Tattoos require commitment.

by K.W. Leslie, 09 January 2017

Got into a discussion with Mathilda (name changed to protect the feelin’-guilty) and I found it interesting enough to rant about. Even though my views may get me into trouble with both legalists and libertines.

Mathilda has a tattoo. I do not. Never got one. Not that I disapprove of them per se. I simply haven’t found anything I’d like to permanently decorate myself with.

I know; the older folks are gonna quote bible at me about how you’re never, ever supposed to tattoo yourself.

Leviticus 19.28 NIV
“Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.”

The word the NIV renders “tattoo” is qaháqa. In modern Hebrew it means “tattoo,” and it only appears this one time in the bible. Unless you count the apocryphal book of Jesus ben Sirach, which I don’t. (Long story as short as I can make it: Sirach was written in Hebrew, translated into Greek; the Hebrew got lost; the 11th-century rabbis translated it back into Hebrew and translated exétilen/“plucked” Si 10.15 as qaháqa; when a Hebrew copy was rediscovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls, verse 15 was missing. So all this means is the medieval rabbis didn’t think it meant “tattooed.”)

Qaháqa comes from the root quch/“cut [with a sickle],” like in harvesting. It refers to scarification: Decorating yourself with scars. Usually for religious reasons, like the pagan practice of marking yourself so the spirits of the dead might identify and protect you—which, you’ll notice, is the very context referred to in the verse.

As usual, I point this out to Christians who are anti-tattoo, and they immediately object, ’cause bias. Everyone they know, every bible translation they use, interprets qaháqa as “tattoo,” and they assume I’m just looking for a lexical loophole in Leviticus. Even though they don’t pay their employees daily, Lv 19.13 nor treat foreigners, illegal or not, the same as natives. Lv 19.34 Seems it’s more about cherry-picking beloved causes than really following the scriptures.

But if you honestly are trying to follow this command—and to be on the safe side, you’ve decided to ban any kinds of marking on yourselves, including piercings, tattoos, makeup, henna, drawing on yourself with markers, or writing quick notes on your hands; for any sort of reason, and not merely as magic symbols to attract the dead—that’s between you and God. Not between me and God. I haven’t been similarly convicted. If you wanna judge me for that, you might wanna read Romans 14 again.

Use your brain before you mark your skin.

As you can tell, I don’t consider tattoos a moral issue. But I do consider ’em a wisdom issue. I think we can all agree: There are a lot of really stupid tattoos out there.

In college I knew a Navy veteran who loved to tell stories about the awful things seamen used to do to one another in port. A common one was getting ’em drunk, and getting ’em tattooed. Sometimes with profoundly embarrassing stuff they’d never put on themselves sober. Stuff the most patient of spouses would struggle to tolerate.

As for Mathilda, I met her in graduate school. She was an undergrad, a new Christian, and already regretting her lower back tattoo. She got it in her pre-Christian days ’cause she wanted a tattoo she could show off. She quickly discovered they’re called “tramp stamps,” and attract creepy guys. At the time, she told me she really wanted to get it removed. Last month, she told me she never did get it removed. Too expensive, and if your skin is pale enough (and hers is) it’s gonna look like you had a tattoo removed. Fortunately the man she met and married in the interval, isn’t one of those creepy guys.

What I tend to encounter are kids who turn 18 years old and immediately gotta go get inked. It’s their way of declaring, “I’m an adult now!”

Now yeah, some of ’em have wanted a tattoo for a really long time. Put in quite a lot of thought into what they wanted. Made sure it was clever, appropriate, meaningful, thoughtful. Made sure it was spelled correctly.

More often no they didn’t. No thought whatsoever. They decided, “I want a tattoo,” went to the parlor, picked one, and went under the needle. Now they show it off to friends and say, “Isn’t it awesome?” And because I’m nice, I don’t tell them they’re idiots who are totally gonna regret that decision in 10 years.

The most common problem is bad art. Not every tattoo artist is an actual artist. They can’t draw, or can’t draw well. They can’t shade, contour, maintain a sense of three-point perspective (particularly while drawing on a curved surface like a body part), keep things proportional, nor keep things simple when necessary. Their calligraphy is awful.

Or they actually are a good artist, but the person getting the tattoo has no taste, and the artist wasn’t able to talk them out of some really poor choices. “I have this picture; can you put it on my back?” has often gotta make any decent artist cringe. But if “the customer is always right,” they gotta grit their teeth and do the job.

A problem I see less often, thankfully, is bad spelling. You know those people who always text “your” when they mean “you’re”? Somehow they always find the one tattoo artist who doesn’t know the difference either. Or otherwise never puts the apostrophe in the correct place, or has to add it after the fact. I guarantee you the fools who never think these things matter, will once it’s permanently etched on ’em.

At least with foreign languages these mistakes are less noticeable. That is, till you encounter someone who knows that language. People will have some Arabic or Hebrew or Chinese on ’em, and figure it looks fantastic, but they seldom get those words carefully proofread. I once met a lifeguard who had o dósis Théu/“God’s act of giving” tattooed on him in Greek. He thought it meant “God’s gift,” as in “the gift of God is eternal life,” Ro 6.23 and I had to break the news to him: He meant ton hárisma Théu. Should’ve gone to a Greek professor instead of a first-year Greek student.

Well, if you’re gonna get marked with something, scripture is one of the better choices. Assuming it’s in context. And spelled properly. And not in all-caps blackletter.

I’m not saying every tattoo will grow to become a regret. Some never will. The rule of thumb I recommend to people is, “Will this look stupid on me when I’m 70?” When you pick your tattoo, imagine Grandma or Grandpa with a similar tattoo. Bear that in mind. ’Cause barring laser removal, it’s going on your coroner’s report.