See why tattoos only mar the remarkable human body, which God made “very good”—in His own likeness, in fact, without the need for so-called “body art.”
I remember witnessing a baffling phenomenon when I was a teen in the mid-1970s. Gary Dahl, an enterprising California advertising man, marketed and sold what he called “the perfect pet”—the Pet Rock. Packaged in a small cardboard carton perforated with “breathing holes,” an ordinary rock was nestled in straw. Each came with a “birth certificate” for the rock, as well a training manual—The Care and Training of Your Pet Rock—containing instructions for teaching the rock to “stay” or “roll over” or “play dead.” Pet Rocks became wildly popular in the latter months of 1975, making Gary Dahl a millionaire, but the craze had run its course by early 1976, when sales dramatically fell off.
Such is the pattern of a fad, which Merriam-Webster.com defines as “a practice or interest followed for a time with exaggerated zeal.” This definition accurately describes many other practices that ride a wave of popularity, but eventually lose their momentum. The truth is, fads occur all the time. As hard as it is to believe, there are currently popular entertainment artists, fashion trends, and television shows that will all soon be out of style. At the time Pet Rocks were selling, I was wearing four-inch platform shoes and a polyester leisure suit with a gold chain around my neck—and I can assure you that I no longer wear such clothing!
Another truth about fads is that some, such as Pet Rocks and leisure suits, have no lasting negative consequences overall. Sadly, however, some fads do have long-term effects that can stay with us for the rest of our lives, even bringing lasting regret to those who followed the crowd.
Consider the modern surge of interest in the ancient practice of tattooing. For many years, tattoos carried a negative stigma, as they were commonly associated with sailors, bikers, and gang members. More recently, however, according to a 2021 survey, more than one in four adults in the United States (26 percent) have at least one tattoo, and 17 percent have multiple tattoos. That is a sharp increase from the 14 percent who reported having a tattoo in 2008 (Statista.com, September 2021; The Harris Poll, February 23, 2012).
“Inking” has become so commonplace that it is not uncommon to see grandmothers sporting tattoos! And instead of subtle, easily hidden markings, many today make multiple trips to the parlor to cover large portions of their bodies with intricate and complex “body art.” Tellingly, there is even a growing industry dedicated to tattoo removal, with revenues of more than $4 billion in 2021. That should make you think before you ink!
Marking the skin has been practiced across many different civilizations, going back at least as far as 3000 BC. People’s reasons for getting tattoos appear to be as varied as their cultures, as ways “to place protective or therapeutic symbols upon the body, then as a means of marking people out into appropriate social, political or religious groups, or simply as a form of self-expression or fashion statement” (“Tattoos: The Ancient and Mysterious History,” Smithsonian.com, January 1, 2007).
According to a November 2020 article from AuthorityTattoo.com, many today get tattoos to commemorate events or people in their lives, to express individuality, “because they look cool,” or as an act of rebellion. Indeed, there remains an element of cultural defiance associated with tattoos. The same article states, “People often get tattoos to defy cultural norms, family expectations, or push the envelope in professional settings,” and admits that “rebellious tattoos can often become regretful, sometimes months or years after the initial inking.”
True Christians are identified by the eternal Spirit of God dwelling in them, allowing the obedient, faithful life of Jesus Christ to be carried out in their everyday conduct and choices. Even religious tattoos are not the marks of Christianity. Rather, it is the obedient faith of Jesus Christ that identifies a true Christian.
These findings lead to an important personal question for those who are thinking of going under the needle: “What is my motivation?” People are great at rationalizing their desires, and they offer many reasons for wanting tattoos. But are their desires really their own, or are they giving in to peer pressure to “fit in” with the crowd or “be cool” by wearing a tattoo?
Tattoo artist Song Jiayin of Beijing gets right to the point in explaining why people around the world have tattoos: “When you choose to get tattooed and choose a different image to put on your body, you are actually taking action to say, ‘I control my body, my body is different from other people’” (“‘I control my body’: Tattoos as an act of empowerment in China,” South China Morning Post, YouTube.com, March 3, 2023).
Yes, tattoos are a powerful personal statement, and they proclaim a “me first” attitude that does not mind getting “in your face” to show off for all to see one’s pride in his or her own body. Yet for those who follow God, the approach of “pleasing myself first” is the exact opposite of the outflowing concern for other people that defines God’s love. The Apostle Paul wrote that “love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own” (1 Corinthians 13:4–5). That kind of love is not exhibited by a tattoo.
And this is not just a New Testament perspective. Long ago, God commanded His people, “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:28). As the designer of the human body, God proclaimed it as “very good” after creating man and woman—without tattoos (Genesis 1:31).
Years ago, a man came to me in tears as he described his regret about the tattoos that covered both of his arms. He was wearing a long-sleeved shirt, ashamed to show me what he called the “evil” markings he had once thought were “awesome.” He had been considerably younger when he had received his tattoos, and had recently had a change of heart. He had investigated tattoo removal services, but the cost would be thousands of dollars and not completely effective. This dilemma was the reason for his tears.
Many who get tattoos when they are young find out later that they cannot find a good job as easily, since many employers still do not want to hire employees with obvious tattoos. Some people can afford the cost and the pain of tattoo removal, but others have no choice but to live with the visible evidence of a decision they have come to regret. Either way, they come to wish that they had considered the consequences of getting a tattoo more carefully.
Many of you who are reading this article may already be tattooed, and this is certainly not an attempt to shame you—none of us can change our past, and if you do have tattoos, it is not essential for you to have them removed. God is merciful and forgiving, and will not hold any of your tattoos against you if you sincerely ask for His forgiveness and simply make the right decisions going forward. Whether you regret your ink or have never had any, you can avoid future remorse by looking past the present popularity of a fad and keeping the future in mind. “A prudent man foresees evil and hides himself, but the simple pass on and are punished” (Proverbs 22:3).