Desiring a Tattoo: A Case Study

Culture, Featured, Music, Religion — By on May 23, 2012 at 7:00 am

This post may seem a little strange, so allow me to say a few things to start. First, this post is something that’s been brewing in my head for a few years, but I hadn’t formalized it. As such, I’m not quite as set on my thoughts here as I am for other posts. I request a bit extra grace should my thoughts be less rigorous or ill-explained.

Second, I’m offering my reasons for desiring a tattoo for a particular purpose, aside from the desire to externalize them for personal scrutiny. Over at Mere Orthodoxy, Matt Anderson has written a bit about tattoos, arguing essentially that we should concern ourselves with the morality of the practice. His central point, expressed directly over at Relevant Magazine, is that we should carefully consider our actions, particularly when they pertain to our bodies. I think he’s right, and he’s got one further point that was particularly interesting:

Tattoos are helpful to think about because, well, we can think about them without people throwing us over for being heretics.  It’s a somewhat safer question to ask than those questions about, say, bioethics even though the way in which the Bible intersects with both topics is roughly the same.

And so, in the interest of exploring this topic, I thought it would be wise to speak out and offer some reasons that I personally have for wanting to get a tattoo at some point in my life. Consider what follows a sample, something we can analyze. Perhaps my reasons are wrong, or perhaps I would be justified in making the decision at some point. Circumstances certainly play a large role, and so of course this can only offer a small picture to mentally play with, so to speak. Well, here we go.

For starters, and I think this may end up as the central question of any discussion here, Matt once asked me what it was about permanently marking the skin that attracts me so? I think it will help to sketch out how I came to the desire.

Growing up, I had no desire for this permanent mark. It wasn’t something that I saw expressed in anyone close to me, so it wasn’t something I felt the need to emulate. It didn’t really occur to me to consider one until sometime early in college. I suspect this was partially because I saw other people getting them, particularly people I thought well of, but this wasn’t enough to shift me. I became more open to the idea, generally speaking, but wasn’t convinced I’d want one. After all, this was a permanent decision, and I wouldn’t want to make it to be trendy.

I considered the biblical issues, but was never terribly convinced by any cases against tattooing; the infamous passage in Leviticus surely speaks against tattoos, but people have rightly pointed to the dangers of taking Old Testament Law and applying it to modern day believers. Some Old Testament laws are certainly currently applicable, but we live under a New Covenant. In light of that thought, coupled with an understanding of the context of the law (a post for another day), it didn’t seem terribly difficult to dismiss the tattoo argument from Leviticus; I’m still convinced, at this point of this venture, that this is the case.

I thought it was important to consider why someone wanted a tattoo, but I never really went further than that. I stopped at “personal decision,” and that was about it.

Since then, I was introduced by a good friend to the world of Christian hip-hop (turns out, that particular culture stuck with me). I was initially drawn in by the theology of the genre, but it quickly became something that took over much more of my life. I’ve become a critic of the musical genre, and even spent time seeking to understand the larger culture surrounding it. I’ve been to shows, spent time with people who produce the music and those who consume it on a regular basis, and I have no doubts that this shifted my perspective. I began to notice that nearly every rapper I listened to had at least one tattoo. Some of them seemed to even get them flippantly (I remember one artist commenting: “Well, we were hanging out and he was getting a tattoo, so I got another one while we were there,” referring to another artist), which took some getting used to. I think this broke down any stigmas I had about them: these were solid believers who were inking their skin permanently, and men who I respected not only as masters of their craft but as thinkers.

And, so, I began to seriously consider getting a tattoo.

I decided relatively quickly on what I wanted. I would like to get a cross tattooed on the inside of my left wrist. There are a variety of reasons for this location and image, but let me name a few. The image of the cross would be a daily reminder of the sacrifice Christ made for me; I choose the left hand as a subtle reminder that Christ uses us in ways we never imagine (this because I’m right handed); the wrist is a location that is public most of the time, but could be hidden were it necessary for a job or some such reason; I’ve had it told to me that the wrist is a painful location for a tattoo, but somehow pain in the place where Christ was pierced seems appropriate for a permanent marking; and, finally, it seems to me that in a day when many people want to push against external expressions of their inward realities (for instance, consider how many of my generation run away from organized religion, for any number of reasons), I find myself wanting to find an appropriate way to let my Christian beliefs manifest themselves externally.

Those desires are still largely the case, though my thoughts have expanded in the last six months or so. First, I’d like to second Matt’s assertion that the decision should be informed by our community: if our bodies are community-focused, it makes sense to me that these sorts of decisions should be influenced by those around us. This might look like meetings with my elders or mentors, or it might just be a cultural sensitivity to the sorts of hesitations that some in my circle will have; I do not want to be a stumbling block. Further on this point, however, is the sort of call I believe God has placed on my life: because tattoos are permanent, I should do my best to consider the sorts of environments I will find myself in at some point in the future. That last bit is harder to substantiate, and should perhaps hold the least weight, but is still worth considering.

Second, I’ve decided to wait to get a tattoo until I am either married or feel that God has called me to life-long celibacy. If marriage includes my wife owning my body, as I believe it does, then it seems irresponsible to get a tattoo before conferring with her, at least to me. Since I’m not married, that rules out the decision, at least immediately. If, however, it becomes clear that God has called me to live a chaste, unmarried life, then the decision falls back to the other considerations I’ve stated.

Finally, there comes the central question of “why on your skin?” For me there are a few considerations, but part of it is the unique ability of a tattoo to express my above desires externally and permanently. Beyond those, however, it seems that if our bodies matter in our worship, then even the form of our bodies should matter. There are good arguments to be made that we should be physically fit, or at least strive to be healthy, for similar reasons, and I don’t think it is much of a stretch to expand this to our tattoos. Some have said that if our bodies are temples, why shouldn’t we adorn them with tattoos? While the phrase may be too quickly spoken, there is some truth to it, within reason. If a tattoo encourages us, simply by the changed shape of our bodies, to worship more fully or glorify God in some more full way, it doesn’t strike me as intrinsically problematic.

I hope this has been clear. Have any thoughts on tattoos? Would you get one? Sound off in the comments, and join the conversation.

Image via Flickr.


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  • Brittany

    Hey James! 

    Good thoughts; thanks for sharing. I think your interactions with the Christian hip hop subculture and how there orientation towards tattoos affected your view of them is especially worth exploring more. In reference to my own tattoo, I’ve had trouble rethinking it past traditional ‘free to do it because we’re under the new covenant’ arguments, although I’m trying. The most interesting line of thought to come up so far is the one you reference in regards to individual self-expression. Talking with elders, etc., before getting a tattoo seems to validate it moreso as an expression of faith, distinguishing the Christian’s practice from the wider move of expressing one’s self through body art. However, I’m not sure this makes much substantial difference; I’m also not sure self-expression through tattoos is bad. Unless, of course, the tattoo itself is just ugly. I have heard this reason voiced for getting a tattoo among young believers: it’s a safeguard, sort of an inanimate accountability partner – you know, because laser removal is expensive enough (and, I believe, still leaves a mark). Now, I find this incredibly interesting. You immediately think of the function of the visible Church, right? The health – of the people and the structures, right? And, I hate to admit this was something that did run across my 18-year old mind prior to marking my own body. It was comforting to know my foot at least would tell me, “little girl, get up” when no one else was saying it.Brit

  • Makeuproenza

    This is creepy. The old testament laws are archaic. While i believe that your body belongs to God and ahould be respected, my tattoos open a door to share a bible verse….and i love that i can share that without sounding like a fanatic. I also love peoples views of marriage that have never been married. Especially since the divorce rate of a christian couple is higher than one thats not. Expectations of “moral” and the lack of life and social inexperience lead to an unhappy midlife. Get a tattoo….marry a girl that has one….and turn 40 together knowing you fell in love without wondering what else is out there.

  • Anonymous

    Hey Brittany!

    There’s a definitely a lot more exploring to do. Thanks for your insights, both on your own inking and the point that self-expression through tattoos may or may not actually be bad (I didn’t mean to assume that, and if I did, I retract it).

    I’m also not convinced that individualistic expression is a bad thing, in spite of my desire to recognize our role in the community of believers; a lot of young Christians don’t think about what living in community is, which is unfortunate, but I don’t want to push it so far as to suggest that the individual is bad or cannot act as a sole agent. As a friend of mine told me when I was talking with her about this topic: “A church in which everyone looks the same negates a God who created His children differently for a purpose.” The idea here is that a lack of individual expression leads to a non-diverse kingdom of God; this does not represent what God clearly created: a multitude of people.

    I’d love to explore this idea of taking an act and making it a part of Christian practice. Lots to think about there.

    Also, an ugly tattoo seems like a bad tattoo, regardless of the morality of tattooing in general.

    Thanks for the thoughts, Brittany!

  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    Your cynicism and condescension sound pretty out of place in a
    post where you’re talking about sharing Bible verses with people. And since we’re
    talking about Bible verses, maybe we should take a look at those that James is
    referencing: “The husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his
    wife.” 1 Corinthians 7:4. How about, “Do you not know that your body is a
    temple of the Holy Spirit?” 1 Corinthians 6:19. These verses demonstrate quite
    clearly that what you do to your body is a serious issue: In fact, it’s
    somewhat misleading to refer to it as “your” body.

    And what is it that creeps you out? That James takes seriously the
    fact that his body is not his alone, or even primarily his? That James realizes
    that permanently altering his body is a serious decision that affects not only himself,
    but also his future wife, his current and future communities, even potentially
    his place in the Church?

    Your post is dripping with cynicism. Want an example of cynicism
    in the Bible? You won’t find it with Jesus. You won’t find it with Paul. You’ll
    only find it right there in the beginning of Job, when the Sons of God came before God, and Satan also came with them.

    Have fun with that. I’m sure cynicism will make you very happy indeed.

  • Anonymous

    “While I believe that your body belongs to God and should be respected, my tattoos open a door to share a bible verse…and I love that I can share that without sounding like a fanatic.”

    I’m not opposed to sounding like a fanatic, but I’ll leave that aside, since I think I know what you mean.

    My entire purpose with this post, as I hope was clear, was to open up dialogue on a topic where most people land at far ends of the spectrum: either you think all tattoos are evil or you think all tattoos are permissible. That’s the general consensus of believers, from what I can tell, and I wanted to explore it more.

    The main reason I wanted to explore it–and I think you hit on and agree with me here–is that our bodies belong to God primarily, and we should be mindful of the way that we treat them. The reason I’m considering this heavily is because I grew up in an environment that left me slightly biased against getting a tattoo, and I don’t want to do something that would offend my conscious by acting too quickly, or something. Does that make sense?

    That said, I’m really not opposed to tattoos. I don’t want to sound like I’m condemning those who get them, or even those who get them flippantly (the artist I referenced in the post is one who I still respect quite a bit). Different cultures place weight on different things, and I can’t expect everyone to be equally thoughtful about everything. I know there are plenty of things I do without much thought, though I am seeking to change that.

    I am unclear on what about my post was ‘creepy.’ Could you clarify?

    Christ Abide.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the Bible references, Mack. I meant to link to those, and apparently forgot. Oops.

    That said, I do understand the desire to defend an action, even strongly.

    I’m still not sure about the ‘creepy’ part. I’m waiting for clarification, there.

  • Ed

     I applaud your slow and thoughtful approach to this matter and for engaging the larger body of Christ, many of whom will be affected by your decision, whether positively or negatively, at levels probably deeper than you know. You will certainly do no harm to any relationships or future possibilities by abstaining, but there is a potential of negative impact on relationships and possibilities by indulging. I think the mature beleiver values relationships above self-expression, especially as self expression, or how most seem to think of it, really doesn’t matter much to anybody nearly as much as to the one who feels the need to do it.

    Those who rankle at the idea of refraining from something so as not to offend the weaker brother (or possibly the stronger brother?) do not understand the sacred biblical principle of unity and relationship, especially as they are affected by good or ill by non-essentials. Tattoos certainly do not qualify as a essential to faith, at least in terms of whether it is something either commanded or commended by God. So we’re left with the question, would be an act of obedience or faith? Would it be something that would please God and make him smile? Can you picture Jesus or any of the apostles doing it? Is the risk worth the possible change in perspective or regret that may develop as you become older and more mature? Will it incline your children to indulge in a questionable matter just because daddy obviously thinks it’s OK and bias their own critical reflection on it?
     
    As for the Leviticus 19:28 prohibition, it’s important not to take this verse out of context and to carefully consider the list of other prohibitions in which it is embedded. There is a dilemma here, as some of those prohibitions make no sense to us or don’t seem to apply (or at least in ways we understand). Others though, like “You shall not divine, nor conjure spirits,” “You shall not prostitute your daughter, to cause her to be a whore,” ” You shall not turn to mediums, and you shall not seek to spirit-knowers to be defiled by them,” etc. have much more clear and obvious application to us.

    Are these part of the archaic law that creeps Makeuproenza out? Are the ten commandments archaic and creepy? Does God regard tattoos (or the purpose for which they are described in this verse) with any less horror than He regards prostituting your daughter or conjuring spirits? (They’re all in the same list, after all.) Or is this one of those laws, like how to trim the hair or beard, that don’t seem relevant? Important questions to consider. In my view, it’s WAY better to err on the side of safety on this one and to defer to what would build up peace and unity in the body, rather than potentially threaten it.

    I would like to comment on the body as temple of God issue. Let me just ask whether we could just as easily think of tattoos as tagging or defacing the temple of God as adorning it?

    Again, I want to encourage your further exploration and hopefully be helpful by posing some hard questions from a different perspective.

  • Anonymous

    Ed,

    Thank you for your thoughtful response. I’ve been thinking about a few things you’ve said since you commented, and wanted to take a moment to respond.

    “You will certainly do no harm to any relationships or future possibilities by abstaining, but there is a potential of negative impact on relationships and possibilities by indulging.”

    That seems true, so don’t hear what I say next as a disputation of what you said here. I do suspect that not having a tattoo would not close any doors, though I might argue that having one might open a door a bit wider in certain circles (I’m particularly thinking of hip-hop, though others apply), but maybe not. I’m not sure.

    But I do want to say this: if there is a potential intrinsic good in the tattoo itself, then it seems that there may be good reason to do it, even at the potential harm in others. Sometimes it is worth standing for the good of something even if it is not a matter essential to the faith. Or, at least it seems that way to me, right now.

    “Those who rankle at the idea of refraining from something so as not to offend the weaker brother (or possibly the stronger brother?) do not understand the sacred biblical principle of unity and relationship, especially as they are affected by good or ill by non-essentials.”

    That last bit sounds like you’d affirm that some non-essentials could do at least some good.

    Here’s where it sounds like your argument at least could lead (forgive me if I’m wrong, I’m simply trying to understand): any non-essential action that influences or impacts anyone in a negative way should be avoided, then, for the sake of wisdom? This sounds to me like it would preclude a lot of actions that could produce good; it sounds like an orientation away from bad rather than towards the good, if that semantic distinction is clear. If it isn’t, I only mean this: if we spend our lives running away from things that may cause harm, we may end up missing out on a lot of good, intrinsically speaking. Producing beauty and art, participating in theological reflection in a public way (as perhaps my test-case-tattoo might), and even encouraging fellow believers to become comfortable with something that isn’t clearly condemned in scripture all seem like worthwhile goods.

    The question might be whether that good somehow “outweighs” the bad, but I’m not convinced that sort of analytic paradigm does anything except freeze us up: we lose the ability to act, often due to fear of doing bad.

    Those are my thoughts, at least in response to your comment. I’m really interested in this discussion, though, and I thank you for your thoughtful response, particularly from “the other wise.”

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  • JThompson

    While I could say a lot about the different comments below, I’m just going to give the reason I cannot get a tattoo.

    The biggest and most influential reason I cannot get a tattoo is because of my family. Having made mistakes in my relationships (I’m sure you know James), I noticed that my choices impacted my younger siblings. I know that if I were to get a tattoo, my siblings would begin to make choices based on what I do, rather than based on their own examination of the scripture. I grew up in a house where drinking, smoking, tattoos, etc were all bad. I now drink occasionally, and for a brief stint in college I “tried” smoking. I have thought about getting a tattoo, but no matter how I feel about it, I know it would be wrong to lead my siblings down that path. That is where the whole “weaker brother” argument comes in.
    This argument also hits home a bit harder when I think about my future children. Knowing that Even if I regretted getting a tattoo down the road, my children would see my choice as a positive one rather than a negative one. They don’t see the progression of choice in their parent, they see a “yes” or a “no” characterized by my lifestyle. not my “current” lifestyle.

    I did the same thing with my parents. My parents don’t drink, but my mom once tried alcohol and said she didn’t like it. Because of that act, I was able to try it without regret. Even though I knew my parents would look down on me because of it (they don’t now).

    My wife is thinking through the same thoughts now in regards to getting a tattoo. She’s curious just like you James.

    These are why I can’t. And Won’t. No reflection on those who do, but I know my family and those around me would be influenced by my decision.

  • Anonymous

    Hey Josh. Thanks for reading the things I write, it really means a lot to me. Say hi to your wife for me, and I’d love to dialogue with her about this, if she’s seriously considering one.

    You’ve got lots of good thoughts. I agree that our actions impact the lives of our families; I’ve thought about this a great deal in regards to my brother, as well as my cousins (the ones who live closest to me, for instance).

    Here’s my gracious push back, since I know you can hear it: if I decided that getting a tattoo was acceptable by examining the Scripture arguments, the cultural arguments, and the other arguments, then I’m not sure I would really have a problem with ‘encouraging’ a sibling or family member (or someone else who looked up to me) to do the same thing: that is, get a tattoo. Now, I don’t want to advocate thoughtlessness (Do it because I did it!), nor would I advocate just any tattoo (my post here was about one tattoo, though some general principles are there, as well).

    But here’s the argument: if tattoos can be an actual positive good (I argued this in one of the other comments, I believe), then there shouldn’t be anything wrong with encouraging them.

    That said, it all comes down to a relationship. I think you can encourage people to thoughtfulness if your actions are in the context of a the sort of relationship where conversation happens frequently. This is part of my purpose in writing this piece: if my brother starts talking about a tattoo, because I have gotten one (some time in the future), I will have already started the conversation. Perhaps it would be a good idea for me to get one, but not for him. Or vice versa.

    Regardless, I think it sounds like you’ve got enough aversion that it would be wise to not get one.

    I think my principle of conversation can apply for future children, too. If I come to regret my tattoo, I can always have that be a talking point the moment my children talk about it (“Daddy, what’s that on your arm?” “Well, I thought it would be cool to deface the skin God gave me, so I permanently marked it. I don’t think this was a good idea, for the following reasons.”).

    Consider the person who gets married and has kids, but has a child from a previous relationship (marital or otherwise). His new kids may know his older child, but there isn’t a de facto approval, unless there is no dialogue at all. Talk about your mistakes openly, both with your siblings and your children, and I think you’ll be in a pretty good place to both grow and encourage growth.

    Thoughts?

  • JThompson

     I know this is old now, but I’m going to reply anyway.

    Good can come out of many different mistakes we make. As with future children, “here’s why I regret it…” But that doesn’t mean we should be willing to make mistakes just to show our children why they shouldn’t make the mistakes we did. To make mistakes with that goal in mind, is not a mistake, its foolish.
    But because I know you weren’t completely moving in that direction we’ll move the convo along.

    For me, the list of cons is larger than the list of pros for tattoos.
    There is a couple in our bible study that both have tattoos. They are both born again Christians as of a month ago. The wife wanted a new tattoo. Her husband did not want her to get a tattoo. She had trouble submitting, and ended up getting the tattoo and that is now a sore issue for them. They have been struggling in their marriage and they have had financial problems and are still struggling financially. With this example there are many reasons why getting a tattoo was wrong for her.
    1) She did not submit to her husbands wishes as she should have, 2) She spent 200 bucks on a tattoo of her children’s names that they could not afford to spend, 3) her children’s names? There wasn’t a rush to have that done, so 4) impulse buy. 5) She threatened her already struggling marriage by delaying union with her husband just to get something she desired. ….I’m sure the list could go on. My issue here, isn’t that tattoo, but the circumstances surrounding the tattoo.

    This is just an example (Case Study).

    Personally, again, I say this, the List of Cons is longer than the pros. and the Pros do not outweigh the cons. I would seriously jeopardize relationships, reputation, reputation of Christ in my life, job (possibly), etc.

    Many people mention getting a tattoo that can be hidden. If it has to be hidden is it a good idea? If its in a place only your spouse can see it–didn’t the tattoo artist see that part of your body?? Is it worth the money? Is it worth seeing it on your body for the next 50+ years? there is a lot to consider.

    I don’t think Christians today really consider everything when they consider aspects of today’s world coming together with their faith.

    We are aliens of this world. We belong to God. Tattoos are a representation of this world, not the world to come.

    Don’t feel like you need to respond, I tire of this conversation. :D

  • RobetK

    I believe that somehow deep down the great attraction of tattoos is that they are permanent.
    It is a life decision to make, forever, there is no way back. It is a big step to take…