There is no escaping it. We live in a culture and world infatuated with body art. Something about scarring the skin with ink is almost irresistibly alluring to a growing population of our society.
What once was considered taboo and unacceptable twenty or thirty years ago is suddenly the new modern day norm. The image cascading down your forearm, that once would have hindered your reputation in a job interview, has now become a conversation piece.
There is no doubt that the view of tattoos and body art in our culture has changed drastically. What once seemed to be a practice only for soldiers and criminals has become common place for men and women of all ages. USA Today reports that more young people have tattoos and piercings today than ever before, saying that about 38% of young people ages 18 to 29 have at least one tattoo. And it doesn't look like body art is going anywhere anytime soon.
Tattoos are becoming ever-present in our society and their popularity is only climbing. In the United States alone there are over 20,000 tattoo parlors, and that number grows by one every single day. In 2002, the term "tattoo" became the number one search term on the internet.
People don't mind to open their wallets for their tattoos either. According to History of Tattoos, small tattoos cost around $45, while larger tattoos cost around $150 per hour of work. Accordingly, United States citizens spend 1.65 billion dollars each year on tattoos! That is a lot of cash for an inked scar!
But is there more to body art than cool graphics or dangling piercings?
Could the rose on your forearm, the skull on your shoulder, or the barbed wire on your bicep hold greater significance than you thought?
Could tattoos be more than the result of a needle and ink or the fulfillment of self-expression?
This article is not another assault upon tattoos or the culture that is becoming more and more infatuated with the idea of marking up their bodies. It is my opinion that tattooing - at least in a general sense - is not a sinful practice and is not condemned by God.
That being said, I do think that it would be prudent to take a look at the Scriptures so often associated with the position held by those who believe tattooing (and all other forms of body art) is wrong and sinful. And I do think that we must ask ourselves some important questions, pertaining to these verses of Scripture, before we step into the tattoo parlor.
What is Your Motive?
Almost without fail, those who frown upon tattoos and proclaim the depravity of body art cite Leviticus 19:28 in defense of their position. They assert that this verse of Scripture settles the debate and casts condemnation on any desire to mark or tattoo the body. When we read Leviticus 19:28, their argument seems explicitly correct:
"You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord." (Leviticus 19:28)
When this verse of Scripture is read, it seems to halt any righteous assumptions of getting a tattoo, and the argument is convincing!
In fact, the Hebrew people did not permit any form of body art. Even today certain devout sects of Judaism condemn the practice of tattooing and even disallow burial in their cemeteries if the body contains any kind of purposeful marking. Other, more relaxed sects of Judaism, forbid only tattoos of the name of a foreign deity.
In addition, the verse itself seems to plainly say, "Do not tattoo yourself."
But when we observe the surrounding verses of Leviticus 19:28, it brings forth some interesting questions for the 21st century American reader:
"You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard." (Leviticus 19:27)
Is the modern reader limited in the hairstyles he/she requests at the hair salon or barber shop?
“When you come into the land and plant any kind of tree for food, then you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden to you; it must not be eaten. And in the fourth year all its fruit shall be holy, an offering of praise to the Lord. But in the fifth year you may eat of its fruit, to increase its yield for you: I am the Lord your God." (Leviticus 19:23-25)
To be pleasing to God,is the modern American required to wait five years before he plucks a peach from his peach orchard?
When we view the surrounding verses, we quickly see that there is something larger at play here than body art. God was calling the Israelites to be a nation set apart - a nation distinguishable by their holiness from the surrounding pagan people groups.
God forbid the Hebrew people from interpreting omens, telling fortunes, making their daughters prostitutes, and tattooing themselves so they wouldn't, in any way, be associated with the pagan nations that He had not chosen to be His people.
But these pagan nations, specifically nations like the Hittites, no longer exist today. By piercing your nose or tattooing a sunflower on your forearm, you are no longer blatantly aligning yourself to a pagan nation. Tattooing, today, is not held in the same sense as tattooing in ancient times. However, we are mistaken if we believe that Leviticus 19:28 in no way applies to us today.
Though the Hittites do not exist in modern times and the sense of what a tattoo means has drastically changed, there is still a Biblical distinction between what the Bible calls "the world" and what He calls "the body of Christ." James said that friendship with the world is enmity with God, making us His enemy (James 4:4). Paul told the Romans to not be conformed to this world but to be transformed (Romans 12:2). Jesus specifically told His disciples they were not of the world (John 15:19). The apostle Paul told the Thessalonians their behavior should distinguish them from the world (1Thessalonians 4:3-8).
So, just because time passes on and the cultures around us change, that does not mean that God's desire for His people, His demand for His people, changes.
In the very first verse of Leviticus 19, it says:
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy."
God still wants His children to be holy and set apart.
So, what is your motive?
Why do you want to get that new tattoo?
Why do you want to get that new piercing?
What is the honest content of your heart?
Before you walk into the tattoo parlor, ask yourself, "Will the little rose I desire on my ankle make me an enemy of God? Only your heart will tell.
Who Owns the Canvas?
Take a deep breath.
Now, let it out.
Has it ever occurred to you that the breath you just took does not belong to you? Have you ever considered that we all share the oxygen that fills our atmosphere? Who owns this element that is essential to life?
God owns it. He owns everything. Every blade of grass belongs to the Creator, and is His before we claim it as our lawn. Every drop of rain that falls and seeps into the soil - to enrich and empower it for life - cascades from the dropper of the Almighty. Each individual ray of sunshine beams by the decree of the holy Sovereign.
Everything belongs to God. The air that we breathe is His. The lungs that inflate to enrich our bloodstream with oxygen is His. The eyeballs we use to gaze into His beauty is His. Each hair follicle that bursts forth from the pores of our flesh is His. The skin on our arms, our legs, our back, our chest, and on our entire body is His. Your body is not your own; it is His.
Paul tells the Corinthians,
"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)
As Christians, our soul resides in a body that was bought and paid for on the cross of Calvary by the blood of Jesus Christ. We fool ourselves if we believe that our bodies are our own, to use as we please and to treat however we wish.
We have been given a body, by God, to facilitate His glory and bring about the furtherance of His kingdom. Paul also says to the Corinthians,
"So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God." (1 Corinthians 10:31)
We are to be stewards of the flesh God has given us for His glory.
Those who oppose tattoos will also use 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 to make their case. They will claim that since our body is a temple, we are not to mark it with ink. That is not the position I am taking here. When Scripture tells us that our bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit, I do not believe that it is asserting that we cannot righteously get a tattoo (the context of 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 is sexual immorality, not tattoos). I believe these verses are simply telling us what I have described and what Paul specifically said: our bodies are not our own but belong to God, who bought them at the expense of His blood and seeks to use them for His divine glory.
However, this does have stark implications for the tattoos we put onto our bodies. If Christ purchased our bodies with His blood, and if the flesh I reside in is not my own, it is not unreasonable to assert that the tattoo I acquire is placed on a body that does not belong to me.
What does this mean?
This means that the ink of a new tattoo seeps into skin that is owned by God. Just as the bank holds the title of a car that is not yet paid in full, so too does God own the title of the skin you have decided to tattoo.
I do not believe that this means a person cannot righteously get a tattoo. However, I do think that this should pose serious questions that deserve our utmost respect and reverence.
So, before you walk into the tattoo parlor, ask yourself, "Who owns the canvas of my body art?"
Consult the owner before you tattoo His body.
Author: A. C. Minor
Scripture quotations are from The ESV Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version), copyright 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version.