Are tattoos sinful?
Biblical arguments against tattoos often point to Leviticus 19:28, "You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord." At first, this seems like something of a scriptural "slam dunk" against the modern practice of tattooing. However, it’s important to understand any verse in both its biblical and historical context. Upon this kind of closer examination, we see that this verse, while providing a clear prohibition against tattooing among ancient Israelites, doesn't necessarily ban the practice among Christians today.
Consider that, in just the next verse, we also find prohibitions against men rounding the hair on their temples or marring the edges of their beards (19:27). Old Testament ceremonial laws like these are numerous and varied. They also preclude things like the consumption of pork and shellfish, the wearing of mixed fabrics, and so on. In other words, if you're going to argue against tattoos based on Leviticus 19:28, be prepared to argue against half your mama's wardrobe and every roadhouse menu in the State of Louisiana while you're at it.
So, how are we to understand Leviticus 19:28 rightly? Great question!
First, even if this verse does speak to the practice of tattooing, we understand it as part of the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament - i.e. purity laws designed to guide true worship and differentiate God's chosen people, the Israelites, from the nation's around them - to set them apart as holy. These laws pointed ancient Israel to the nature of their coming Messiah and need of him. The atoning work of Messiah now complete, the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament fulfilled their purpose and are no longer binding (cf. Acts 10:9-16; Romans 14:5; Colossians 2:16-17; etc.). Consequently, God's people are no longer under ceremonial prohibitions against pork, shellfish, mixed fabric clothing, certain haircuts and beard trims, etc.
However, and second, we do well to note that this verse is not primarily about the general practice of tattooing anyway - but rather cutting and tattooing for the dead. Deep cutting and tattooing in honor of the dead and to curry the favor of the gods was common among the surrounding pagan cultures of the time. Leviticus 19:28 and a parallel passage, Deuteronomy 14:1, condemn this specific practice, not the general practice of tattooing.
A Final Thought
Even as the Bible doesn't condemn the general practice of tattooing, it also cautions that while something might be permissible, it might not be beneficial (1 Corinthians 10:23). There are many practical and ministerial questions to consider before getting a tattoo. Some I've come to consider:
It's healthy to ask why we desire a tattoo in the first place. Is it to draw others' attention? Seek their approval? Build an identity? Do we desire God's glory or our own?
Tattooing can carry many health risks. Not all tattoo artists are properly trained or conscientious.
Our tastes change considerably over time. A tattoo that seems desirable in a person's early twenties might be highly regrettable only a decade later, maybe even the next morning!
Depending on their placement, tattoos can affect job prospects in some fields, first impressions, etc.
Christians should be thoughtful about the subject matter of their tattoos, not choosing imagery or messaging contrary to their faith.
Not all cultures view tattooing as casually as many younger Americans. In some cultures, tattooing is synonymous with gang membership and criminal activity.
Although the technology is improving, successful tattoo removal is not easy, cheap, or guaranteed.
Elaborate tattoos can be quite expensive and might take resources away from other, more important and beneficial things.
Have a question? I'd love to hear it! Drop me a message. I'm always looking for fresh ideas!
Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, vol. 1 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 88.