To Tattoo or Not to Tattoo?
By matthew lee anderson
May 14, 2012
The Pew Research Center reported in 2010 that nearly 40 percent of Millennials sport at least one tattoo, more than double the number of our parents’ generation. While most of those tattoos are covered up by clothing, that doesn’t mean we’re ashamed of them. If anything, us twenty- and thirtysomethings are proud of our body art but cognizant that not everyone will get it. As sociologist Mary Kosut writes in the academic Journal of Pop Culture, people with tattoos today “are not exotic or deviant others—they are everyday people with aesthetic sensibility.” Now, when friends show off their new ink, many of us inquire what prompted it and then move along.
Yet many younger Christians’ relationship to tattoos is still more complicated than most people’s. Those who grew up in the Christian subculture have memories and battle scars of heated and contentious debates with parents and youth pastors over Levitical laws. My first confrontation over tattoos occurred when I was convinced that my neighbor’s newly minted Tweety ankle tattoo was the first step on the short road to perdition.
Parents and pastors may still have their objections, but most younger Christians don’t seem to be very concerned. Discussions about tattoos have often been limited to a single question: “Should I or should I not?” While that’s an important line of inquiry, it’s not the only one. And answering it requires first thinking through what tattoos mean and why they’ve become such a prominent form of self-expression at this point in our history. Why not poetry or pixels instead?
The Christian faith is in a God whose concern for human bodies is such that He became one in order to accomplish salvation. The most basic intuition of American culture is that our “rights” allow us to treat our bodies how we want, but the Gospel sets forth a startling alternative: “You are not your own, but you have been bought with a price. Therefore, glorify God in your body.”
So what does that mean when it comes to permanently altering a body?
What the Bible says
It’s nearly impossible to draw a straight line from the Bible’s teachings on tattoos to today, as the meaning of tattoos has drastically shifted. The Bible knows nothing of tattoos for purely aesthetic purposes or as artistic self-expression. Instead, tattoos in the ancient Near East were punitive, expressions of fidelity to the local deity, or marks of ownership over slaves.
The debates over Leviticus 19:28 are officially worn out, and most everyone knows the exegetical troubles that come with trying to interpret and apply the Old Testament law. The more interesting Old Testament passages are in Isaiah, where the Lord suggests that some Israelites will one day write on their hands, “Belonging to the Lord” (44:5) and that the Lord has written their names on His hands (49:16). In the former, the marking seems to be tied to the Israelites’ perfection as the people of God. Isaiah points to a day when the people of God will be so faithful that some will mark the name of the Lord on their bodies. The tattoo, or tattoo-like mark, signifies a permanent status—a physical expression of human faithfulness and God’s ownership.
As for the New Testament, Pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle has famously pointed to Revelation 19:16 as proof that Christ, the Tatted Warrior, will return with His sword someday. It’s a stunning image, and one that plays well in the grunge-oriented city where Driscoll preaches. There’s only one problem with it: It’s resting on a bad translation. Biblical scholar Grant Osborne points out that, grammatically, the verse is better translated along the lines of, “On His robe covering His thigh He has a name written”—rather than on His thigh directly.
Otherwise, the closest you’ll find in the New Testament to a commendation of tattoos is when Paul writes that he carries on his body the “stigmata,” or the Greek word for tattoo. The reference is sometimes used as an argument for voluntary tattooing, but it shouldn’t be. Paul’s tattoo (if he, indeed, had one) was most likely administered as a punishment, as tattoos in Greco-Roman culture were almost exclusively punitive.
Paul is undermining his punishment by identifying it with the sufferings of Christ. In other words, Christians shouldn’t collapse the distinction between the bodily persecution Paul experienced for the cross of Christ and a voluntary decision to add the ichthus symbol to their forearms. Otherwise, there is the risk of emptying out the uniqueness of the suffering of the martyrs and improperly inflating an individual standing in the Kingdom.
The record from Scripture is mixed. There aren’t necessarily any explicit prohibitions of aesthetic tattooing, but it’s not exactly endorsed, either. Instead of focusing on the diversity of self-expression through the body, Scripture repeatedly turns its attention toward the pattern for self-expression: the person of Christ and the means He established to bring believers into conformity with Him. The Christian identity is given in union with Christ and by a life within Christian community, as the book of Ephesians repeatedly emphasizes—not in tattoos or the histories written on a body. The primary concern of the New Testament is not aesthetics or fashion but faith working through love.
So, what can one make of all this? In one sense, the popularity of tattoos within the younger Christian culture could be read as an indictment of the Church, which has largely left the younger generation on their own to interpret their experiences and discover their own sense of meaning. And, not surprisingly, twentysomethings have turned to the culture for cues. The absence of meaning-making rituals within the Church has left an empty space that tattoos have admirably filled.
Yet in this, there may be reasons for caution. When self-expression takes a religious form through tattooing crosses or other iconography, there is the risk of obscuring how the Bible enjoins believers to express faith through their bodies. The faith, hope and charity that set Christians apart in the world are not aesthetic markings per se, but rather expressive behaviors that reshape a Christian’s muscles and organs (including the skin). Holiness, in other words, can’t be tattooed on—it can only be cultivated through the practices of the Christian life.
Whether any particular Christian should get a tattoo is, then, an open question. But Christians should think about them differently than they have. In short, the question of whether to get a tattoo should be a question of Christian discipleship, rather than purely individualistic forms of self-expression.
For instance, if Christians are tattooing themselves as a reminder of God’s work in their lives, it might make sense to bring a Christian community into the discernment process in order to ensure the correct meaning. The same principle holds, in fact, for those seeking tattoos simply because they look good. It’s tempting to treat tattoos as an expression of autonomy or the individual freedom to do to our bodies as we will. But if individuals are to avoid the chasm of individualism, then people must open themselves in the discernment process to the counsel of others.
The permanent things are faith and hope, without which any tattoos are simply empty symbols and meaningless art. Many twentysomething Christians have been frequently misunderstood or ignored during debates about tattoos, which can be deeply frustrating. But Christian freedom doesn’t primarily mean anyone can get a tattoo if they want one.
The purpose and goal of Christian freedom is love and unity, which sometimes may mean joyfully relinquishing desires for the sake of others. Tattoos should not be occasions for asserting one’s rights against others but of listening, learning and seeking the unity God has brought in Christ.
Tattoos will continue to matter because bodies matter. Because “the form of this world is passing away,” Christians ought to enter into the permanence of tattoos the way the Anglican Book of Common Prayer advises believers to enter into the permanency of marriage: “reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly and in the fear of God.”
This article originally appeared in RELEVANT magazine. Want full access to print content? Subscribe here.