I was recently asked:
Could you please explain to me rationally without using [complex] words, and yet using theology, and convince me why I shouldn’t get a tattoo? There’s too much mumbo jumbo on the Internet, and I would truly appreciate finding something concrete and understandable.
I’m afraid that I cannot explain—either with simple, or complex words—why you shouldn’t get a tattoo.
The reason being that, in principle, the Church does not oppose tattoos.
Ceremonial Law vs. Moral Law
Sometimes people point to the passage in Leviticus that says, ”Do not . . . put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord” (19:28).
But this verse is not binding upon Christians for the same reason that the verse “nor shall there come upon you a garment of cloth made of two kinds of stuff” (Lev. 19:19) is not binding upon Christians. Namely, it is a part of the ceremonial law that was binding upon the Jewish people but not binding upon Christians (except for when it coincides with the moral law).
The author of Hebrews writes:
Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levit’ical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchiz’edek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well (11-12).
Similarly, St. Irenaeus of Lyon wrote, “The laws of bondage, however, were one by one promulgated to the people by Moses, suited for their instruction or for their punishment, as Moses himself declared: 'And the Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and judgments' (Deut. 4:14). These things, therefore, which were given for bondage, and for a sign to them, He cancelled by the new covenant of liberty (Against Heresies IV.16.5).
To Tattoo or Not to Tattoo
So is the prohibition against tattoos in Leviticus a part of the moral law?
My colleague, Jimmy Akin writes says no:
There is no reason why one cannot color one’s skin, which is what tattooing amounts to.
One can apply color to one’s skin by make-up (as is common among women), magic markers (as is common among children), press-on tattoos (as are common in Crackerjack boxes), or with real tattoos.
The mere fact that the ink goes into the skin in the latter case does not create a fundamental moral difference.
But if you do decide to get a tattoo, consider the following:
1. The images should not be immoral, such as sexually explicit, Satanic, or in anyway opposed to the truths and teachings of Christianity.
2. Be prudent. While “Mom” is probably a safe bet, tattooing your current girlfriend’s name on your arm probably isn’t.
3. Consider the arguments against tattooing (there’s bound to be a good website out there devoted to that). Just because the Church doesn’t prohibit getting one doesn’t mean that you should. Consider the following question: Would you put a bumper sticker on a ferrai?
The advice I gave to my sister when she was considering a tattoo was to give it several months. If you still feel strongly about the tattoo you had in mind after that time, then maybe get it. If, during that time, you change your mind about the type of tattoo you wanted, or where it should be located, perhaps wait another several months before getting it.