Can a Christian Get a Tattoo?
When I was a kid I loved hanging out with and watching Mr. Clifford, my next-door neighbor. His garage was filled with all kinds of tools and in my mind he seemed to be the kind of man who could fix or build anything. One of the reasons he fascinated me was that somehow he had cut off one of his fingers. I never had the nerve to ask him how it happened but it was probably due to some sort of woodworking accident. The other thing that fascinated me about him was that he had many tattoos that covered his forearms. They were the dark blue type that displayed all sorts of scenes that many veterans came home to the USA with after spending years in the Navy serving on the high seas. He never really wanted to talk about them and I always had the feeling he was somewhat embarrassed by them. Whenever I asked him about them he would make a succinct remark and then quickly change the subject, which really only increased my fascination.
In my youth, the only people who had tattoos were military veterans like my neighbor or those people who lived on the outer fringes of society. The words “tattoos” and “respectable” were not two words that would be in the same sentence unless someone said, “No respectable person ever gets a tattoo.” Times have changed and now it seems that people in all types of professions are getting tattoos. Today tattoos are no longer the domain of hardcore outlaw bikers, they are being prominently displayed on the appendages of musicians, actors, athletes, and other professionals. It seems virtually impossible to watch professional sports today and not see many men’s arms covered in ink, some even going so far as to be branded with hot irons, or having all types of piercings. Given the rise in popularity of people marking and modifying their bodies in all types of ways, it is only natural that Christians should pause and ask themselves, “What does the Bible (God) say about Christians getting tattoos?” And also, “Is it okay for a Christian to modify (tattoo) the body this way?”
The most common Scripture that people refer to regarding the use of tattoos is Leviticus 19:28.
“‘Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.
Although this seems clear in the New International Version of the Bible, we will gain a better understanding of this verse by looking at the actual Hebrew from which it is translated. The Jewish Tanakh is a translation of the Scriptures according to the traditional Hebrew text. (Tanakh is an acronym formed from the first letters of the three divisions of the Hebrew Bible; Torah, Nevi’m, and Kethuvim.)
Leviticus 19:28 (Tanakh)
You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves.
The phrase “or incise any marks” comes from two Hebrew words. The Hebrew word translated “incise” is nathan, which means “to put or set, in the way a person would print on stone.” To do so a person would have to chisel or cut the words into the stone to make a mark or write. The word for mark is ka ka’, which the Torah Commentary published by the Jewish Publication Society admits “remains unexplained,” yet they acknowledge that the meaning seems clear from the context. As they state, “The Hebrew word “ketovet” incorporates the verb k-t-v, the root of the word “to write,” which is also used of incising on stone, so that could designate some form of tattoo.” 
Thus, although the Hebrew text does not actually say “tattoo,” many translations use the word “tattoo” because tattoos require a piercing or cutting of the skin. Then when ink is rubbed into the cut it causes a permanent mark. However, we must also recognize that there are other ways besides tattoos that a person can mark his skin, such as scarring from cuts and burns.
In ancient cultures people sometimes cut themselves to demonstrate their great devotion to their gods. By cutting themselves they showed that they were willing to sacrifice their own bodies and shed their blood for their gods. A typical example of the practice of people cutting themselves to honor their gods occurred when the prophet Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel.
1 Kings 18:26-28
(26) Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “O Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made.
(27a) At noon Elijah began to taunt them…
(28) So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed.
God clearly condemns the worship of any other gods, and He sets Himself, including His ways, apart from many practices incorporated in pagan worship. Worship of the dead was very common, so forbidding Israelites to cut themselves “for the dead” would have interrupted their tendencies to mimic the practices of the other peoples they encountered.
In addition to the worship of the dead, people would also cut themselves in mourning the death of a loved one to demonstrate their great grief and sadness. The physical pain they caused themselves on the outside was a reflection of the great emotional pain they felt inside.
The following are three other places where God talks about people cutting themselves due to mourning.
“Both high and low will die in this land. They will not be buried or mourned, and no one will cut himself or shave his head for them.”
Jeremiah 41:4 and 5
(4) “The day after Gedaliah’s assassination, before anyone knew about it,
(5) eighty men who had shaved off their beards, torn their clothes and cut themselves came from Shechem, Shiloh and Samaria…”
Jeremiah 48:36 and 37
(36) “So my heart laments for Moab like a flute; it laments like a flute for the men of Kir Hareseth. The wealth they acquired is gone.
(37) Every head is shaved and every beard cut off; every hand is slashed and every waist is covered with sackcloth.
God’s prohibition against people cutting themselves is an indication of His great love and care for His people. Until recent times pain relief was very limited and the lack of the sanitary conditions required for the proper care of injuries and wounds presented significant problems. Deep cuts have always been painful, but in ancient days they were also a serious and life-threatening matter. The lack of understanding of the causes of infection many times resulted in severe sickness, and even death, when wounds occurred.
The lack of modern pain relief meant that in many cultures, especially in connection to worship services, people used intoxicants and other mind altering substances to dull their minds in order to endure the pain from cutting themselves. These substances would often lead to a person being taken over by demons as they fell into trance-like states. God’s forbidding of the practice of incising themselves to honor the dead prevented the people from opening their minds to evil spirits. Thus, God’s desire to protect people from pain, illness, and spiritual problems are three fundamental reasons for forbidding His people from making “gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves.”
God Tattoos His Palms
Despite God’s prohibitions against His people cutting and making marks on themselves, it is hard to get around the fact that God says that He has “engraved” His people’s names upon His own palms.
Isaiah 49:15 and 16
(15) “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!
(16) See, I [God] have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are ever before me.
Clearly, God marking His palms so that He remembers His people indicates that the prohibition in Leviticus is not a blanket condemnation against “marking your flesh.” Besides the fact that God has tattooed His own palms, there are a few other wonderful truths this verse reveals. First, of all the places that a person could mark his body, the palms are one of the most painful due the many nerve endings that make them extremely sensitive. God’s great love for us means that He has endured the pain to mark His own palms to better remember us. Like a mother who would never forget the child at her breast or the child she bore, God will never forget us and He is always reminded of us as He constantly sees our names tattooed upon His palms.
Our Freedom in Christ
One of the great gifts we receive upon accepting Christ as our Lord is freedom from many of the rules and regulations of the Levitical law.
(13) But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.
(14) For he himself is our peace…
(15) by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations…
Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.
Clearly Christ did not end all “law.” The sacrifice of Christ brought to an end the rules and regulations regarding the daily Temple sacrifice. We have obtained great freedom in Christ but that does not mean that everything that was once forbidden under the Mosaic and Levitical laws are now permissible or beneficial. Under the Mosaic Law idolatry, murder, lying, and coveting were outlawed and these acts remain wrong. Under the Levitical law some foods were banned, and although they may be permissible to eat today, they remain unhealthy or unbeneficial to our bodies. Merely having the liberty in Christ to do something does not mean that it is best to do it.
1 Corinthians 10:23
“Everything is permissible”–but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible”–but not everything is constructive.
Rather than external rules and regulations, God has always desired for people to perform their various acts of devotion and worship with a proper attitude of the heart. Christ’s accomplishment of fulfilling the law means that, rather than us having to focus on the Law and all its regulations, we can now focus on pursuing holiness with our hearts being in the right place, loving God and our neighbor.
Romans 13:8 and 10
(8) Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law.
(10) Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
It’s a Matter of the Heart
Having obtained freedom in Christ, we must be careful to never use our freedom to cause others to stumble. Attempting to live with our hearts in the right place is much more difficult than merely following rules and regulations. It takes much more maturity to think things through and separate right from wrong, and to determine the loving thing to do and then do it than it does to merely have rules to follow. Too often Christians have reduced walking with Christ to a matter of rules and regulations instead of living and doing from a heart of love. What we do will always be wrong if we do it with the wrong motive, and for Christians, love must always be the dominating motive of our hearts. It is never considered loving to put a stumbling block in the path of our brothers or sisters.
1 Corinthians 8:9
Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.
As followers of Christ, everything we do must come from the right posture of heart.
Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men,
1 Timothy 1:5
The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.
2 Timothy 2:22
Flee the evil desires of youth, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart.
Having a pure heart also means that what we do is coming from a place of love and faith. Even though I have the freedom in Christ to do something, if my heart tells me it is wrong and I do it, then I have sinned. We must always operate from a place of faith. The Apostle Paul wrote the following words in the context of food offered to idols, but we can also apply them to getting tattoos and many other things a Christian does.
Romans 14:22 and 23
(22) …Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves.
(23) But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.
If we do something when our hearts tell us that it is wrong, even if we have the liberty in Christ to do it, then we have sinned. We have sinned because we are not walking with faith, and God is clear that “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6). Before anyone ever gets a tattoo he should discern the motive of his heart, and only proceed if he can act with love and faith.
Our hearts are very complex, and many of the things we do are the result of having a mixture of motives. We may want a tattoo because we think it looks good, communicates to others a message about “who we are,” or shows our love for someone or something. Before anyone ever gets a tattoo he should always take time to closely examine his motives. The two main things that should never be motives for a tattoo are rebellion and rejection.
The Motive of Rebellion
Some people are unaware of the rebellion that lives in their hearts and that their tattoos reflect an antisocial or ungodly heart. It is a sobering thought to remember that God says that rebellion is like the sin of witchcraft (1 Sam. 15:23). Stories abound of people who got a tattoo when they were intoxicated, on drugs, or angry, all of which are states of rebelliousness. Rebellious tattoos often fall into the category of dark and sinister images such as death, skulls, demons, dragons, spiders, and other frightening, menacing, or evil objects. There are also tattoos that are occultic in nature or are pagan symbols such as “Thor’s Hammer,” Masonic emblems, nature worship, or the symbols of eastern religions. These types of images promote false gods and belief systems and are always wrong. Rebellious tattoos are never a godly blessing to others and they often reflect the hurt and pain that resides in the person’s heart by promoting beliefs and religions that are opposed to God’s truth. In other words, they promote evil.
The Motive of Rejection
Another motive that people are often unaware of is rejection. Many people have a great sense of unworthiness, being unlovable, or feeling “not good enough” because of the ungodly root of rejection that lives in their hearts. Rejection causes great emotional pain and is often the trigger behind people’s actions. Many times people act out with a “tough guy” (or girl) persona that is really masking the great hurt from the rejection in their hearts. Tattoos can be used to mask rejection by portraying an image that is not who the person really is on the inside. Sometimes people with rejection issues act in ways that cause others to reject them. There are some types of tattoos and some locations on the body that are never acceptable. Great care must be taken to discern the motive of the heart before anyone ever permanently alters his body with a tattoo.
Tattoos Will Not Change Who You “Really Are”
Getting a tattoo that says “courageous” does not impart courage any more than wearing a cowboy hat makes someone a cowboy. Tattoos will not “make you anything” other than the same person you were before, except now you have ink permanently embedded in your body. Examine your heart first, and if you recognize rebellion or rejection as your motive, and if you are not operating from a place of love and faith, do not get a tattoo.
What Should I do if I Have an Ungodly Tattoo?
When we spread the Gospel with love and the heart of Christ we will attract people from all types of backgrounds. Someone once said that our churches should look more like spiritual hospitals for sinners than museums for saints. This means that our meetings should be filled with all types of sinners, many of whom may be covered with all types of tattoos. We must remember that everyone comes to Christ with his or her own sinful bags packed full. Some people’s sins may be more visible (like tattoos) than others, but sin is still sin.
First, we must remember that we are not made holy by what we eat, or wear, or have tattooed on our skin. We are made holy by what Jesus did on our behalf. Jesus taught that a person is not made clean or unclean by what goes into the stomach but by what lives in his or her heart (Matt. 15:17, Mark 7:19). In the same way, people are not made unholy because of markings on their skin. Christ’s atoning sacrifice for everyone who accepts him as his or her Lord is complete. Spiritually we are completely cleansed by his blood, including any sin related to ungodly tattoos. The truth is that what Jesus Christ accomplished for us is bigger than any tattoo.
“Captured Flags of the Enemy”
What should a person do if they become a Christian and they have some dark or evil tattoos? Anyone with a tattoo in this situation has only three choices. First, you can just leave it alone provided that it is not a stumbling block or an offense to your conscience. In a war when an enemy is defeated their flag is captured. Similarly, when unbelievers have ungodly flags (tattoos) displayed on their bodies, they can be thought of as the “captured flags of the enemy” because of our complete victory in Christ. They reflect “who you once were,” a spiritual hostage of God’s archenemy, but now you are free and more than a conqueror in Christ, and nothing, including tattoos, can separate you from him.
Romans 8:37-39 (KJV)
(37) Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.
(38) For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,
(39) Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Another option for ungodly tattoos is to have them covered up by placing new images over them. A “cover-up” tattoo is commonly done when a person wants to change an image. Generally the more experienced and artistically gifted tattooist can do this type of work; however it will always result in having an even bigger tattoo than the original piece being covered.
A last option regarding ungodly tattoos is that they can be removed. This is considered a medical procedure requiring the use of a laser. The type of laser used depends on the color of the ink in the tattoo. The laser actually causes the ink to be broken up in the lower layers of the skin and then it is absorbed and removed through the bloodstream. This is a very painful process, typically requiring multiple treatments and it can be very expensive, often costing ten to twenty times the cost of getting the tattoo in the first place.
Repentance and Forgiveness
We must recognize that dark, evil, and ungodly tattoos often allow demonic spirits to infiltrate a person’s life. Anyone who has a tattoo that is occultic in nature, or promotes paganism or false deities, must break the spiritual ties connected to it. Christians should always repent to God and ask His forgiveness for getting these types of images. Remember that He tells us, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). And yes, His forgiveness even extends to ungodly tattoos.
Seven Things to Consider Before Getting a Tattoo
- Why do I want a tattoo?
As we have discussed above, make sure your motives are right. Oftentimes people get tattoos for sentimental reasons or because they are caught up in the emotion of the moment. Norman Rockwell, the famous American artist, once did painting called the “Tattooist,” which depicts a sailor getting a girl’s name crossed out on his arm as the tattoo artist inks him with the name of his latest girlfriend. Getting a tattoo on an impulse of the moment rarely turns out to be good in the long run.
- What is the tattoo image you want?
Your tattoo is always a reflection of your heart. Sometimes tattoos reveal idols that we hold. Frequently people get tattoos because of gang affiliations and other ungodly associations. There is nothing wrong with getting a tattoo for sentimental reasons, but care should always be taken to determine if this is really what you want permanently displayed on your body. As we discussed above, you should always use great care in the selection of the image you are getting. Some images are never acceptable for a Christian such as crude or vulgar subject matter, demonic graphics, etc. I am sure that many people would not get the tattoo if they stopped first and asked themselves, “Is this something I would like Jesus to see?”
- Where am I going to place the tattoo?
The location you are getting the tattoo can be just as important as what you are getting. It is hard to argue that facial tattoos will cause offense in others. The same can also be said about having private parts tattooed, such as genitalia, etc. Women must also be aware that having tattoos on the small of the back can also limit, if not prevent, the insertion of a needle in that area to administer spinal blockers during the delivery of a baby. Any tattoos that cover the arms or other public areas will cause limitations. Although tattoos are generally more acceptable nowadays, there are certain white-collar professions in which tattoos will be a limitation. Remember too that styles change. Even though tattoos are more acceptable now than they were a decade ago, in another decade that trend may reverse. Before getting a tattoo on a publicly visible area of your body you should always consider what profession you will be in. Many people have gotten tattoos only to later have to undergo considerable pain and expense to have them removed because of the new profession they enter.
- Who am I getting the tattoo from?
Take care to choose the right artist. The best way to do this is to visit several tattoo shops and scrutinize their work. Also, ask around and see which artists people with good tattoo work (an oxymoron for some) recommend. Tattooing carries a risk because it requires multiple punctures to the skin, therefore increasing the risk of infection and disease if not done properly under sanitary conditions. Even when proper procedures are followed, some people still get staph or other bacterial infections. Some people have even gotten Hepatitis and AIDS from unsterile shops or places where tattoo needles were reused. And never get a tattoo from your cousin or someone who just got their new mail order tattoo kit and will give you “free” tattoos so they can practice. Tattooing is an art and every reputable tattoo artist serves an apprenticeship under the watchful eye of a seasoned professional.
- What health factors should you consider?
Never get a tattoo if you are sick or just getting over an infection. Tattoos stress the body by causing a wound (actually, thousands of them) and the injection of ink into the skin also means it gets into the bloodstream. Some people have flu like symptoms following a tattoo so never get one if you are sick or just recovering from sickness. Also, always make sure the tattoo shop is clean, that they use sterilized equipment and latex gloves, and that they never reuse the inkwell or needles between clients.
- Are you ready to get a tattoo?
First, most state laws make it illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to get a tattoo. There should never be any hurry or rush to get a tattoo. Tattoos should be thought of as permanent. Although they can be removed nowadays with lasers or other means, they can only be removed at great cost and with far more pain than they were to get in the first place. If you want a tattoo then stop and wait a minimum of six months or a year first. You can always get the tattoo but waiting will help you determine if this is really something you want to do. You can also stop and ask your mom’s permission first. Chances are she’ll say no, and that will give you time to think it over! Also, ask yourself, “Is this really something that I will want on my body twenty or thirty years from now?” There are lots of tattoos that looked good on a twenty year old and then look pretty ridiculous on a fifty year old with loose or baggy skin.
- Is this really the wise use and stewardship of my money?
Some people would argue that using money to get a tattoo is never good stewardship. But it is your money and you can spend it on a tattoo if you have saved for it and have the means to do it. As with other luxury expenses, it is never right to spend money to get a tattoo if you really do not have any extra in the first place.
In our article on Tattoos, we focused on the question of whether or not a Christian should get a tattoo. We did this by examining the general topic of tattoos, a person’s motives, the type of image to be displayed and location on the body, as well as reviewing some of the most common verses people cite against the practice of tattooing. We also noted a verse in Isaiah that spoke of God Himself tattooing His own palms, a seemingly sure indication that God does not provide a universal condemnation of tattooing.
In order to keep the article on tattoos from becoming too large, we elected to not review every Bible verse that seems to make a reference to the practice of tattooing. The purpose of this appendix is to provide a supplemental study by reviewing these additional verses.
Scriptures Verses to Consider
One will say, ‘I belong to the LORD’; another will call himself by the name of Jacob; still another will write on his hand, ‘The LORD’s,’ and will take the name Israel.
The word “write” in the above verse is translated from the Hebrew word kathab, which means to inscribe, engrave, or describe in writing. We must bear in mind that in days of old, in order for someone to write something he could not merely do so with a readily available pen and paper. Writing in most instances was a time consuming process requiring significant preparation of a scroll, usually made of leather or papyrus. It also necessitated the production of a writing implement, as well as a dye or ink. To “write on the hand” implies an inscribing or engraving as in tattooing. Yahweh provides a very beautiful prophetic picture by describing the great devotion of His followers one day going so far as to “write on his hand, ‘Yahweh’s’…”
In addition to God’s people writing His name on their hands, God also tells us that there will be a day in the future when some people will have His name “written” on their foreheads. In some verses this writing is referred to as the “seal of God.” We have no real understanding how this will be done, but the idea of a tattoo cannot be excluded.
Then I looked, and there before me was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.
They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.
Speaking of the Day of Wrath, Revelation 9:4 indicates that there will be a day when only those who have the “seal of God on their foreheads” will be the ones who cannot be harmed.
They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any plant or tree, but only those people who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads.
The Mark of the Beast
In contrast to the “seal of God” written on the foreheads of His faithful, there will also be a time when people will be able to accept the mark of the beast. This is a mark placed on the hand or forehead. There is great speculation about what exactly this mark will be. Some have postulated that it could be an implanted device, a bar code, or other image, but whatever it is, the “mark” is a permanent image on the skin and a tattoo cannot be ruled out.
A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand,
The first angel went and poured out his bowl on the land, and ugly and painful sores broke out on the people who had the mark of the beast and worshiped his image.
But the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who had performed the miraculous signs on his behalf. With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and worshiped his image.
I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years.
The Greek word translated “mark” in these verses is the charagma and it is used to designate a stamp or imprinted mark like a brand, in the same way someone would brand horses or cattle.
Is Jesus Tattooed?
A final verse that we need to review is Revelation 19:16, which seems to suggest that Jesus has writing on his thigh.
On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.
If in fact the phrase “KING OF KING AND LORD OF LORDS” is written on Jesus’ thigh, it would be right to assume that it is most likely a tattoo. All of the Greek texts do refer to Jesus’ thigh. However, there is evidence to suggest that this could be a wrong transmission of the original text.  The difference between the word “thigh” and “banner” in the Aramaic is only the result of a very slight difference in one letter. Due to the individual differences in handwritten texts, it would have been very easy for a scribe to write “banner” in Aramaic in such a way that when it was copied into Greek it was misunderstood to be the word “thigh.”  This is a common mistake that most have made at one time or another. For instance, if we hurriedly write the number seven (7), shortening the top bar before we make the vertical line, we could later easily confuse it with the number one (1).
Another point that we should consider, and which seems to reinforce the idea of this verse properly reading “his banner,” is that if this name was written on his thigh, there really wouldn’t be any point to it. Few, if any would ever see it due to it being covered by his robe. Whereas if it was his banner, it would be declaring, for the entire world to see, that he is the KING OF KING AND LORD OF LORDS!
 Baruch Levine, The JPS Torah Commentary: The Traditional Hebrew Text with JPS Translation, Leviticus, (Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, New York, Jerusalem, 1989), pg 133.
 See, John Schoenheit, The Bible, You Can Believe It, Christian Educational Services, Martinsville, IN; 2002, pp.19-21.
 Charles Torrey, Documents of the Primitive Church, Harper & Brothers, New York, London; 1941, pp. 221-222. According to the Aramaic Peshitta New Testament Translation, the suggested variant reading is “his banner.”