Controversy about tattoos is everywhere, from the local church to piercing parlors to the legislative room of Washington D.C. A recent motion to require a twenty-four hour waiting period for anyone who wanted to get a tattoo created plenty of dissension amongst citizens. Besides the fact that it would affect business for tattoo artists, the proposal raises questions about what should and shouldn’t be regulated by law. One Washington tattoo parlor owner believes that the twenty-four hour ban is ridiculous and that the government shouldn’t be able to control what people do with their bodies. “Why not 24 hours’ waiting time before shaving your head?” he recently said in an interview with the Washington Post.
Among Christians, a similar debate has been going on for years. Is there anything wrong with getting tattoos, or is getting ink really any different from getting a haircut?
My grandmother firmly believes the notion that Leviticus 19:28’s command to “not make any tattoo marks on yourselves” is still an important rule of Christian life. This view is shared by many members of the older generations, stemming from a time when worship leaders didn’t show off tattoos on stage and pastor’s wives didn’t have bible verses stamped around their ankles. Today, some of the most popular designs are crosses and doves, often with accompanying Bible verses. Looking back on the last few decades, we need to ask, “When did Christians change their minds about tattoos?”
Several decades ago, tattoos were akin to war scars. For the most part, they were only sported by military veterans and people associated with living outside of the law. They weren’t considered artsy, trendy, or meaningful. This can explain a lot of aversion that older generations might have to tattoos, completely aside from the biblical arguments.
Go onto any Christian college campus today, and you will find plenty of students who either have tattoos themselves or want to get one. For many, it isn’t even a question of right or wrong anymore. Young adults view tattoos merely from a fashion point of view, as a kind of permanent accessory. One Wheaton College student said, “I don’t mind them if people have a meaningful reason behind what they’re getting. If I ever got one, it would probably be small and not in a noticeable place.” For the most part, people are more concerned about how it will affect their future job opportunities than their salvation.
While tattoos are now more widely accepted, they are still defined by their meaning. A student at Geneva College (PA) spoke about her own tattoo inscription of Philippians 4:13. “I like it because it is a constant reminder to me- that everything is possible through Christ, and that is something that I will have with me for the rest of my life.” On the flip side, tattoos can represent rude or inappropriate meanings that many Christians would not support.
From interviews, research, and personal reflection, the answer to the tattoo controversy is clear: Christians agree to disagree. Many see Isaiah 49:16 in which God proclaims to his people, “I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” as God also proclaiming his approval of tattoos. Others adhere closely to the rules in Leviticus.
Either way, Christians need to remember that we are not saved by what is on the outward appearance, but at the same time we are called to glorify God with our bodies. Whether we are tattooed or not, we are witnesses for the Gospel. As 1 Corinthians 6:12 says, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything.” Paul is proclaiming through this that you as a Christian are not bound by law to refrain from getting a tattoo. Unless you live in Washington. Then you’ll have to wait 24 hours.