The cultural tattoo fad shows no signs of slowing down. If anything, tattoos are becoming more popular each year. I’m pushing up against forty, which means I remember when tattoos were rare in law-abiding circles. Most Christians were united in their stance against tattoos. It certainly wasn’t a controversial subject or a topic of hot debate among professing Christians. I don’t claim to understand exactly when, why, or how the shift towards accepting tats began. I have a specific memory of seeing a reasonably well-known “prophet” on YouTube with tattoo sleeves coiling down his arms and ringing up his neck and onto parts of his face. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I was still naïve enough at the time to be shocked.
Since then, a slew of “name brand” preachers have given cheeky pro-tat arguments on social media. Typically, their statements are flippant, funny, theologically thin, and arrogant. What they lack in character, they make up for in charisma, making them popular and convincing to many people. So, with the ever-increasing popularity of tattoos and all the theological misinformation floating around, I felt it was time to weigh in with why I (and many others) remain firmly against tats. However, I want to be clear for those who already have tattoos – that sin and all other sins can be placed under the blood of Jesus. And, while I’m all for conviction, this article is not intended to instigate condemnation against the forgiven. That said, the following are seven biblical reasons why tattoos violate God’s standards of holiness for men and women, and then I’ll answer a few common questions relating to tattoos.
God’s Clear Command in Leviticus 19:28
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).
Never slash (cut) your body to mourn the dead, and never get a tattoo. I am the Lord [God’s Word Translation] (Leviticus 19:28).
I consider tattoos to be a watershed issue of holiness. And by that, I mean it’s challenging to find a holiness standard more clearly articulated than “…never get a tattoo. I am the Lord.” We don’t have any Scriptures against meth or cocaine, yet we understand the principles of God’s Word to be in opposition to illicit drugs. But here, we have a clear and straightforward command directly from the Lord, and still, people find a way to wriggle around it. I’ve found that if someone can read this command and still not care about tattoos, there is very little else they will take seriously regarding holiness of lifestyle. If you can ignore one Scripture, you can easily ignore others.
Perhaps it would help to examine why God gave this command. First, “Both cutting and tattooing the body were done by the heathen.” And secondly, “Tattooing was probably practiced in ancient Egypt… Any voluntary disfigurement of the person was in itself an outrage upon God’s workmanship and might well form the subject of a law.” We are God’s workmanship (Ephesians 2:10) and significantly altering His design is an affront to His artistry. The Holman Old Testament Commentary clarifies the principles of holiness outlined in Leviticus 19:28 even further, “They were not to disfigure their bodies in any manner or adorn their bodies with tattoos.” So, here we see that any bodily disfigurement and vanity of adornment are connected to this holiness standard. The IVP Old Testament Commentary agrees, “The Israelite law may prohibit this practice since it involves a self-imposed alteration of God’s creation, unlike circumcision, which is commanded by God.”
Usually, pro-tat preachers give the feeble excuse that the Old Testament moratorium against tattoos is exclusively about getting a specific kind of tattoo. For example, they might say something like, “As long as you don’t get a tattoo of a false god, you’re fine.” While it is true that pagans often used tattoos to express allegiance to a particular false god, it’s far from the only reason pagans tattooed themselves. If that’s the only reason God forbids tattoos, He could and would have made that clear. Also, using that logic, God should have said something like, “If you do get a tattoo, make sure it shows allegiance to Me.” God’s previous and often repeated commands from Exodus 20:3-5 already forbids anything associated with idolatry or false gods:
Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God…
I think God covered it thoroughly in the above Scriptures. No Hebrew in their right mind would read that and think, “Ah, but surely a Baal tat would be ok.” No. Leviticus 19:28 means something more profound than that. This leads us to the second and more misleading claim people typically use to justify tattoos. Because the context of the first portion of Leviticus 19:28 deals with mourning the dead, pro-tat folks might say, “Tattoos are fine; just don’t get a tattoo to mourn dead friends or family members.” The King James Version does make this exegetical error easy to make. However, even the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (hardly a shining bastion of conservative theology) states, “Unlike the first part of the verse, tattoos are not associated with mourning rites.”  Ironically, scores of Christians tattoo the names of dead friends and family members on their bodies in mourning and remembrance. Which further illustrates the sad pervasiveness of biblical ignorance or blatant disregard for biblical authority over modern lifestyles.
To review a few reasons God forbids tattoos, “Holiness requires Israel not to act like the pagans in any areas of life.” In other words, we are to be inwardly and outwardly separate, distinct, and different from the world’s people. Furthermore, “Leviticus 19:28 forbids the marking of the flesh.” In the end, God doesn’t need a reason that makes sense to us. If God says don’t get a tattoo, the question should be settled regardless of our opinions. If God can’t tell a person how to live, then He is no God at all to that person. Tattoos violate several other holiness principles, which I will take a closer look at below. However, God’s clear command in Leviticus 19:28 is by far the only reason any Christian should need to abstain from tattoos.
Wisdom & Cultural Associations
In 2017 The Journal of Social Psychology released a research paper titled Tattoo or Taboo? Tattoo Stigma and Negative Attitudes Toward Tattooed Individuals. It’s long but fascinating, and I must resist the urge to highlight hundreds of quotes in the paper. I’ll try to use self-control and keep things concise and relevant to the point. This research confirms something I’ve long suspected to be true. Tattoos are socially problematic on several significant tiers. And even if God had no opinion on the matter, wisdom would dictate that Christians should stay away from tats.
The research found that “People view tattooed individuals as possessing a number of negative character attributes, including being less inhibited, less competent, having worse character, being less sociable, and being more sexually promiscuous.” This creates real problems for tattooed people in the workplace. The research states:
Interviews with tattooed persons revealed that many tattooed individuals believed that they could not find employment because their tattoos were visible, suspicions that hiring managers confirm. Indeed, most hiring managers in Timming’s study explicitly stated they would not hire a visibly tattooed candidate, both because it would mar the image of the company and because of their personal dislike of tattoos. Potential customers have also tended to perceive tattooed employees as less capable and as riskier, and less physically appealing.
Complicating things even more, tattooed people often discriminate against other tattooed people for a variety of reasons contained in the quote below:
Tattooed individuals may stigmatize other tattooed individuals if their tattoos are large or unconcealable, such as on the face, hands, or neck, or if their tattoos are seen as overly trendy and lacking authenticity. Thus, the stigmatization of tattooed individuals is not limited to the non-tattooed.
And while the roots of the negative stereotypes might be sexist, the reality is that women with tattoos are viewed in a very undesirable light. Here’s just one tiny blip of what the research found:
In Britain, tattooed women were judged as more promiscuous, heavier drinkers, and as less attractive, and in France, men expected that tattooed women would be more likely to have sex on a first date than non-tattooed women. Studies on American college student participants have also found that women with tattoos are perceived as less attractive, less caring, and less intelligent or less honest and religious, depending on the type of tattoo.
Men don’t escape that harsh judgment either. When the studies lump men into the equation, things are just as dire:
Differences have been found between tattooed and non-tattooed individuals in Big Five personality traits, measures of rebelliousness or needs for uniqueness or distinctive appearance, risk-taking behavior or attitudes, the prevalence of problem drinking, illegal drug use, and uninhibited sexual behavior, and education levels with tattooed individuals generally having less desirable traits, greater risk-taking behavior and rebelliousness, and more deviant behavior.
The debate rages on whether these stereotypes contain any truth. While it’s glaringly apparent that the researchers are biased in defense of tattoos and do their best to mitigate the damage of the findings, they are forced to acknowledge that some of the stereotypes may have a factual basis. For example, “Tattooed participants reported significantly higher quantities and frequencies of drinking behavior than non-tattooed participants.” The findings also indicated that tattooed individuals display a higher tendency to dominate others. Regardless, Christians should exercise wisdom and avoid these negative cultural associations, whether warranted or unwarranted. The workplace problems alone are reason enough for a wise individual to stay away from tats.
Modesty & Vanity
By their nature, tattoos violate the holiness principles of modesty and vanity. Both subjects are worth a long discussion. However, for this conversation, I’m going to assume we already agree that Scripture emphatically opposes vanity and requires modesty of dress and conduct. The entire purpose of a tattoo is to draw attention to a particular portion of the body. Often, tattoos are exhibited on areas of the body that should be covered for modesty’s sake. Furthermore, the desire and willingness to use the body as an attention-grabbing canvas violates the biblical imperatives of meekness, shamefacedness, and humility (Colossians 3:2, 1 Timothy 2:9, Philippians 2:3, James 4:6).
It amazes me that people have no problem covering their bodies with carcinogen-laced inks in a culture obsessed with finding things that cause cancer. I bought a guitar strap the other day, and the tag had a warning that said, “Some of these materials may cause cancer.” We’re worried about cloth guitar straps but not inking our skin! Many of the same people who ink their bodies are busy making their own “safe” soaps and worrying about the effects of pest control chemicals. There’s a disconcerting mental disconnect on display here.
Penn Medicine released an article called Think Before You Ink: Tattoo Health Risks which raises safety concerns that go largely unreported. Essentially, the ink in tattoos contains definite cancer-causing ingredients. But what I found most interesting was this concern:
In addition to the fear of carcinogens contained in the ink, individuals are also concerned about how these tattoos cover the body. A change in skin pigmentation is one of the earliest signs of skin cancer, particularly melanoma. When the body is “blacked out” with tattoo ink, individuals may not be able to notice these changes right away.
An article in the Journal of Cutaneous and Aesthetic Surgery says:
Tattoos can cause bacterial infections caused by Streptococcus pyogenes, which could lead to impetigo, erysipelas, and septicemia; Staphylococcus aureus can cause rare toxic shock syndrome; skin and soft tissue infections can be caused by community-acquired methicillin-resistant S. aureus (CA-MRSA); treponema pallidum can cause syphilis; and Mycobacterium leprae which causes leprosy.
Permanent Life Impact
Everyone knows someone these days stuck with an embarrassing tattoo of their ex’s name. Tattoo regret is common and creates a lot of anxiety, humiliation, and distress. That unicorn on a cloud might seem super silly as maturity sets in. That phrase that seemed so profound a few years ago might sound stupid now. Wisdom should inform us that permanently marking our bodies could lead to frustration and mortification later in life. No matter how sure you are now, you can’t be sure that you’ll be sure in the future.
You might say, “But they have tattoo removal procedures now.” Out of curiosity, I investigated that and found a lot of conflicting information. For one thing, it’s not a completely sure thing that every tattoo can be removed entirely. And even if you can remove one, it’s an awful process. Lauren Chan talks about it in a fascinating Glamour article, Tattoo Removal: 14 Things I Wish I Had Known Before Getting It. Lauren writes, “A complete tattoo removal takes a minimum of two and a half years.” By all accounts, the process hurts and costs thousands of dollars to remove a single tattoo. And if that isn’t discouraging enough, the process usually leaves permanent scarring and possibly discoloration. And the common side effects are terrible, according to Lauren Chan. In other words, it’s unrealistic to assume you can wipe away a tattoo later if you decide you don’t like it. I wish you could, but it just doesn’t work that way.
The Body Is God’s Temple, Not Ours
The Bible teaches that we have been “bought with a price,” therefore, we must “glorify God with our bodies” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). We are God’s temple because His Spirit dwells inside us (1 Corinthians 3:16-17). Our bodies are meant to be the temple and a sacrifice. We are instructed to “present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable unto God” Romans 12:1-2). I’m emphasizing this because I hear things like “it’s my body and my choice,” even in Christian circles. But the reality for a believer is that it’s God’s body, and He makes the choices. I don’t get to do anything I want to do with this body I’ve been given. I’ve given my life to Christ, and that includes my body. Tattoos defile our temple with rebellion and render our sacrifice unacceptable to God.
Associations with the Occult, Death & Paganism
Throughout recorded history, tattoos have been intricately associated with occultism, death, mysticism, and paganism. Modern Christians either don’t know this, don’t care, or both. Many Christians no longer believe in the supernatural. To them, demons, witchcraft, and all things associated with it are biblical metaphors for something else. Just like Harry Potter, it isn’t to be taken seriously. They aren’t worried about the dark implications and associations shrouding tattoos. While researching, I noticed a testimonial on a blog by a woman identified as EB. Her real-life experience brings insight into the issue of tattooing that I couldn’t possibly give. Here’s what she had to say:
Prior to becoming a believer, I worked as a tattoo artist and am covered in ink. I spent years in that industry and have more tattoos than you’d care to count. Let me start by saying that the world of tattooing is absolutely and utterly demonic in every conceivable way. While its cultural roots are in paganism, its present life source is pride. I’ve tattooed hundreds, if not thousands, of people, and, without exception, each one of them (including my own and including the “Christian” pieces) were conceived of and carried out for purposes of self-exaltation and boastful individualism.
Up to my conversion, you would never have found me in long sleeves. My tattoos were my identity; without them, I was just. “Normal.” There is nothing the world hates more than normalcy. Almost immediately upon coming to Christ, my long sleeve shirt collection began to grow, and, at the present time, the only short sleeve shirts I have are undershirts that I wear… well, under other shirts. The only thing positive I can say about my tattoos is that they are a shameful and embarrassing reminder of how deep a pit I was pulled from and that it was not by my will but His that I was saved.
From the historical perspective, The Tattoo History Source Book speaks to the twisted religious heritage of tattoos:
“The actual tattooing process, which involved complex ritual and taboos, could only be done by priests and was associated with beliefs which were secrets known only to members of the priestly caste… historically tattooing originated in connection with ancient rites of scarification and bloodletting which were associated with religious practices intended to put the human soul in harmony with supernatural forces and ensure continuity between this life and the next.”
According to Amy Krakow in her chronicle The Total Tattoo Book, “Tattooing has had well-defined roles: Marking a rite of passage at a stage of life, calling the spirits, proudly, defiantly or sneakily showing who you are via body art.”
Here’s another disturbing quote for your consideration:
“The reasons why puncturing the skin should be regarded with some degree of awe are not far to seek, for, in the first place, there is the drawing of blood, which to the savage world over is full of significance as a rejuvenating and immortalizing factor. There is, in addition to the opening of numerous inlets for evil to enter.”
If you think the spiritual aspect of tattooing is a thing of the past… think again. One quick Google search into tattoo insiders revealed the current tat trends include “astrology inspired ink, religious tribal art, spiritual tattoos, specifically mandala, hamza, and lotus designs that are deeply associated with healing, balance, growth, rebirth, and positive energies.” One popular tattooer described the hot new trend of abstract expression art “that allows us to free ourselves from the mental blocks placed around what we know to be right or wrong.” Honestly, the past and current tattoo connections with humanistic, hedonistic, and demonist practices are so prevalent that it would take a large book to document all of it. I’m convinced that overlooking these things would take willful blindness or intentional complacency.
The Divine Tattoo (Common Questions & Objections Answered)
Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me (Isaiah 49:16).
People often use this verse to argue that God has a cosmically divine tattoo. And so, the reasoning goes, if God can get a tattoo, I can too. But that kind of thinking is wrong on several levels. First, we don’t get to do everything God gets to do. For example, we aren’t allowed to seek revenge or vengeance. Yet, God said of Himself, “vengeance is mine” (Romans 12:19, Deuteronomy 32:35, Hebrews 10:30, Leviticus 19:18). Secondly, people citing this verse are assuming the word translated in the King James Version as “graven” literally means “tattoo.” However, the Hebrew word used here is “chaqaq,” which means “to cut in.” The illusion of something being “graven” on God’s palms is more closely connected to the symbolism of the divine engraving of the Ten Commandments into stone (Exodus 321:18). Or it might even be seen as a metaphor foreshadowing the nail-scarred hands of Jesus. But even if “graven” were meant to conjure up the image of tattoos on God’s palms, it still wouldn’t validate tattoos for us. Why? Because regardless of how you translate the verse, the imagery is a figurative illustration meant to drive a point home. God doesn’t have arms or hands, for that matter. Furthermore, God doesn’t need a string around his finger or a post-it note reminding Him to love us.
Jesus’ Cosmic Thigh Tattoo (Common Questions & Objections Answered)
And he hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, King of Kings, And Lord of Lords (Revelation 19:16).
This objection is even less plausible than the last one. Not only would Jesus not have a tattoo because it is forbidden in God’s Word (Leviticus 28:19), but neither would He immodestly expose His thigh (Isaiah 47:2-3). It’s offensive when people twist Scripture to their agenda. It’s a ridiculous and untenable leap from the word “written” to “tattooed.” There isn’t one shred of evidence that Revelation 19:16 hints at a cosmic tattoo on Jesus’ thigh. Admittedly, the King James’ translation is a little clunky here, which might cause some to wonder if the name is written on Jesus’ vesture and leg. Interestingly, out of the fifty or so English translations I checked; the Contemporary English Version was the most accurate (the CEV is not a paraphrase), “On the part of the robe that covered his thigh was written, King of Kings and Lord of Lords” (Revelation 19:16).
The Forbidden Haircut (Common Questions & Objections Answered)
Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard (Leviticus 19:27).
One of the silliest and more childish arguments used to justify the Christian tattoo goes something like: “Hey man, do you get a haircut or trim your beard? God condemned getting a haircut or trimming your beard in the verse before forbidding the tattoo. Dude, the tattoo is the same as getting a haircut.” God wasn’t condemning haircuts or beard trims, but He was expressly forbidding hairstyles and beard styles that mimicked their pagan neighbors. The IVP Commentary offers the most thorough and compelling explanation of Leviticus 19:27 I’ve seen thus far:
The prohibition against trimming the “sides of your head” or the “edges of your beard” uses the same terminology as Leviticus 19:9-10, which deals with the harvesting of fields. In both cases an offering is involved—one to the poor and the other to God. The law’s placement here immediately after the prohibition against divination suggests that the restriction on cutting the hair is based on the Canaanite practice of making an offering of hair to propitiate the spirits of the dead (see Deuteronomy 14:1). Hammurabi‘s code penalizes false witnesses by having half the person’s hair cut off. The Middle Assyrian code allows a debt slave’s master to pull out his or her hair as punishment (see Nehemiah 13:25). Both laws suggest that shame is attached to the loss of hair. There is a Phoenician inscription from the ninth century B.C. reporting the dedication of shaven hair by an individual in fulfillment of a vow made to the goddess Astarte. In ancient thinking, hair (along with blood) was one of the main representatives of a person’s life essence. As such, it was often an ingredient in sympathetic magic. This is evident, for instance, in the practice of sending along a lock of a presumed prophet’s hair when his prophecies were sent to the king of Mari. The hair would be used in divination to determine whether the prophet’s message would be accepted as valid.
This is the New Testament (Common Questions & Objections Answered)
Many Christians confronted with Leviticus 19:28 are quick to point out that they aren’t bound by any of those pesky Old Testament laws. Of course, this is a theologically illiterate argument. Unfortunately, theological ignorance is the norm in modern Christianity. What did Jesus do when confronted by Lucifer’s temptations in the wilderness? He quoted moral commandments from the OId Testament (Matthew 4:1-11). While it’s true that the Old Testament’s ceremonial laws don’t bind New Testament Christians, we’re still bound to every moral law of God. For example, did you know that bestiality is only forbidden in the Old Testament (Leviticus 18:23, Leviticus 20:15-16)? Does that mean that God now, under the New Covenant, approves of bestiality? It’s also worth looking at Leviticus 19:29, which is the verse right after the tattoo verse:
Do not prostitute thy daughter, to cause her to be a whore; lest the land fall to whoredom, and the land become full of wickedness (Leviticus 19:29).
This is the only place in the entire Bible where God directly forbids someone to prostitute their daughter. Would that still be a sin, or is it just an outdated Old Testament rule? Many other moral laws are only forbidden in the Old Testament, such as the human sacrifice of children. Nowhere in the New Testament is this forbidden. It’s only the moral laws we don’t like that we write off as irrelevant and antiquated. The Matthew Henry Commentary sums up how Christians should view Leviticus 19 in general, “Some ceremonial precepts there are in this chapter, but most of them are moral. Most of these precepts are binding on us, for they are expositions of most of the ten commandments.”