What's with the Tats?

photo by mickiky @

In Leviticus 19:28, it is written: “You shall not etch a tattoo on yourselves.” This prohibition applies to all alterations of the body besides those made for medical purposes such as to guide a surgeon making an incision. Although some believe that this is one of those “outdated commandments,” others offer explanations for the prohibition. Some argue the human body is G‑d’s creation, and it is unacceptable to change, alter or mutilate G‑d’s handiwork, and the Jewish Torah forbids practices that emulate pagan customs, considering that following their traditions is the first step towards ascribing to idolatrous beliefs and services.

These days, however, tattooing has ballooned in popularity. Speak to anyone with a tattoo and you will find a person who believes that the tattoo is not an act of physical mutilation but a deeply personal form of expressive art with a story behind each tattoo.

Clearly, having a tattoo is not a subversive act anymore as so many people have them.

So why are so many Generation Yers (18-24 year olds) getting tattoos? What is the allure of getting a tattoo? If you have one (or many), what motivated you to get the very first one?

32 thoughts on “What's with the Tats?

  1. The lawyer in me sees a loophole. If your quote is right and I certainly don’t doubt it is, than a person can’t mark themselves. Seems another can mark you. Don’t you have a tattoo.?

  2. I haven’t got one & thankfully me son did not want one either. I think it is a shame to see whole arms /legs covered in them. What happens if later in life it is no longer the ‘in’ thing? You can’t get rid of them as easily!

  3. Do you think it’s like hippies, bustiers, Farrah-hair, saggy pants? Everyone wants to be individual, at the cost of ultimately ending up alike?

    When I was in college a million years ago (ok, 20-24 years ago), my friends (male & female) were getting LITTLE tattoos on the bikini line, ankle, shoulder blade…places that could be covered depending on your job situation, meeting prospective in-laws, etc. They were “intimate,” I guess. Personal expression, meant for personal enjoyment. College logo, fraternity affiliation, butterfly, whatever. I considered it at the time, but because my parents didn’t pay for school or most of the related expenses, I opted not to spend the cash. Now, when I take my kids to the public pool and see all the women (yep, it’s the moms–not the dads) in their 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and–yes, even a few older, my thought is…. WOW, DID I DODGE A BULLET. We don’t wear the same clothes we did in high school, college, or even 5-10 years ago…and now you have this … 6″ POOH BEAR on your bicep? (For the record, that’s just one that I saw on yesterday’s pool adventure….)

    I think it’s a trend that has gone too far…people aren’t thinking ahead to where they’ll be in the future, and whether this is something they REALLY are going to want, and whether it’s in the best spot for where they’re going to be someday. And although I know this is NOT the case for everyone (so please, everyone, don’t beat me up), it sickens me when I see friends who are struggling to pay their bills and feed their kids go off and get a ginormous tattoo that goes from nape to waist, shoulder to shoulder. I get it if it’s truly personal–the name of your child, a meaningful date, some symbol/design that has always been special to you…otherwise, I DON’T get it. I’m looking forward to the responses you’re seeking!

  4. I have considered it but never done it. I think it may be a hangover from the morality of my parents – your body is a temple, that’s the way God made you, etc. I find that many of my values are still based on this sort of thing – physical health, moderation, environmentalism.

  5. I had complex reasons to get a tattoo, but the short version is that I wanted to commemorate something important to me, remind myself of a philosophical concept that’s important to me, and mark my body as my own.

    You can read the whole story here.

  6. Over the years I have toyed with the idea of getting a tattoo, as much as I’ve tried to make it a marking of an occasion or philosophical idea – it was always more as a rebellious act. Thankfully I never had the nerve to go ahead with it.
    That said, I appreciate it when tattoo’s do represent an event in life or philosophy that is significant to the individual. Whether or not they’ve thought ahead to whether or not they’ll be happy with the tattoo in 20 or 30 years – well, that is their business.

  7. I saw the most beautiful 20 something the other day, literally striking girl. The she turns her head to reveal a koi fish tattoo that covered half of her neck. I was devestated for her future self.

  8. Well I have 3 Kanji letters that go up my wrist (they say “artist”); I have a rather large wooden cross on my arm with 5 flowers & vines wrapped around it, with 2 small whimsical butterflies. The representation of that is flowers=my 5 kids, cross=faith & butterflies=Maggie and I and our transformation to be together. Three out of my top 5 most precious things! Then I have one around my ankle (which hurt like a mother&%$*er) don’t recommend that for a first timer. It says, 1Cor 13:8 Love Never Fails… which I got when I was going through a difficult period in my life with my middle daughter.

    I’m addicted! I’ve already planned out my next 5! I’d never get a “sleeve” but, for me, like you said, it’s a form of artistic expression. My next one is going to be a small set of stars on my right hand between my thumb and forefinger! I’m excited just talking about it. And I actually just bought my 17 year old daughter a tattoo for her birthday: four little stars above her bikini line. She also has a belly-button piercing! I can hear the GASPS from here! Easy everyone, put the phone down to Child Protective Services, she is loved! I think they are beautiful, if they are done tastefully and by a reputable artist.

    1. Historically, there were moral (and religious) taboos associated with getting tattoos. So, I’m curious. How old are you “My College”? And do you think there are any codes of ethics that are inviolable or is everything a matter of “choice” and “perception.”

  9. I have never considered getting a tattoo as I picture it being all disfigured in my wrinkles later in life. There is nothing that I can think of that I would want to ink permanently on my body now that I know I will want there in the future. I used to work with a girl who had the sleeve tattoos, covering her chest and down her legs. That said she was getting her Master’s to be a school librarian, and all I could think is I wouldn’t want her to be my child’s teacher because of it — even knowing how great she would be at her job.

  10. My Jewish friends have informed me that one cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery if tattooed. I doubt the Nazis tattooed for ID or recording records if that is the case. They tried to dehumanize even at the spiritual level. I do have a butterfly center of my upper chest. It is to remind me of the risen Christ. People that cover themselves with these things , well they must be….. but who am I to so categorize negatively? What makes me laugh is that they call these things SELF EXPRESSION. Balderdash. One expresses oneself via creative effort with a poem, a painting, through dance, sculpture, democratic debate and by loving one’s neighbor and to do no harm

    1. Depending on the level of one’s observance, it may or may not be possible to be buried in a Jewish cemetery with a tattoo. Orthodox Jews and Conservative Jews certainly frown on the practice, but exceptions were made to Jews who were forcibly given tattoos during the Holocaust. And it is my understanding (after speaking with several Reform rabbis) that one can still receive a Jewish burial plot — tattooed or not.

  11. After years of saying, “I would never get a tattoo…it’s so permanent” I got one. At (almost) 43 years of age, I have a spiritual path which is so in tune with my natural way of thinking and viewing the world that there is not a doubt that I will be a Sufi (and still a Jew, as well) for the rest of my life. I also know how important music and singing are to me… to my ability to connect with people and with G-d. And then there is the single best thing I have ever been privileged to be a part of, my daughter.

    So a year and a half ago, when I had a spontaneous insight (vision) of what I would get if I got a tattoo…I just went and did it. All I worried about was 1) finding a place on my body that wouldn’t wrinkle and 2) placing it where I would still be able to see it on a daily basis as a reminder of three things that connect me to G-d and three things that ‘fill up my cup’ (feed my soul).

    So I have a 3″x1″ heart with wings (symbol of my Sufi order) with my daughter’s name in the center of the heart with the music notes surrounding the heart and wings. It is on the upper left side of my chest just over the left breast and over my heart (purposely).

    I have NO REGRETS…

    That’s my story and I’m sticking to it 😀

  12. I have two tattoos: one on each arm. On my left arm I have railroad tracks with my son and my fiancée’s kid’s name on the wood beams between rails. And on right arm I have a tribal band.

  13. Wow! I need to spend some time studying Leviticus. I personally do not want a tattoo, ever. I’m not into pain! I didn’t grow up during a time when tattoos were all that fashionable – much like Susan, who posted earlier, tattoos were smaller, more discreetly placed on the body – it was rare to see someone who had “obvious” tattoos that couldn’t be covered by clothing.

    I think the desire to tattoo is very personal, and I would hate to see anyone excluded from their faith because they’ve chosen to get one.

    Is there anything in the religious writings that rules against cutting hair? shaving? piercings? I’ve had my ears pierced, but haven’t worn earrings in several years. Just curious – is anyone familiar with the dictates of the Bible, or other religious books, about this sort of thing?

    1. Don’t get me started with Judaism. It all depends on your level of observance. Very Orthodox women sometimes wear wigs over their hair, and (I believe) piercings would also be a no-no . . . but again – that is for the ultra-Orthodox.

      I will confess, I do have a tattoo, but it is small. Discreet. It was a secret that I wanted to know about myself. It is highly symbolic. It marks a time and place in my life. The person I was, the person I was becoming. It is imperfect. I love it, and It cost all of $75 back in 1993.

      I am curious about people who spend hundreds of dollars on their tattoos. Where do they get their money to pay for their gorgeous sleeves, chests, backs. These things when done well, are very expensive as the artists who create the pieces consider them permanent art.

      I wonder how the work-force is changing to adapt to this new trend. There was a time when they were really frowned upon. Now, well . . . I challenge people to find someone between the age of 18 and 28 who doesn’t have one!

      1. NON TIMEBO MALA engraved on a cross! A tat I wear proudly on my shoulder, after a lot of thought and consideration, not a choice of trying to fit in with society. It is a verse that identifies me as an individual and I feel my God would approve. It is from Psalm 23:4 that it is spoken and with that said I feel stronger in my faith knowing that through all things that come my way I am never alone and my God gives me the strength to face all.

    2. The Bible says that long hair on a woman is her crowning glory.

      I agree with the Bible on not getting tats. I could not have sex with a woman who has tats. It eptiomizes white trash mentality. I know that this is harsh and all the artistic types out there will rain down hate speech on me but women are beautiful just the way God made them.

      On a non moral matter, it can and does hurt your job chances for better jobs. People are like sheep and feel that they must have tats to be cool and be like everyone else. I have the courage of my convictions to be different and think outside the box on this one.

      Blessings on you and yours
      John Wilder

  14. My tattoos (all two of them) are older than half the people I work with. This, coming from the guy who wore “grunge clothing” five years before “grunge” even came to surface. The bigger of the two tattoos is only slightly larger than the size of a quarter: a three-leaf Irish clover symbolizes my proud ethnic heritage. And a musical note represents my love of music. Even in my mid twenties I questioned whether it was a mistake to have them, but now they would be considered miniscule. On the religious view, growing up I was taught that your body is a temple, and a few (few) pieces of artwork in/on the temple isn’t going to be a bad thing. This entire body piercing thing though . . .WTF? (Although. come to think of it, I do have a double-pierced left ear lobe — just another walking hypocrite).

  15. Kathy, and Renee, and anyone else interested in the subject:

    Kathy wrote, “is there anything in the religious writings that rules against cutting hair? shaving? piercings?… Just curious – is anyone familiar with the dictates of the Bible, or other religious books, about this sort of thing?”

    I just want to pipe in about Orthodox Jewish women, since I chose to become one at age 28. There is no issue at all about Orthodox Jewish women having long, healthy, and beautiful hair, and most do. Married women cover their hair with a scarf or bandana or a wig, so that aspect of their beauty is reserved exclusively for their husband. As a matter of fact, we wear skirts to the knee, sleeves to the elbow, and no v-necks for the same reason – we save our physical beauty for our intimacy with our husband. A main part of the goal is to keep Jewish marriages strong – men can’t look at (or get interested in) someone else’s wife – they won’t see much.

    Cutting hair, shaving is all no problem. Orthodox Jewish boys and men can also cut or shave their hair, but reserve one tiny part of their hair behind their ears (sideburns) that they never shave entirely. It’s considered as a part of them that is set aside as sacred to G-d. Interestingly enough, Rastafarians, who consider themselves as descendants from the tribe of Judah (one of the 12 tribes of Israel) also consider their hair sacred to G-d and thus grow their dreadlocks indefinitely. Rastafarian women also cover their hair like Orthodox Jewish women do.

    As far as piercing, I think it’s allowed for Orthodox Jewish women/girls to pierce their ears and many do, but I have not seen a single piercing in another body part in my community. The men don’t pierce at all, since it’s considered for beautification, and that’s not at all the main pursuit of Jewish men.

    As far as what the bible (Torah) writes about tattoos – Renee covered that subject perfectly. Hope my details helped fill in your understanding on the subject, Kathy.

    1. Thank you, Dalia. I simply did not have the ability to respond as beautifully, respectfully and succinctly as you did. I know Orthodox women who have cut their hair and wear wigs on top — just for ease they couldn’t keep their hair long and manage the wig. I didn’t mean to imply a woman had to cut one’s hair. It’s hard when there are so many levels of observance. And I am no expert of the Torah. I only know what stuck with me as a child and, as an adult, I have learned in response to the questions I have asked. Love from my house to yours.

      Also, I found a great site about piercings, tattoos (etc…). for those interested, see below.

      Piercing is actually commonplace in the Torah. When Eliezer meets Rebecca at the well, he puts a ring on her nose. Aaron instructs the men to remove the earrings from their wives in order to construct the golden calf. Male ear piercing is also known in the tradition; it was common for men to advertise their occupations by the type of earrings they wore.

      Today, piercing has gone well beyond the ears or even the nose. According to a responsum of the Conservative Movement, “The lack of aesthetic appeal to many of us is hardly a halachic consideration.”

      Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz articulates a number of other considerations. Kibbud av v’em, honoring one’s parents, for example, is a legitimate concern. If multiple body piercings will make them crazy, then this is something one ought to consider. We also need to be cautious about our health and safety. And while we are permitted to wound ourselves for medical reasons, may we do so for aesthetic reasons?

      I tend to agree with the conclusion reached in the Conservative responsum, “There comes some point where multiple piercing of the body, however fashionable, begins to challenge our concept of b’tzelem Elokim” (the image of God).

  16. Hello,

    I am married to a tattoo artist and I, myself, am covered in tattoos. I do think there has been a rise in tattooing because it has been labeled “cool”. Instead of clothes, it’s tattoos. Unfortunately many people do not think about the future when it comes to placement or design, and they often will go to a shop where the artist could care less as well. I love tattoos ,and I get them because I like them — but I do not think everyone should have one. It’s a personal choice and, perhaps, given their popularity, should be thought about just as hard as to whom a person decides to lose his/her virginity to.

    Tattooing has become a franchise with thousands of people tattooing other people without the necessary precautions or skill. By skill I mean artistic but also technical. The ability to tattoo something that will look good 20 years down the road as a person ages age is more involved than taking a course in art. I can not say why others get them or like them but, for me, there is no deep meaning with regard to much of what I have: mostly they are designs that I just really liked, and ten years later I do not have one I regret.

  17. Perhaps people who who feels they have to make legitimate something that they once did for themselves really didn’t in fact do it for themselves. Ink is an expression of oneself: Clearly a time they wanted to celebrate at any age and, if chosen wisely, on any part of their body they felt appropriate. Could it be that is it? Are there not more important things we can worry about in this day an age? Don’t misunderstand me. If a person is too young to make his/her own decision then, by all means, step in. Otherwise, respect one another for everyone’s different choices and choose to look or not.

    1. It is not pain inflicted on oneself but an expression of self! Perhaps the pain is dealt in the one who does not self reflect or self express because they fear who they are, or who they are viewed to be! Find confidence in yourself and you will be free of any pain that comes your way!

  18. While I haven’t gotten it YET, i have wanted the same tattoo for 16+ years. It’s my family badge/crest. I figure if I’ve wanted it since i was a teenager, then I will still want it later in life. It’s a symbol of my family and my heritage.

  19. Tattoos are just a way for someone to display one’s inner feelings on their skin. I personally have two large tattoos one on my back of a cross that reads “Only G-d can judge me” to represent my faith. The other is located on my ribs reading “family, loyalty and honor.” The reason for them is to show what means the most to me and what I live by day to day. I know the bible says that tattoos are wrong, but I do not see this as a mutilation of G-d’s work. I just see it as a enhancement of His work.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    Your Cart
    Your cart is emptyReturn to Shop