I recently got a tattoo. I plan on getting several more. First off, it hurt a lot less than I expected, though I did take a full Klonopin to relax me first. Second, I am quite proud of my tattoo and love it. It symbolizes far more than simply decoration—I am not a man who would get a tattoo simply for a decoration. My tattoo is simple: ;IGY6.
The semicolon is a common representation of suicide awareness. Just as in grammar, the semicolon is placed between two thoughts—one that has ended, and one that continues. A suicide attempt, in one sense, is the end of one’s life, but since it was not actually completed, life goes on. Thus, the semicolon represents hope.
IGY6 is a military phrase added to the thought of the semicolon. It simply means “I’ve Got Your Six (Back).” With 22 veterans committing suicide each day, it is important to tell other veterans that suicide is not the answer. As brothers and sisters forged in combat, we have each other’s backs and talk with one another. I, personally, have talked several people out of suicide, and a veteran helped me when I was at the end of my rope. We are brothers. Sisters. Family. As Stephen Hawking has said, “While there is life, there is hope.”
The real question is this: is getting a tattoo a sin? Leviticus 19:28 prohibits the cutting of oneself or the marking of oneself with a tattoo, so at first sight it appears that tattoos are biblically illegal. As a matter of fact, many Christians today believe that the getting of a tattoo is a sin, a violation of the law. While it would be nice for those of us who have tattoos or are planning on getting tattoos to simply throw this prohibition aside, it is my belief that *all* laws within the biblical text are valid in some way today, even the odd Old Testament laws.
Understanding Biblical Prohibitions
I have written about this previously, but let me recap my thoughts here. All laws within the biblical text (both Old and New Testaments) are valid for the Christian today; understanding those laws and how they apply are the problem of the exegete. Very simply put, we look at these laws through the lens of what I call the CUPSA principle. Plainly said, all laws come from the C—Character of God. God is unchanging (Mal 3:6, Heb 13:8, Num 23:19, etc.); what he says in one instance is true for all time. Some biblical laws are written in the form of UPs—Universal Principles. These are universal truths that compass all time and cultures. For example, “You shall not murder” (Exo 20:13). This is true no matter what culture you are in and throughout all of time. On the other hand, some laws are given as SAs—Specific Applications. Many biblical laws are given not as universal principles but as specific applications to a very specific culture and at a very specific time. The example I typically use when teaching the CUPSA principle when I come to the SA comes from Deuteronomy 22:8, a passage commanding that a guard rail be put around the roof of a house, unless the homeowner be culpable of someone getting hurt if a person falls off. Obviously, we who have pitched roofs don’t usually have family and friends climbing around on them, but in the time in which this law was written, roofs were flat and often places to gather. Thus, the UP can be understood as a rule of keeping one’s home safe and the C can be that God loves humanity.
These SA laws need to be examined and moved back up the scale. Since every law comes from the character of God, every law must have some sort of universal principle behind it even if it comes in the form of a specific application. Determining the UP and then the C can be difficult, and Christians everywhere can argue about them, but there must be a UP and a C nonetheless.
Tattoos and Paganism
Now we come back to Leviticus 19:28, which reads: “You must not slash your body for a dead person or incise a tattoo on yourself. I am the LORD.” Whatever this law means, it must mean something for every law written in God’s Word means something. The question is, is this a UP or an SA?
If we look at the surrounding prohibitions, we find prohibitions of divination (26), hair trimming (27; associated with a Canaanite practice including an offering), and cutting for the dead (28), all before verse 28. After the tattoo remarks, we find the prohibition of prostitution (29; a possible association with cultic prostitution as seen in Ba’alism) and against the use of mediums and spiritualists (31). It appears that the surrounding prohibitions all involve paganism, and therefore the remarks concerning tattooing might involve paganism.
Looking at the culture of the time, it is possible that the pagans would either incise their bodies or paint them in a ritualistic form. There is some evidence for this in the remains of a Scythian tomb dating back to the sixth century BC (IVP Bible Background Commentary, p. 134). Elsewhere, we are aware of tattooing in other cultures (past and modern) that includes some sort of pagan ritual. Thus, my determination of this specific application is that the tattooing is a prohibition against pagan practices, and not necessarily against tattooing itself. The universal principle being that paganism is wrong, showing us the very jealous character of God—He is the only one, true God. Don’t forget, that we are a peculiar people (Dt 14:2; 26:18) and are called to be different than the world (Rom 12:2; Rev 18:4). In fact, we are called to take care of our bodies (1 Cor 3:17; 6:19-20).
What Should You Do?
Should a Christian get a tattoo? Maybe. Should you get a tattoo? I can not answer that. Each individual believer needs to study the prohibitions of tattooing and come to their own conclusion. I have come to the conclusion that tattooing in and of itself is not prohibited; paganism is prohibited. Why are you getting a tattoo? Simple decoration? Well, there are other passages for you to study that concern that topic. Does your tattoo serve a purpose? Does it glorify God? Will you regret getting it later? These are the questions that you must honestly and prayerfully answer before getting one. For mine, it does serve a purpose. The others I plan on getting also serve a purpose. So, for me, I don’t see a problem with my tattoos.