Updated: Jan 20, 2019
Question or Topic
Is it proper for servants of God to mark their bodies with tattoos?
The custom of using needles to insert a dye or pigment into the skin to permanently color it with a design - the art of tattooing - has soared in popularity and social acceptance in North America over the past ten years. A representative of the Alliance of Professional Tattooists puts contemporary interest in tattoos in perspective: "It's not just a kid thing anymore...We see middle-class suburban women, doctors, lawyers. It's not specific to one group of people; it's everybody now. You see a lot of celebrities, rock stars, athletes with tattoos- and that kind of media (recognition) can really drive our society...If I had to guess I would say maybe 60 per cent of the tattoos being done are being done on women."
Once the rite of passage for sailors, whose tattoos were done in seedy, back-street parlors in cosmopolitan port cities, tattoos have become "mainstream" and lost their taboo, according to a recent National Geographic News report. In this changing world, appropriate instruction and example needs to be given to the coming generation. Tattoos, according to the News report, are booming in popularity, particularly on college campuses.
For those of us who believe, the over-riding consideration is not our need for self-expression through this particular form of "body art," but understanding what the will of God is in the matter. Would we pleased to be ushered in to the presence of our Lord with our skin imprinted with various forms of art? How would our colorful marks compare to those "in his hands" which were inflicted for our sake? Many tattoos have symbolic meanings. Many of the symbols are unsavory in their connotations and are associated with sub-cultures that are far removed from the things of the Spirit. Tattoos are the ultimate work of the flesh since they involve literally marking the flesh with images that do not give honor to the God who made us. There is nothing in the Scriptures that would suggest He receives any honor from such imprinting even if it is objects from nature that are represented. One of the things, which Ezekiel saw in vision, was such portrayal, not on human flesh but on the wall of the sanctuary: "And he said unto me, Go in, and behold the wicked abominations that they do here. So I went in and saw; and behold every form of creeping things, and abominable beasts, and all the idols of the house of Israel, portrayed upon the wall round about."(Ezekiel 8:9,10) Such images where they do not belong, even though drawn from nature, were abomination in the sight of God.
Under the Law of Moses, any kind of dyeing or pigmentation of the skin was strictly forbidden. Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:28) The evidence of the mummies from the tombs of Egypt shows that tattooing was known and practiced in Egypt at the time of the Israelites' release from bondage. This reference in the Law is therefore not to some obscure custom but one that was well known to the Israelites. While it is true that the Law of Moses was done away in Christ, it is also necessary to keep in mind that many of the principles of righteousness it embodied showed the mind of Yahweh in relation to the practices of everyday life.
The New Testament Scriptures do not directly refer to tattooing but they do lay down the governing principle that our body is not our own. "What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's." (1 Corinthians 6:19,20) It is difficult to see how God is glorified in our bodies if we choose to have them imprinted with works of art that glorifies the flesh.
What about a brother or sister who had tattoos done before learning the Truth? We once knew a highly esteemed brother, who is now asleep in Christ, whose arms were covered with tattoos he received in his youth. It is one of those things that cannot be washed away in baptism, as regards the flesh, but which can be blotted out in the sight of Him with whom we have to do. The brother in question always wore long sleeve shirts, not allowing his tattoos to be displayed.
The Almighty is not interested in our imprinting our flesh with markings as forms of art. He is seeking men and women who are imprinting their hearts with His word and His will.
 National Geographic News, October 11, 2002, Tattoos - From Taboo to Mainstream, Brian Handwerk, citing Erin Fauble of the Alliance of Professional Tattooists