not unusual for them to be beautifully shaped. Houses of worship have been created in nearly every architectural style used, and churches are often seen as the pinnacle of such styles. Even if you prefer a small church, it is hard not to be impressed with the exquisite carvings, massive towers and stunning stained glass windows in Catholic cathedrals like Notre Dame or awed by the paintings and metalwork that so often fill Orthodox Churches. Some people argue that tattooing your body is no different than painting the walls of a church. Others claim that since the Old Testament says not to “make cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor put any tattoo marks on yourself,” Christians should avoid tattoos.
Given that the prohibition against tattoos is found in the Old Testament, the theology behind following it is debatable. After all, there are many laws in Leviticus that Christians no longer follow. Why would the forbidding of tattoos remain when the previous verse, “do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard,” is roundly and routinely ignored? That said, one could also argue that it is a bad idea to ignore a very clear biblical commandment for no other reason than “I want to.”
When it comes to deciding if tattoos are acceptable for Christians, one has to consider the intent of both the prohibition in Leviticus 19 as well as the reason you are considering getting a tattoo. The sort of tattoos that Leviticus is describing largely has to do with tattoos that were used as spells, wards and protective amulets. In Leviticus, the Israelites have just left Egypt. In Egypt, it was common for women to get tattoos of gods and spells they believed would protect them during their pregnancy and ease the birth of their child. Refusing to tattoo oneself was a way of differentiating Israelite and Egyptian women. Similarly, the statement not to “cut your bodies for the dead” refers to the pagan practice of, very literally, cutting oneself as a show of grief when a person died. Rather than shedding blood, the Israelites adopted the custom of wearing sackcloth and ashes.
It is unlikely you are considering a tattoo because you want a pagan god to help protect you during childbirth. That does not mean, however, that you are injecting ink into your skin for reasons that are any better. Tattoos have become more normalized, but they are still a sign of rebellion in many places. If you want a tattoo simply because you can get one or you want to rebel against your family or upbringing, this is a terrible reason to have something permanently attached to your skin. It is also not very biblical. The Bible, after all, is very clear about obeying one’s parents.
Some people also claim to be getting religious tattoos, but the tattoo is placed in a way that draws a great deal of attention to a person’s sexual attractiveness. Classic examples would be tattoos on either gender that are placed low on the chest in order to emphasize a man’s pectoral muscles or woman’s breasts, lower back tattoos and tattoos placed high on the thigh, especially the inside of the thigh. It does not matter if your tattoo is a bible verse. When it is placed in a way designed to garner sexual attention, it is not appropriate. Do not claim that you placed a tattoo in such a place and did not mean for it to look so provocative. Why else would you put the tattoo there?
In addition to scrutinizing your own motivations for wanting a tattoo, you also need to consider the possible ramifications of getting one. Your soul may not be in danger because you got a little bit of ink, but the same may not be true of your job. Many employers do not want employees to have tattoos. Tattoos are seen as unprofessional especially in positions where you are going to be meeting regularly with clients. You may be forced to keep the tattoo covered or find yourself removed from various projects because you are no longer seen as suited for the role.
Even if you do not find yourself in trouble at your current job due to your new ink, you may still run into problems later. You may find it more difficult to find a new position. You may also simply come to regret getting the tattoo in the first place.This may not be for any sort of work related reason but because you find that whatever it was you inked onto your skin no longer holds the same significance to you. This is not unusual. Many people who get tattoos find that the quote, symbol or design no longer appeals to them in the same way. Their options then are to either undergo costly, and sometimes unsuccessful, tattoo removal procedures or to live the rest of their lives wearing something that they do not like anymore. Neither of these are good options.
Given that the theology is murky, the job risks are real and regret is likely, it is probably better not to get a permanent tattoo. If you are really desperate to wear a Bible verse or Christian symbol, get it on a t-shirt, necklace or bracelet. Otherwise, invest in some henna paste. The natural dye is longer-lasting and better for you than homemade sharpie tattoos, but it will eventually wear off. That way, you can enjoy displaying your favorite Bible verse throughout Lent but can be assured it will be gone by Pentecost.