Christians and tattoos: it’s a controversial topic. Many believers wonder if getting a tattoo is a sin.
Tattoos are as old as humanity itself. Just to show you how old, Otzi the Iceman, a mummy found in the Swiss Alps during the 1990’s was tattooed—and he lived around 3300 BC!
Many cultures have embraced the art of tattooing as a form of spirituality and as a rite of passage. During ancient practices in Papua New Guinea, tattoos often symbolized soul cleansing and protection from evil in addition to milestone ceremonies like marriage. Polynesian tribes not only displayed tattoos for status, but also wore images that represented personal spiritual commitments.
Even some Buddhist monks wear tattoos for spiritual strength and protection. Neo-Pagans and Wicca followers often wear the pentagram or pentacle to represent their hallowed beliefs. Tattoos can certainly be spiritual symbols on skin!
So what does the bible say?
Set amid a number of precepts concerning God’s people being set apart to Him as holy, Leviticus 19:28 says, “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you.” Many believe that the prohibition against tattoos here is only in the specific context of particular pagan practices—that the tattoos referred to are those that, like the cuttings, are for the dead (that is, as part of idolatrous mourning customs and attempts to induce the gods to help the dead in the afterlife). Particular head shaving and beard trimming mentioned just before in the same context ( Leviticus 19:27)—right after divination and soothsaying Leviticus 19:26)—undoubtedly refers to pagan customs of creating patterns with pagan religious meanings (see also Leviticus 21:1-6; Deuteronomy 14:1-2).
Other scriptural principles bear on this subject as well. One is the issue of avoiding offense and not leading others to violate their own consciences in uncertain matters. As Romans 14 further states, you should not “do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak [in terms of conscience]” (Romans 14:21; compare 1 Corinthians 8:9; 1 Corinthians 8:13). As there are many in the fellowship of the Church who consider getting a tattoo a violation of Scripture, this is a good reason for not getting one. It might be upsetting to others and could even encourage some to get tattoos without their being certain that it’s okay to do so.
Yet, as is also brought out in Romans 14, members should not sit in judgment or contempt of one another in such matters. So those opposed to tattoos should not be judgmental or contemptuous of those who have them or think they are acceptable—though the imagery and message of some tattoos could well be a point of offense to address.
Furthermore, even many in society, despite increasing acceptance, still view tattoos negatively. And we are to “lead a quiet life” and “walk properly [and in wisdom] toward those who are outside” (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12; Colossians 4:5). Tattoos, especially if highly visible and garish, can give one a bad reputation, which we are to avoid. Some tattoos are even referred to as “tramp stamps.” Related to this is the principle of modesty, that any adornment be “with propriety and moderation” (1 Timothy 2:9)—as opposed to having some ostentatious display drawing attention to oneself.