The One Where I Argue Against Tattoos

The One Where I Argue Against Tattoos August 5, 2017

Yesterday I poked the hornets’ nest on Facebook by posting this Federalist piece by Mark Hemingway, in which he suggests that “America has a tattoo problem.” Mark seems to have written the article as much for his own entertainment as to make a serious case against ink. There are jabs and jokes throughout that make it clear he’s trying to get a rise out of readers, especially those who’ve already gone under the needle. Unsurprisingly, he succeeded. People got really, really angry.

His main point, though, rings true: Tattoos, far from being a way to buck social expectations, are now a profoundly conformist thing to do. While only a small percentage of those in previous generations expressed their artistic tastes on their skin, around 40% of millennials have done so. That makes tattoos more mainstream and less counter-cultural in my generation than home ownership. 

“If tattoos were once an act of rebellion against cultural norms, now they are a well-established norm. If you want a tattoo, hey, it’s a free country. But it seems many people still get them laboring under the delusion that they’re a hallmark of individualism. The desire to use visual signals on your skin to proclaim yourself unique to people you don’t even know can’t be terribly healthy. It is, in a subtle and penetrating way, kind of selfish. Or maybe my misanthropy is showing, but the omnipresence of people begging to be noticed for such superficial reasons is surely annoying.”

More than a few of my Christian acquaintances took exception to this. Many simply made snarky or disparaging remarks about Hemingway or me, which I thought were perfectly fine. These folks were responding in kind. As the saying goes, “If you can’t take it, don’t dish it out.”

But others made the more engaging and thoughtful argument that there is actually nothing wrong with tattoos, from a moral or biblical standpoint, and that forbidding or discouraging them in the church is a manifestation of legalism. Their reasoning was always some variation of the old argument that whatever Scripture doesn’t forbid is allowed. In other words, “show me the verse where tattoos are forbidden to Christians on the authority of Christ or His Apostles.”

What I’m not saying

Short of Leviticus 19:28, which forbids the pagan practices of cutting or tattoos for the dead, there is no such verse. This one, it’s fairly obvious, falls under the ceremonial portion of the Mosaic law, in the same way tasseled garments woven of a single type of thread, not eating shellfish, and leaving the camp during your menstrual period are ceremonial. In other words, they’re not binding on Christians, at least not in the same way corollaries of the Ten Commandments, like the prohibition on sodomy, are binding.

Nevertheless, I think there’s a strong moral case against tattoos. But before I offer it, let’s get one thing clear: My intent is not to judge people with tattoos. By definition they reflect what someone decided to do at a particular juncture of life, and not necessarily what they currently think, feel, or believe. People change. People repudiate and repent of old decisions. Tattoos just happen to be decisions that are (mostly) permanent. To be honest, if everything I ever said, did, felt, or believed were permanently visible, I’d be a wreck.

Rather, my intent is to get people who plan to get a tattoo to reexamine their motivations, think through their own moral reasoning, and ask whether they really need or want to do this to themselves.

On one level, there’s common sense. Visible tattoos automatically disqualify a person from all sorts of jobs, limiting their financial prospects in ways they may not immediately realize. That’s a natural consequence and an important one to consider. I think most folks who want to get inked, if they’re honest, will admit there is a strong likelihood that they’ll regret their decision sometime in the future. As Hemingway jokes, moving to Boca Raton in a few years and opening up a tattoo removal clinic would be one of the soundest investments a person could make.

Have you examined your motive?

But on another level, I think tattoos can reveal a lot of inner urges and driving motivations that should be addressed, rather than given expression on skin.

Is the reason you’re getting a tattoo to appear unique? You won’t stand out, we’ve already established that.

Is it to express your support for a team, band, or a nerdy TV or book franchise? T-shirts can accomplish that. And as one friend observed, “Imagine your favorite t-shirt. Now imagine having to wear it every day, all day, for the rest of your life. How long would it remain your favorite t-shirt?” A good question.

Is it to communicate your undying love for a significant other? If you’re married, a wedding ring accomplishes that. If you’re not married, well, we all know how those tattoos often end: as roses painstakingly drawn to cover up your ex’s name.

Is it to commemorate an important moment in your life–perhaps your conversion to Christianity, via a verse of Scripture, a phrase in Hebrew or Greek, or a chi-rho? This seems to make a little more sense, at first blush. But Christians who’ve received the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13), been baptized (Galatians 3:27), and are characterized by love and good works (John 13:35), are not lacking in signs or seals of their faith. Why the need for something more?

Of course, if tattoos are adiaphoron none of this matters and Christian liberty applies. They are in the same category as SCUBA diving and eating the occasional slice of cheesecake–pleasant diversions and expressions of individual taste that harm neither a person nor his witness. But are they? Is permanently engraving images on your flesh really a matter of moral indifference?

Graffiti on your temple

First, the argument that everything not specifically forbidden in Scripture is permitted is a bad one. As Lutheran Satire illustrates, the variety of practices people can come up with that aren’t directly condemned in the Bible but are nevertheless wrong is endless. Whether or not there’s a verse and chapter dealing with tattoos doesn’t really matter.

The very idea that we need a “thus sayeth the Lord” on this issue in order to reject tattoos is wrong-headed. Tattoos are recreational, and strictly unnecessary. There is no reason you have to get one. So the test a Christian must consider before visiting a parlor is not whether tattoos are absolutely forbidden by God, but whether, on the balance of Scriptural evidence, they are more likely to be wise and acceptable than not. In other words, we’re looking for moral, not absolute certainty. I believe tattoos unambiguously fail this test.

Here is a rough sketch of my argument for why: Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. It is sacred, part of your divine image and a means of special kinship with Christ in His suffering. You must not dishonor, disfigure, or vandalize your body, any more than you would dishonor, disfigure, or vandalize any other sacred object or dwelling of God. If one shouldn’t graffiti a priceless statue like Michelangelo’s David, an idealized image of a man, one should not graffiti a priceless image of God, such as the human body. We reflect this in the clothing we wear, the food we choose, and especially by refraining from sexual immorality, which Paul says unites the Body of Christ to prostitutes (1 Corinthians 6:16).

Given this line of reasoning, do tattoos seem more or less likely to be consistent with honoring our temples? If you think they’re more likely consistent, I would love to hear some reasoning beyond “muh Christian liberty!” If you think they’re less likely consistent with this reasoning, then why insist on getting one? What is it about tattoos that is so important or vital that you’d disregard the weight of such Scriptural reasoning–a weight which I doubt would fail to convince most of us when it comes to less fashionable and more extreme forms of body-remodeling.

Let’s be consistent.

Consider this image. There are individuals out there (thankfully, a lot fewer than get tattoos), who pay to have their tongues ornamentally bifurcated, i.e., cut in half to resemble the tongues of reptiles. I cannot fathom the reason anyone would do this, but some do.

Now, like tattoos, this practice is cursorally mentioned in Leviticus 19:28, but is today devoid of the pagan connotations that once accompanied it. So, like tattoos, we cannot condemn it strictly on the basis of this verse. For the purpose of this discussion, let us assume that such tongue alterations in no way impair the speech or eating of the recipient. They are purely cosmetic–an ornamental injury. The question we must answer is this: Given what we know about the image of God in man, the sacredness of the Christian’s body as a temple of the Third Person of the Trinity, and the sanctifying unity our bodies have with the glorified body of Christ via the Sacraments, is tongue-cutting more or less likely to be a matter of moral indifference?

I think the answer is clear enough. Thus, we are left with this question: How are tattoos materially different from our above friend’s lingual bifurcation? How is permanently injecting ink into your skin to create an image or text (which we will also assume is physically harmless, for the sake of discussion) different from cutting your rudder in half? And is your answer to that question strong enough to overcome the prudential weight of my argument above, namely that you do not need a tattoo?

I don’t have to prove that tattoos are definitely wrong, although I’m pretty convinced they are. Seems to me if there is even a reasonable chance that you could be wrong about the morality of marking yourself up, you should want to take the course that everyone agrees is morally acceptable, and keep your canvas, your living sacrifice, blank and without blemish.

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