What do tattoos mean?

Richard Cohen asks why people get tattoos (which 40% of 26-40 year olds have) and, after showing how styles and commitments keep changing, poses a theory and an application:

I asked a college professor what she thought of tattoos, and she said that for young people, they represent permanence in an ever-changing world. But how is that possible? Anyone old enough and smart enough to get into college knows that only impermanence is permanent. Everything changes — including, sweetie, that tight tummy with its “look at me!” tattoo. Time will turn it into false advertising.

The permanence of the moment — the conviction that now is forever — explains what has happened to the American economy. We are, as a people, deeply in debt. We are, as a nation, deeply in debt. The average American household owes more than its yearly income. We save almost nothing (0.4 percent of disposable income) and spend almost everything (99.6 percent of disposable income) in the hope that tomorrow will be a lot like today. We bought homes we could not afford and took out mortgages we could not pay and whipped out the plastic on everything else. Debts would be due in the future, but, with any luck, the future would remain in the future.

Is that it, that tattoos reflect “the permanence of the moment,” or the attempt to make the moment permanent? I suspect that among the readers here, some of you fall within the tattooed 40%. I am curious about what the attraction is to having your body all carved up with needles to make a picture on your body. I’m not criticizing you. I’d just like to know the meaning of tattoos.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://mildcolonialboy.wordpress.com Mild Colonial Boy, Esq.

    What tattoos say about a person is that he or she is a poor decision maker with limited foresight.

  • http://mildcolonialboy.wordpress.com Mild Colonial Boy, Esq.

    What tattoos say about a person is that he or she is a poor decision maker with limited foresight.

  • http://ihaventacluewhatimdoing.blogspot.com Crazy Lady

    It’s really ironic that you ask this question now. I am a 50 year old LCMS homemaker and mother of 5 narural childre, ages 29 to 19 and adopted mother to an almost 3 year old. My husband and I have been married 30 years. We are comfortable middle class, not who you would expect to get a tattoo. I got a tattoo Saturday. Not to be “cool” or to recapture youth. I got the Luther Rose on my ankle. I did it for me. And I don’t think I am a poor dicision maker with limited foresight. Will I ever regret it? I don’t know, but I don’t think so. I will always be Lutheran.

  • http://ihaventacluewhatimdoing.blogspot.com Crazy Lady

    It’s really ironic that you ask this question now. I am a 50 year old LCMS homemaker and mother of 5 narural childre, ages 29 to 19 and adopted mother to an almost 3 year old. My husband and I have been married 30 years. We are comfortable middle class, not who you would expect to get a tattoo. I got a tattoo Saturday. Not to be “cool” or to recapture youth. I got the Luther Rose on my ankle. I did it for me. And I don’t think I am a poor dicision maker with limited foresight. Will I ever regret it? I don’t know, but I don’t think so. I will always be Lutheran.

  • Susan aka organshoes

    Maybe tattooing has the deep meaning of any fad.
    Maybe, in a little while, we’ll be pondering the deeper significance of the ubiquitousness of people wearing TV antennae on their heads. Where did it start? what does it mean?
    I imagine the relative permanence of a tattoo is secondary to actually having one, permanence being a concept we don’t really comprehend.
    It is, however, a unique fad wherein folks can do what everyone else is doing, but in an individual way. Every picture tells a story, the song says, and everyone has his own story to tell, now aided by a purposely chosen, thoughtfully placed tattoo.

  • Susan aka organshoes

    Maybe tattooing has the deep meaning of any fad.
    Maybe, in a little while, we’ll be pondering the deeper significance of the ubiquitousness of people wearing TV antennae on their heads. Where did it start? what does it mean?
    I imagine the relative permanence of a tattoo is secondary to actually having one, permanence being a concept we don’t really comprehend.
    It is, however, a unique fad wherein folks can do what everyone else is doing, but in an individual way. Every picture tells a story, the song says, and everyone has his own story to tell, now aided by a purposely chosen, thoughtfully placed tattoo.

  • http://gpiper.org/katiesbeer Theresa K.

    I know one thing: tattoos mean something different now than they did when I was 19 or 20. In my little world of the mid-70′s, only “those” people had tattoos. That’s changed now. Part of me fears my 19 year old’s desire to have a tattoo (so far, she’s complied with my wishes), and part of me wonders if I just shouldn’t care.

  • http://gpiper.org/katiesbeer Theresa K.

    I know one thing: tattoos mean something different now than they did when I was 19 or 20. In my little world of the mid-70′s, only “those” people had tattoos. That’s changed now. Part of me fears my 19 year old’s desire to have a tattoo (so far, she’s complied with my wishes), and part of me wonders if I just shouldn’t care.

  • WebMonk

    There are a LOT of different reasons to get a tattoo. Some go in for the coolness factor. Some go in for identity with a group or idea. Some go in for the girlfriend-boyfriend tattoo to show how much they love the person. Some go in for it because they just really like the look of tattoos. I even have a cousin who is very much into body-art with some VERY impressive sets of designs and images. Those are the reasons of my friends.

    The main reason I haven’t gotten a tattoo is the cost of what I want to get. For me it would a mark of something that is important to me – something I want to say/announce I’ve been a part of.

  • WebMonk

    There are a LOT of different reasons to get a tattoo. Some go in for the coolness factor. Some go in for identity with a group or idea. Some go in for the girlfriend-boyfriend tattoo to show how much they love the person. Some go in for it because they just really like the look of tattoos. I even have a cousin who is very much into body-art with some VERY impressive sets of designs and images. Those are the reasons of my friends.

    The main reason I haven’t gotten a tattoo is the cost of what I want to get. For me it would a mark of something that is important to me – something I want to say/announce I’ve been a part of.

  • Joe

    I have a tattoo and it says that when I was 18 I was an idiot. Sorry Crazy Lady, but I give you a 75% chance of regretting your decision. I came up with 75% based on the fact that about 75% of the people I know with tattoos regret the decision. My sample is fairly large – I spent 8 years in the US Army Reserve. Lots of tattoos in that group.

    My tattoo is symbolic. Several other guys that I went through basic training with have the same tattoo. I guess we thought we should have our platoon mascot tattooed on to our arms in some sort of gun-ho dedication to the Army and each other. I still am proud of having done my time in the Reserves, but the tattoo was a stupid mistake. I am ashamed of it. To me a tattoo is a very good way to allow a bad idea to become a permanent mistake. I am actually about to begin researching ways to remove the thing from my body.

    I also have theological issues with tattoos. There is the Old Testament prohibition against tattooing. Lev. 19:28. As a Lutheran I understand the differences between the Moral law, Ceremonial law and Political law of the old testament. And that this is part of the Ceremonial law that we are not bound by. (This is the basis of the LCMS’ non-position on the subject). However, when I read this verse and understand (see 1 Corinthians generally) that my body is Christ’s temple and that when I sin directly against my body (the specific references are to sexual impurity and the improper taking of communion) my sin works against the very physical body of Christ himself I come to the conclusion that tattoos are not a good idea. There is also generally a form of idolatry involved. For me, I was so proud of what I had done that I had it tattooed on my arm so everyone would know about it. I turned Christ’s temple into my temple.

    Taking all of this I have come to the conclusion that one should not tattoo oneself any more than one should walk into their church and paint their personal mark on the alter. After all somebody else bought and paid for my body – I don’t have the right to mark it up any more than I have the right to fill it full of heroine or crack or pornography.

  • Joe

    I have a tattoo and it says that when I was 18 I was an idiot. Sorry Crazy Lady, but I give you a 75% chance of regretting your decision. I came up with 75% based on the fact that about 75% of the people I know with tattoos regret the decision. My sample is fairly large – I spent 8 years in the US Army Reserve. Lots of tattoos in that group.

    My tattoo is symbolic. Several other guys that I went through basic training with have the same tattoo. I guess we thought we should have our platoon mascot tattooed on to our arms in some sort of gun-ho dedication to the Army and each other. I still am proud of having done my time in the Reserves, but the tattoo was a stupid mistake. I am ashamed of it. To me a tattoo is a very good way to allow a bad idea to become a permanent mistake. I am actually about to begin researching ways to remove the thing from my body.

    I also have theological issues with tattoos. There is the Old Testament prohibition against tattooing. Lev. 19:28. As a Lutheran I understand the differences between the Moral law, Ceremonial law and Political law of the old testament. And that this is part of the Ceremonial law that we are not bound by. (This is the basis of the LCMS’ non-position on the subject). However, when I read this verse and understand (see 1 Corinthians generally) that my body is Christ’s temple and that when I sin directly against my body (the specific references are to sexual impurity and the improper taking of communion) my sin works against the very physical body of Christ himself I come to the conclusion that tattoos are not a good idea. There is also generally a form of idolatry involved. For me, I was so proud of what I had done that I had it tattooed on my arm so everyone would know about it. I turned Christ’s temple into my temple.

    Taking all of this I have come to the conclusion that one should not tattoo oneself any more than one should walk into their church and paint their personal mark on the alter. After all somebody else bought and paid for my body – I don’t have the right to mark it up any more than I have the right to fill it full of heroine or crack or pornography.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Thanks, Joe, good luck with the tattoo removal. I remember in college, it was fashionable for some to get “Christian” tattoos. You know, little crosses on your ankle or shoulder, little fish symbols. I remember one of my fellow students, was so proud of her little cross, she was showing EVERYBODY! It was just a little north of her crotch so that she had to turn the top of her pants over to show everybody. I was so embarrassed for her. Why get that there? She wasn’t embarrassed at all, obviously. The tattoo fad seems out of control here among non-Mormons. It seems that people will get themselves inked with just about anything just about anywhere. They are rebelling against the clean and righteous look methinks. I remember as a kid seeing mostly only military and a few rebel tattoos and then they seemed to mean more even though most were very small. Now, in my opinion, they don’t mean nearly as much. Now in order to really stand out, you have to ink everywhere. Boy, I really dislike tattoos. I will teach my sons how stupid they look on old people which I will have plenty of examples all around me.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Thanks, Joe, good luck with the tattoo removal. I remember in college, it was fashionable for some to get “Christian” tattoos. You know, little crosses on your ankle or shoulder, little fish symbols. I remember one of my fellow students, was so proud of her little cross, she was showing EVERYBODY! It was just a little north of her crotch so that she had to turn the top of her pants over to show everybody. I was so embarrassed for her. Why get that there? She wasn’t embarrassed at all, obviously. The tattoo fad seems out of control here among non-Mormons. It seems that people will get themselves inked with just about anything just about anywhere. They are rebelling against the clean and righteous look methinks. I remember as a kid seeing mostly only military and a few rebel tattoos and then they seemed to mean more even though most were very small. Now, in my opinion, they don’t mean nearly as much. Now in order to really stand out, you have to ink everywhere. Boy, I really dislike tattoos. I will teach my sons how stupid they look on old people which I will have plenty of examples all around me.

  • Susan aka organshoes

    Bryan Lindemood said: ‘They are rebelling against the clean and righteous look methinks.’
    Brilliant. Looking clean is for fogeys. Personal grooming is for monkeys and housecats.
    That explains the bed head and all the product necessary to achieve a look that says ‘I had casual sex last night.’

  • Susan aka organshoes

    Bryan Lindemood said: ‘They are rebelling against the clean and righteous look methinks.’
    Brilliant. Looking clean is for fogeys. Personal grooming is for monkeys and housecats.
    That explains the bed head and all the product necessary to achieve a look that says ‘I had casual sex last night.’

  • Jonathan

    Perhaps we could blog on why Christians so easily turn purely personal opinions (“I regret my tattoo”) into sweeping, universal laws (“no one should tattoo oneself”)? Why not, rather, “I regret my tattoo,” therefore, “I will not get another”?

    Crazy Lady – Good for you. For what it’s worth, I think you made a great decision.

  • Jonathan

    Perhaps we could blog on why Christians so easily turn purely personal opinions (“I regret my tattoo”) into sweeping, universal laws (“no one should tattoo oneself”)? Why not, rather, “I regret my tattoo,” therefore, “I will not get another”?

    Crazy Lady – Good for you. For what it’s worth, I think you made a great decision.

  • Larry

    I got my tattoo when I was in the Navy, it is my wife’s name. The tattoo is permanent, at least as permanent as our marriage, “till death do us part”. I have never regretted it, it was for me a symbol of my commitment.
    We have been married for 18 years and have 9 children, recently I had mine touched up with a rose added under her name and she also had the identical rose tattooed on her. It was fun and we enjoy it. As I get older I learn not to over analyze everything and have some fun, to live a little. An interesting discussion on the topic was on an old broadcast of Issues Etc, you could do a search through their archives to listen.

  • Larry

    I got my tattoo when I was in the Navy, it is my wife’s name. The tattoo is permanent, at least as permanent as our marriage, “till death do us part”. I have never regretted it, it was for me a symbol of my commitment.
    We have been married for 18 years and have 9 children, recently I had mine touched up with a rose added under her name and she also had the identical rose tattooed on her. It was fun and we enjoy it. As I get older I learn not to over analyze everything and have some fun, to live a little. An interesting discussion on the topic was on an old broadcast of Issues Etc, you could do a search through their archives to listen.

  • WebMonk

    Joe, two separate items -

    The tattooing being spoken of in Leviticus was part of the rituals of worshiping false gods. Taking that statement as a prohibition against all tattoos for all reasons is a pretty heavy stretch. But even if you don’t agree with that ….

    Second is the aspect of saying some OT ceremonial laws are good to follow, while some aren’t. Picking tattoos as one of the OT ceremonial laws that are still a good idea to follow while brushing off the others sounds shaky to me.

  • WebMonk

    Joe, two separate items -

    The tattooing being spoken of in Leviticus was part of the rituals of worshiping false gods. Taking that statement as a prohibition against all tattoos for all reasons is a pretty heavy stretch. But even if you don’t agree with that ….

    Second is the aspect of saying some OT ceremonial laws are good to follow, while some aren’t. Picking tattoos as one of the OT ceremonial laws that are still a good idea to follow while brushing off the others sounds shaky to me.

  • http://boundedirrationality.blogspot.com Doug Forrester

    Perhaps we live in such a visual age (with TV and internet) that tattoos are the natural method of making a strong statement about yourself.

    That seems a bit presumptuous to me. I’m going to make an irrevocable statement about myself with this body God has lent me.

    If you believe in a physical resurrection I wonder if you think your tattoos will be on your perfected body.

  • http://boundedirrationality.blogspot.com Doug Forrester

    Perhaps we live in such a visual age (with TV and internet) that tattoos are the natural method of making a strong statement about yourself.

    That seems a bit presumptuous to me. I’m going to make an irrevocable statement about myself with this body God has lent me.

    If you believe in a physical resurrection I wonder if you think your tattoos will be on your perfected body.

  • texan

    I saw a girl recently with her hair in a ponytail and a three inch rendition of Luther’s seal tattooed on the back of her neck.

  • texan

    I saw a girl recently with her hair in a ponytail and a three inch rendition of Luther’s seal tattooed on the back of her neck.

  • Larry

    “If you believe in a physical resurrection I wonder if you think your tattoos will be on your perfected body.”

    That is an interesting question, I’m not sure but what leads me to consider it a possibility is because Jesus with his perfect body retained His scars.

  • Larry

    “If you believe in a physical resurrection I wonder if you think your tattoos will be on your perfected body.”

    That is an interesting question, I’m not sure but what leads me to consider it a possibility is because Jesus with his perfect body retained His scars.

  • WebMonk

    “That seems a bit presumptuous to me. I’m going to make an irrevocable statement about myself with this body God has lent me.”

    Pfft. We do it all the time. Earrings.

  • WebMonk

    “That seems a bit presumptuous to me. I’m going to make an irrevocable statement about myself with this body God has lent me.”

    Pfft. We do it all the time. Earrings.

  • http://boundedirrationality.blogspot.com Doug Forrester

    If you look at a list of things “we do all the time”, I wonder how many things would be good, bad or adiaphorous.

  • http://boundedirrationality.blogspot.com Doug Forrester

    If you look at a list of things “we do all the time”, I wonder how many things would be good, bad or adiaphorous.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Piercing is also run amuck here in Utah among some segments of the non-mormon population. What many people do to their bodies is obscene and beyond civil discussion. Much of it seems for shock value. I appreciated Susan’s very reasonable estimation of the style that many of the youth (and my peers) seem to be after (#8).

    In our neighborhood, if we started offering Luther Seal Tattoos at church I could see it being very “popular” and it might boost our appeal to boomers and Gen-X losers (I’m one of those). I’ve joked about doing this for years. If you must get a tattoo, you might as well get Luther’s Seal, I guess. Just make sure you put it somewhere which won’t sag too much so I don’t have to be too grossed out when I come to serve you communion when you’re 57.

    There’s nothing against Tattooing or piercing for the Christian apart from Levitical laws as far as I can discern. I still like how Joe has reasoned through that for himself, though I wouldn’t proscribe that reasoning for everybody. But for my family and my house, I set the rules. After the kids are 18 they can make whatever foolish decisions they want – and I’ll still love them. In my house the rules are: for the boys – no piercing, no tattoos; for the girls, no tattoos and I’ll pay for one set of holes in the ears and a multitude of earings for my beautiful daughters. Life’s not fair I guess.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Piercing is also run amuck here in Utah among some segments of the non-mormon population. What many people do to their bodies is obscene and beyond civil discussion. Much of it seems for shock value. I appreciated Susan’s very reasonable estimation of the style that many of the youth (and my peers) seem to be after (#8).

    In our neighborhood, if we started offering Luther Seal Tattoos at church I could see it being very “popular” and it might boost our appeal to boomers and Gen-X losers (I’m one of those). I’ve joked about doing this for years. If you must get a tattoo, you might as well get Luther’s Seal, I guess. Just make sure you put it somewhere which won’t sag too much so I don’t have to be too grossed out when I come to serve you communion when you’re 57.

    There’s nothing against Tattooing or piercing for the Christian apart from Levitical laws as far as I can discern. I still like how Joe has reasoned through that for himself, though I wouldn’t proscribe that reasoning for everybody. But for my family and my house, I set the rules. After the kids are 18 they can make whatever foolish decisions they want – and I’ll still love them. In my house the rules are: for the boys – no piercing, no tattoos; for the girls, no tattoos and I’ll pay for one set of holes in the ears and a multitude of earings for my beautiful daughters. Life’s not fair I guess.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    Well, what does Leviticus 19 tell us? It’s in a chapter with a lot to say about proper worship, idolatry, and improper sexuality. Given that an awful lot of tattoos I’ve seen seem to be designed to draw the eye in to certain areas of the body, it would seem to me that at least the “eye-drawing” portion of tattoos would be improper in light of that passage.

    (and if a tattoo is in such a place that it cannot be seen, then, well….hasn’t the artist just seen a place that really one’s spouse ought to have “sole privileges” to?)

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    Well, what does Leviticus 19 tell us? It’s in a chapter with a lot to say about proper worship, idolatry, and improper sexuality. Given that an awful lot of tattoos I’ve seen seem to be designed to draw the eye in to certain areas of the body, it would seem to me that at least the “eye-drawing” portion of tattoos would be improper in light of that passage.

    (and if a tattoo is in such a place that it cannot be seen, then, well….hasn’t the artist just seen a place that really one’s spouse ought to have “sole privileges” to?)

  • FullTime

    Webmonk,
    I can understand your reasoning concerning picking and choosing from ancient laws. However, it seems that you are saying that since we are not bound by any of them that we should ignore all of them. Are we throwing the baby out with the bathwater?
    It seems to me that one can take God’s opinion into account (albeit an older, pre-Christ opinion) when making a decision without also constructing a tabernacle or sacrificing doves in worship.

    I imagine I may take some heat for this after we have had discussion on the unity of doctrine and church choosing in other posts, but I have always been taught that God often speaks to different people in different ways through his scripture. What one person is led to as an important in a piece of the Old Testament, others may not be.

    Old Testament dietary restrictions meant the Hebrew people ate safer food than other groups. Circumcision, while proving commitment to God, also helps prevent some urinary infections.
    And these days people who have recent tattoos cannot give blood for fear of spreading infection. There may not have been AIDS 3000 years ago, but I can see God’s prohibition being not only for purity of the spirit, but also of the body.

    Personally, I will never get a tattoo. I don’t have the body or personality type to pull that off. I have great respect for some tattoos and derision for others. I cannot really put my finger on the difference. Mostly it boils down to why the person got the tattoo in the first place. Was it to look cool or fit in with the crowd by “proving” they are a non-conformist (lol) or does it have deeper meaning for them? Was it done for attention? meditation? private decoration? Do Meghan and Ashley even know what those Chinese symbols they just had permanently affixed to their lower backs mean?

    I also try to avoid regret. Seems to me that no matter how lovely, meaningful, or personal a tattoo, I am never likely to regret NOT getting it. And, as said, there is a high likelihood that I will regret getting it. For myself, I play the odds on that one. For others, I let God and whatever scriptural passages they are led to by Him guide them.

  • FullTime

    Webmonk,
    I can understand your reasoning concerning picking and choosing from ancient laws. However, it seems that you are saying that since we are not bound by any of them that we should ignore all of them. Are we throwing the baby out with the bathwater?
    It seems to me that one can take God’s opinion into account (albeit an older, pre-Christ opinion) when making a decision without also constructing a tabernacle or sacrificing doves in worship.

    I imagine I may take some heat for this after we have had discussion on the unity of doctrine and church choosing in other posts, but I have always been taught that God often speaks to different people in different ways through his scripture. What one person is led to as an important in a piece of the Old Testament, others may not be.

    Old Testament dietary restrictions meant the Hebrew people ate safer food than other groups. Circumcision, while proving commitment to God, also helps prevent some urinary infections.
    And these days people who have recent tattoos cannot give blood for fear of spreading infection. There may not have been AIDS 3000 years ago, but I can see God’s prohibition being not only for purity of the spirit, but also of the body.

    Personally, I will never get a tattoo. I don’t have the body or personality type to pull that off. I have great respect for some tattoos and derision for others. I cannot really put my finger on the difference. Mostly it boils down to why the person got the tattoo in the first place. Was it to look cool or fit in with the crowd by “proving” they are a non-conformist (lol) or does it have deeper meaning for them? Was it done for attention? meditation? private decoration? Do Meghan and Ashley even know what those Chinese symbols they just had permanently affixed to their lower backs mean?

    I also try to avoid regret. Seems to me that no matter how lovely, meaningful, or personal a tattoo, I am never likely to regret NOT getting it. And, as said, there is a high likelihood that I will regret getting it. For myself, I play the odds on that one. For others, I let God and whatever scriptural passages they are led to by Him guide them.

  • Aubrey

    I have recently gotten 2 tattoos. One was with my husband to celebrate our 7th wedding anniversary. The other was a heart with a thin blue line in it to honor law enforcement, as my husband is a police officer. I gave these tattoos very much thought before doing it, and I in no way feel I was disrepectful of this gift (my body) or of God. In fact, I feel that I was honoring 2 other gifts God has given me: my marriage and police.
    I do feel that if you just get drunk and say hey, I’m going to get a tattoo, then yes, probably, that is disrespectful of the gift God has given you. But to say all tattoos are bad is a broad blanket statement.
    I will not regret my tattoos, because I do not believe in regretting my decision. If at some point I don’t like them anymore, well, then I won’t get any more.

  • Aubrey

    I have recently gotten 2 tattoos. One was with my husband to celebrate our 7th wedding anniversary. The other was a heart with a thin blue line in it to honor law enforcement, as my husband is a police officer. I gave these tattoos very much thought before doing it, and I in no way feel I was disrepectful of this gift (my body) or of God. In fact, I feel that I was honoring 2 other gifts God has given me: my marriage and police.
    I do feel that if you just get drunk and say hey, I’m going to get a tattoo, then yes, probably, that is disrespectful of the gift God has given you. But to say all tattoos are bad is a broad blanket statement.
    I will not regret my tattoos, because I do not believe in regretting my decision. If at some point I don’t like them anymore, well, then I won’t get any more.

  • WebMonk

    Fulltime – I agree with you. Just because the laws are not binding on us doesn’t mean they aren’t a good idea to do anyway. Absolutely!

    The problem starts in saying laws a, c, and e are the ones that are a good idea to follow while laws b, d, and f aren’t really all that important, and then taking that selection and holding it forth as something which everyone ought to follow. That’s the part that gets on shaky ground.

    I like how you phrased it: “For others, I let God and whatever scriptural passages they are led to by Him guide them.”

  • WebMonk

    Fulltime – I agree with you. Just because the laws are not binding on us doesn’t mean they aren’t a good idea to do anyway. Absolutely!

    The problem starts in saying laws a, c, and e are the ones that are a good idea to follow while laws b, d, and f aren’t really all that important, and then taking that selection and holding it forth as something which everyone ought to follow. That’s the part that gets on shaky ground.

    I like how you phrased it: “For others, I let God and whatever scriptural passages they are led to by Him guide them.”

  • tammy

    What does a tattoo mean? It means whatever the person wants it to mean. Just as one earing means something to that particular person … as well as multiple earings. Just as adorning one’s self with jewelry or another person’s lack of jewelry. Just as one woman’s desire to dress modestly while the other woman wears something a bit more revealing. None of this is law and none of it hurts our salvation.

    This is a topic where opinion gets confused with law and certain people make it known that they do not approve of other people who don’t think the way they do. This is a most unloving, unmerciful, and ungracious way for Christians to act.

    I think it maybe more of a sin to act in such a way that condemns those who have tattoos then those who wear tattoos.

    Don’t be so quick and harsh with your judgment. If it were truly a sin then look back to Christ and how he dealt with sin. He showed the woman at the well her sin and didn’t condemn her upon her repentance.

    …. yet we must remember … people with tattoos did not sin (with the exemption of those tattoos which are actually depicting something sinful). Even still, must we behave so poorly?

  • tammy

    What does a tattoo mean? It means whatever the person wants it to mean. Just as one earing means something to that particular person … as well as multiple earings. Just as adorning one’s self with jewelry or another person’s lack of jewelry. Just as one woman’s desire to dress modestly while the other woman wears something a bit more revealing. None of this is law and none of it hurts our salvation.

    This is a topic where opinion gets confused with law and certain people make it known that they do not approve of other people who don’t think the way they do. This is a most unloving, unmerciful, and ungracious way for Christians to act.

    I think it maybe more of a sin to act in such a way that condemns those who have tattoos then those who wear tattoos.

    Don’t be so quick and harsh with your judgment. If it were truly a sin then look back to Christ and how he dealt with sin. He showed the woman at the well her sin and didn’t condemn her upon her repentance.

    …. yet we must remember … people with tattoos did not sin (with the exemption of those tattoos which are actually depicting something sinful). Even still, must we behave so poorly?

  • Joe

    Most people that have objected to my statement have done so on one of two grounds. I will attempt to explain myself in response to both.

    1. I don’t think Leviticus 19:28 is at all binding on anyone. I am also not picking it as one part of ceremonial law I wish to apply against you, thereby making up my own law. I am suggesting that in light of the new testament description of whose body we are living in and that our bodies are temples, Leviticus 19:28 and other verses as well serve to inform us about the many ways we can damage these temples we get to inhabit. They list many things that we should at a minimum consider when deciding what to do with/to Christ’s body. There are many things that we could do but just because you are allowed to do something is a pretty lousy reason to do it. After all everything is permissible but not everything is beneficial.

    2. Why didn’t I just stop and say this reasoning lead me to say no to tattoos? Two reasons. First, I think the reasoning is sound and not just applicable to me. That may sound arrogant and perhaps it is (I am certainly guilty of thinking too much of myself) but I have read as many Christians who have written on the topic as I could find (I found no Lutherans but I would like to hear the old Issues, Etc. on the topic) and repeatedly find that those who disfavor tattooing apply a more sound textual and contextual analysis of the Leviticus verse and related verses. Second, and most importantly – I have a very hard time understanding how you expect a loving Christian who has reached the conclusion that an activity is sinful (even if not expressly listed as a sin by Christ) to not say anything. Heck, even if it is a close call and even if there is a certain degree of Christian freedom involved aren’t we supposed to error on the side of not sinning or leading our brothers and sisters into sin? 1 Corinthians 10:32 (“Do not cause anyone to stumble”).

    Further, I just gave my opinion as to what the “right” answer is and I do think it is correct. You are free to disagree with me and many have just please read what I have written to understand where I am coming from. Also, I ask that you consider more than just the “can I” perspective and look at it from the “should I” perspective, as well.

  • Joe

    Most people that have objected to my statement have done so on one of two grounds. I will attempt to explain myself in response to both.

    1. I don’t think Leviticus 19:28 is at all binding on anyone. I am also not picking it as one part of ceremonial law I wish to apply against you, thereby making up my own law. I am suggesting that in light of the new testament description of whose body we are living in and that our bodies are temples, Leviticus 19:28 and other verses as well serve to inform us about the many ways we can damage these temples we get to inhabit. They list many things that we should at a minimum consider when deciding what to do with/to Christ’s body. There are many things that we could do but just because you are allowed to do something is a pretty lousy reason to do it. After all everything is permissible but not everything is beneficial.

    2. Why didn’t I just stop and say this reasoning lead me to say no to tattoos? Two reasons. First, I think the reasoning is sound and not just applicable to me. That may sound arrogant and perhaps it is (I am certainly guilty of thinking too much of myself) but I have read as many Christians who have written on the topic as I could find (I found no Lutherans but I would like to hear the old Issues, Etc. on the topic) and repeatedly find that those who disfavor tattooing apply a more sound textual and contextual analysis of the Leviticus verse and related verses. Second, and most importantly – I have a very hard time understanding how you expect a loving Christian who has reached the conclusion that an activity is sinful (even if not expressly listed as a sin by Christ) to not say anything. Heck, even if it is a close call and even if there is a certain degree of Christian freedom involved aren’t we supposed to error on the side of not sinning or leading our brothers and sisters into sin? 1 Corinthians 10:32 (“Do not cause anyone to stumble”).

    Further, I just gave my opinion as to what the “right” answer is and I do think it is correct. You are free to disagree with me and many have just please read what I have written to understand where I am coming from. Also, I ask that you consider more than just the “can I” perspective and look at it from the “should I” perspective, as well.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Its a funny thing. Don’t most people who get tattoos actually want and expect the church to frown on their unchurchly behavior. People within the church who get tattoos are often just trying to prove something to other “churchy” people. No?

    I think the church’s message about Tattoos, if someone even cares to get some reflection from God, is to have the person self-examine their real motives for getting a tattoo as well as an honest read on what how others view the tattoo and body-art culture. And then, for those who feel they have made mistakes (not saying every person with a tattoo has) we need to be quick to point them to Christ’s forgiveness for sins on the outside and not worry that much about what’s on the outside.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Its a funny thing. Don’t most people who get tattoos actually want and expect the church to frown on their unchurchly behavior. People within the church who get tattoos are often just trying to prove something to other “churchy” people. No?

    I think the church’s message about Tattoos, if someone even cares to get some reflection from God, is to have the person self-examine their real motives for getting a tattoo as well as an honest read on what how others view the tattoo and body-art culture. And then, for those who feel they have made mistakes (not saying every person with a tattoo has) we need to be quick to point them to Christ’s forgiveness for sins on the outside and not worry that much about what’s on the outside.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Bryan (@24), you asked, “Don’t most people who get tattoos actually want and expect the church to frown on their unchurchly behavior?” To which my answer is: no. Not anymore, at least. “People within the church who get tattoos are often just trying to prove something to other ‘churchy’ people. No?” No.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Bryan (@24), you asked, “Don’t most people who get tattoos actually want and expect the church to frown on their unchurchly behavior?” To which my answer is: no. Not anymore, at least. “People within the church who get tattoos are often just trying to prove something to other ‘churchy’ people. No?” No.

  • http://ihaventacluewhatimdoing.blogspot.com Crazy Lady

    I’m not trying to prove anything to anyone. Before I got the tattoo, I asked my pastor what he thought about a tattoo of the Luther Rose, not tattoos in general, but this tattoo in particular. He said he didn’t really like tattoos, not because of theology, but personally. But if he was to get a tattoo, he could think of nothing better. He is VERY conservative in his thinking and I respect him immensely.

  • http://ihaventacluewhatimdoing.blogspot.com Crazy Lady

    I’m not trying to prove anything to anyone. Before I got the tattoo, I asked my pastor what he thought about a tattoo of the Luther Rose, not tattoos in general, but this tattoo in particular. He said he didn’t really like tattoos, not because of theology, but personally. But if he was to get a tattoo, he could think of nothing better. He is VERY conservative in his thinking and I respect him immensely.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Well, that may be (tODD and Crazy Lady), but I still wish tattoos were more exceptional and radical than the status quo symbol of human experience which they are today. Everybody gets them now – perhaps it is the void of any real cultural voice that gets so many people acting so tribal wanting everyone to know them by their skin – I really don’t know. I’ve just seen so many beautiful people literally mutilate themselves. I wonder, as Veith does, why? I’m talking the extreme ones with Tattoos, cuts and pierces in places no one really wants to imagine. I wonder more at these folks than at Crazy Lady getting the Luther Rose – which is cool, I guess. I wonder if sometimes they are trying to bring to the surface and deal with some sort of inner turmoil? I really cannot see the attraction of hurting myself so that I can be the billboard for somebody else’s art. I don’t get it and I don’t think anyone has really tried to answered this question (posed by Veith) yet.

    I admit, I feel rather judgmental of tattooers. I feel like I’m always judging their skin (for some reason). Can some tattooer try to explain more reasons why people tattoo and are still glad of it? I saw a guy just a moment ago who tattooed something like sock designs around his bare ankles. What in the heck is that for? Sorry I’m so clueless everybody.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Well, that may be (tODD and Crazy Lady), but I still wish tattoos were more exceptional and radical than the status quo symbol of human experience which they are today. Everybody gets them now – perhaps it is the void of any real cultural voice that gets so many people acting so tribal wanting everyone to know them by their skin – I really don’t know. I’ve just seen so many beautiful people literally mutilate themselves. I wonder, as Veith does, why? I’m talking the extreme ones with Tattoos, cuts and pierces in places no one really wants to imagine. I wonder more at these folks than at Crazy Lady getting the Luther Rose – which is cool, I guess. I wonder if sometimes they are trying to bring to the surface and deal with some sort of inner turmoil? I really cannot see the attraction of hurting myself so that I can be the billboard for somebody else’s art. I don’t get it and I don’t think anyone has really tried to answered this question (posed by Veith) yet.

    I admit, I feel rather judgmental of tattooers. I feel like I’m always judging their skin (for some reason). Can some tattooer try to explain more reasons why people tattoo and are still glad of it? I saw a guy just a moment ago who tattooed something like sock designs around his bare ankles. What in the heck is that for? Sorry I’m so clueless everybody.

  • tammy

    Bryan,
    Why “must” you know? Just know that it is a personal choice and acknowledge that it makes your neighbor happy. It our our sin that bothers us about the choices of our neighbors. Just as it is my sin that bothers me when I see a family of 3 living in a 4,000+ sqft home or a person who must buy a brand new vehicle every year or two when they live on a small budget. There is nothing sinful about these decision lest gluttony or a sinful motive become apart of our choices. The only thing we can do as a loving neighbor is to let people make their own choices and pray for them when they fall into sin.

  • tammy

    Bryan,
    Why “must” you know? Just know that it is a personal choice and acknowledge that it makes your neighbor happy. It our our sin that bothers us about the choices of our neighbors. Just as it is my sin that bothers me when I see a family of 3 living in a 4,000+ sqft home or a person who must buy a brand new vehicle every year or two when they live on a small budget. There is nothing sinful about these decision lest gluttony or a sinful motive become apart of our choices. The only thing we can do as a loving neighbor is to let people make their own choices and pray for them when they fall into sin.

  • WebMonk

    Bryan, my cousin is into body art. A sort of extreme tattooing, but instead of just a hodgepodge of tattoos all over, she has a (mostly) unified design scheme going on. (hers is floral and absolutely stunning! she’s been on several magazine covers for tattooing magazines)

    Why does she do it? I don’t know all her basic reasons, but I know that she views it as art. The medium is ink and skin. Why she enjoys that sort of artistic expression, I don’t know, but I know that she uses it much like painting. She has worked up designs, plans and sketches for colors, designs, and empty space, and is slowly working on implementing them.

    Is she rebelling against society standards? I think her first one or two tattoos might have been (she has two stand-alone tats), but she said she became intrigued with tattooing and decided to work on what she considers a piece of artwork. She got rather irate during a family reunion when she was talking about people assuming she was rebelling against society or trying to make some sort of statement.

    Why someone gets a sock tattooed onto his ankle – I have no clue. Ask him. Maybe it’s rebellion. Maybe it’s peer pressure. Maybe it’s a whimsy. Maybe the tattoo means something and isn’t a sock-design at all. Maybe there’s a profound reason.

  • WebMonk

    Bryan, my cousin is into body art. A sort of extreme tattooing, but instead of just a hodgepodge of tattoos all over, she has a (mostly) unified design scheme going on. (hers is floral and absolutely stunning! she’s been on several magazine covers for tattooing magazines)

    Why does she do it? I don’t know all her basic reasons, but I know that she views it as art. The medium is ink and skin. Why she enjoys that sort of artistic expression, I don’t know, but I know that she uses it much like painting. She has worked up designs, plans and sketches for colors, designs, and empty space, and is slowly working on implementing them.

    Is she rebelling against society standards? I think her first one or two tattoos might have been (she has two stand-alone tats), but she said she became intrigued with tattooing and decided to work on what she considers a piece of artwork. She got rather irate during a family reunion when she was talking about people assuming she was rebelling against society or trying to make some sort of statement.

    Why someone gets a sock tattooed onto his ankle – I have no clue. Ask him. Maybe it’s rebellion. Maybe it’s peer pressure. Maybe it’s a whimsy. Maybe the tattoo means something and isn’t a sock-design at all. Maybe there’s a profound reason.

  • Michael the little boot

    Can someone explain to me why tattoos are so commonly referred to as a fad? They’ve been around for thousands of years. And if we’re no longer saying “rock music” is a fad after only fifty years…

  • Michael the little boot

    Can someone explain to me why tattoos are so commonly referred to as a fad? They’ve been around for thousands of years. And if we’re no longer saying “rock music” is a fad after only fifty years…

  • http://bestronginthegrace.blogspot.com Theresa K.

    Michael,

    The tattoo, of course, has been around for centuries. The acceptance of the tattoo comes and goes. For example, when I was 16 (1976) tattoos were not OK for a teen to have; when my daughter was 16, it was much more acceptable in most areas of our western cultures. I have to wonder if my granddaughters will live in a time of acceptance or disapproval of tattoos. I can’t wait to find out!

  • http://bestronginthegrace.blogspot.com Theresa K.

    Michael,

    The tattoo, of course, has been around for centuries. The acceptance of the tattoo comes and goes. For example, when I was 16 (1976) tattoos were not OK for a teen to have; when my daughter was 16, it was much more acceptable in most areas of our western cultures. I have to wonder if my granddaughters will live in a time of acceptance or disapproval of tattoos. I can’t wait to find out!

  • http://loveandblunder.com Devona

    I have 4 tattoos. My desire to have a tattoo came from being a young child and seeing my uncle’s tattoo of a bug lady on his arm that danced when he made a fist. Then when I was young and stupid I had 2 really dumb tattoos done on my ankles that I really regret and did because I hated myself.

    When I was 16 I designed a tattoo that symbolized my belief in the permanence of marriage, inspired by the pain of my parents’ divorce, and I had it tattooed on my 18th birthday. It’s beautiful and I love it.

    The second tattoo that I don’t hate covered one of the stupid-teenager-ankle tattoos. It’s just something pretty to cover up the stupidity. Though in full disclosure I had a friend at the time that got the same tattoo and we are no longer friends, so that’s a little telling.

    Then I had the name given to me by my Chinese students tattooed on my back to remember some of the people I met while teaching in East Asia.

    I admit that I am a pretty counter-cultural person, and I can even be kind of arrogant about it. Just today I reflected on how elite I felt while riding my bike, pulling my daughters in a bike trailer, while going to the Farmers’ Market. I get that. But really I just really like tattoos. I like other people’s tattoos, I like mine. I like the way it feels when you get one. I like taking care of it while it heals.

    I have a mental sketch of my next tattoo, that will cover my other stupid-teenage-ankle tattoo, but we don’t have the expendable income to just pay for tattoos. I’d rather buy a scanner for my computer, or a new electric guitar for my husband.

    p.s. My advice I have given people about choosing a tattoo is this: Decide on an image for your tattoo, and decide on a location for your tattoo. Then wait a year. If you haven’t changed your mind about the image or location in a year you are much less likely to regret your tattoo choice. When something is permanent, waiting a year is not that long, and a tattoo is a huge commitment.

  • http://loveandblunder.com Devona

    I have 4 tattoos. My desire to have a tattoo came from being a young child and seeing my uncle’s tattoo of a bug lady on his arm that danced when he made a fist. Then when I was young and stupid I had 2 really dumb tattoos done on my ankles that I really regret and did because I hated myself.

    When I was 16 I designed a tattoo that symbolized my belief in the permanence of marriage, inspired by the pain of my parents’ divorce, and I had it tattooed on my 18th birthday. It’s beautiful and I love it.

    The second tattoo that I don’t hate covered one of the stupid-teenager-ankle tattoos. It’s just something pretty to cover up the stupidity. Though in full disclosure I had a friend at the time that got the same tattoo and we are no longer friends, so that’s a little telling.

    Then I had the name given to me by my Chinese students tattooed on my back to remember some of the people I met while teaching in East Asia.

    I admit that I am a pretty counter-cultural person, and I can even be kind of arrogant about it. Just today I reflected on how elite I felt while riding my bike, pulling my daughters in a bike trailer, while going to the Farmers’ Market. I get that. But really I just really like tattoos. I like other people’s tattoos, I like mine. I like the way it feels when you get one. I like taking care of it while it heals.

    I have a mental sketch of my next tattoo, that will cover my other stupid-teenage-ankle tattoo, but we don’t have the expendable income to just pay for tattoos. I’d rather buy a scanner for my computer, or a new electric guitar for my husband.

    p.s. My advice I have given people about choosing a tattoo is this: Decide on an image for your tattoo, and decide on a location for your tattoo. Then wait a year. If you haven’t changed your mind about the image or location in a year you are much less likely to regret your tattoo choice. When something is permanent, waiting a year is not that long, and a tattoo is a huge commitment.

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  • http://www.poporthodoxy.com Pastor Matt

    When dealing with tattoos (and many other things) perhaps the best question to begin with is not “if” one should do it but “how” might one go about it. That is, “Is there a God-honoring way to do this?” For some issues the answer will always be “no.” There is no God-honoring way to have pre-marital sex. But with an issue like tattoos, there is a difference. One could argue that there is a good, neighbor loving, God honoring way to go about it.

    A “tramp stamp” meant to draw attention to your thong underwear? Probably not the best. A tattoo of something harmless in an area that can be covered and doesn’t ask that people stare at your junk? Probably fine.

  • http://www.poporthodoxy.com Pastor Matt

    When dealing with tattoos (and many other things) perhaps the best question to begin with is not “if” one should do it but “how” might one go about it. That is, “Is there a God-honoring way to do this?” For some issues the answer will always be “no.” There is no God-honoring way to have pre-marital sex. But with an issue like tattoos, there is a difference. One could argue that there is a good, neighbor loving, God honoring way to go about it.

    A “tramp stamp” meant to draw attention to your thong underwear? Probably not the best. A tattoo of something harmless in an area that can be covered and doesn’t ask that people stare at your junk? Probably fine.

  • jim claybourn

    Just an old-fashioned guy, I don’t get it.

    My dad had a half-done tattoo on his arm that was a constant reminder to me to think things through before making any major decision.

    To me a tattoo falls in the category of parents giving their kids goofy, trendy, soap opera names; or the endless calls to build up their self-esteem, just for the sake of self-esteem.

    If you are that desperate for attention or praise, or whatever, DO something with your life worthy of attention or praise. Don’t rely on a unique name, fashion statement or body modification to do it for you.

    People do all that stuff for attention, but then get offended when you do stare at them or call them out for it.

    As the people at despair.com say :

    “Always remember that you are unique. Just like everybody else.”

  • jim claybourn

    Just an old-fashioned guy, I don’t get it.

    My dad had a half-done tattoo on his arm that was a constant reminder to me to think things through before making any major decision.

    To me a tattoo falls in the category of parents giving their kids goofy, trendy, soap opera names; or the endless calls to build up their self-esteem, just for the sake of self-esteem.

    If you are that desperate for attention or praise, or whatever, DO something with your life worthy of attention or praise. Don’t rely on a unique name, fashion statement or body modification to do it for you.

    People do all that stuff for attention, but then get offended when you do stare at them or call them out for it.

    As the people at despair.com say :

    “Always remember that you are unique. Just like everybody else.”

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Thanks, Devona, for giving your honest thoughts here.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Thanks, Devona, for giving your honest thoughts here.

  • Anon

    Discerning what is part of the ceremonial law, and what is part of the civil law (an example of what God considers right and wrong for the kingdom of the left) and the moral law is not so simple.

    If it is so that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, ought we be putting graffiti on them?

    As to the permanence issue, there -is- henna, which does wear away after a time. I find that lest disturbing (and ugly, that cyanotic, dirty appearance that tattoos usually have)

  • Anon

    Discerning what is part of the ceremonial law, and what is part of the civil law (an example of what God considers right and wrong for the kingdom of the left) and the moral law is not so simple.

    If it is so that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, ought we be putting graffiti on them?

    As to the permanence issue, there -is- henna, which does wear away after a time. I find that lest disturbing (and ugly, that cyanotic, dirty appearance that tattoos usually have)

  • B.Wink

    Yes, and if our bodies are temples then we better never overeat, drink too much, smoke a cigarrette, eat any carcinogenic linked food, and on and on….

  • B.Wink

    Yes, and if our bodies are temples then we better never overeat, drink too much, smoke a cigarrette, eat any carcinogenic linked food, and on and on….

  • Larry

    “If you are that desperate for attention or praise, or whatever, DO something with your life worthy of attention or praise. Don’t rely on a unique name, fashion statement or body modification to do it for you.”

    How does your judgmentalism under the guise of being “old-fashioned” square with those who choose to get a tattoo that is usually covered by clothing? Furthermore, how do you degrade a person for their name that their parents gave them?

  • Larry

    “If you are that desperate for attention or praise, or whatever, DO something with your life worthy of attention or praise. Don’t rely on a unique name, fashion statement or body modification to do it for you.”

    How does your judgmentalism under the guise of being “old-fashioned” square with those who choose to get a tattoo that is usually covered by clothing? Furthermore, how do you degrade a person for their name that their parents gave them?


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