A Philosophy of Tattoos

by Max Andrews

There are many stereotypes associated with tattoos and the underlying commonality is difference.  People with tattoos are generally different in many ways from those who do not have tattoos.  I got my first tattoo when I was 19 years old and I’m not sure how many tattoos I have now.  I’ve gotten some that have evolved into bigger projects and absorbed by later additions. I wanted to share my philosophy behind why I get tattoos, what they mean, and provide thoughts on what the Bible has to say about tattoos.

My tattoos are manifestation of my existential reflections of life.  I once heard someone say that you should be able to look at someone’s tattoos and be able to tell most of everything about their life.  Tattoos become an outward expression of who I am.  I don’t do it for the aesthetic so much as I do it for myself.  I don’t find it as hedonistic; rather, I find it to be an artistic expression.  Here are my stories.


This is my right arm, which is almost complete.  I have a little bit of empty space before my sleeve is complete.  What these tattoos depict is my place, and humanity’s place, in this universe taken from Psalm 8 (“When I consider the moon and the stars, that you have ordained, what is it that you give thought of the son of man, that you care for him [non-Messianic]).  The background is full of stars and planets and it fades in to DNA and a carbon atom.  When you imagine the vastness of our universe, how incredibly large it is and then you reflect on humanity, how incredibly tiny we are on this spec of cosmic dust we call earth, you’ll understand our privileged place in this universe.  You’ll understand our privileged place in God’s heart.  The intricate details God used in designing our existence from the cosmos to the DNA and atoms used to make us up.  The pinnacle of creation is the cross and God’s love for us (in Greek around the cross is Mt. 22.37, the greatest commandment).  Below the cross reads fides quaerens intellectum, which is Latin for faith seeking understanding.

This is my left arm.  The Jerusalem Cross, also known as the Crusader’s Cross, has personal meaning to me that I have only told to my wife.  So, the meaning behind that one remains a mystery to everyone else.  On the back of my left arm I have “Send Me,” which is from Isaiah’s commissioning.  It represents my obedience to God’s will for my life.  Just like Isaiah, he willingly submitted himself to what it was the God had him to do and he did so by his initiative willingly obedient to what God had for him to do (I’m not speaking theologically as in God shaped his will by Isaiah’s initiative).  It’s quite reflective of my testimony and the purpose that God has for me.  The semi-colon is my fun/Crohn’s disease tattoo.  I recently had a surgery and had 15 cm of my small intestine, my appendix, and a few inches of my colon removed.  Hence… I have a semi-colon.

My chest piece is from Ecclesiastes, Vanity of Vanities.  It’s a reflection of life in the absence of God.  If there is no God then life is utterly absurd, there is no meaning, purpose, or value to anything.  There is no hope.  Even for the Christian, if one’s motives, focus, or ends are not for God and his glory then it is in vain.  (Excuse the clear bandage and Hohn line, the IV line, in my neck; I took these photos during my surgical recovery).  On my right shoulder, just below my neck, I have a celtic butterfly.  This is in memory of my niece, Alyssa.  My brother was in Iraq and his pregnant wife, Jessica, died (for causes still unknown to us today).  This tattoo is for my brother, Jessica, and Alyssa.  There’s a lot of pain and suffering behind this tattoo.  There are still wounds that must continue to heal and some that have yet to be healed.  These wounds will eventually heal and bring a new perspective and new life to all of us.  The thing is, these wounds may not heal until our new life at the resurrection in the afterlife.

Tattoos are much more than cultural fads or aesthetic complements (at least to me).  Mine tells stories and are life expressions that can be told without words.  As you can see, I have a lot of meaning and existential expression behind my tattoos.  It becomes an integrated part of who I am.  Some have deep meaning and my most recent one has meaning, but it is more fun than serious.  Tattoos aren’t for everyone.  However, those who do have tattoos need to understand that people are going to judge you know matter what your personal philosophy behind tattoos is.  It just comes with the ink, you’ll just have to get thick skin and get over it (Get it? It’s a tattoo joke… Ha… Anyways…).

It’s not wrong to get tattoos and it’s not unbiblical.  Here’s and exegesis of the Levitical mention of tattoos.  You’ll be quite surprised as to what tattoos and the intent of the passage really is.  It’s amazing.  I would encourage those who do not have tattoos to not be judgmental of those who do (or for those who have any alternative means of self-expression such as piercings, hair styles, or clothing styles that are less mainstream.  Also, consider a means of expression whether it be artistic, vocal, or alternative.  For those who do have tattoos, consider and reflect on your philosophy of tattoos.  What do they mean to you?  Why did you get them or why do you want more?  For those who do not have tattoos but one or some, I ask the same questions.  Why do you want them? What meaning will it have?  Tattoos don’t have to have deep meaning, they can be fun and goofy too.  In the end, it’s a personal expression and you give it its value.  I would recommend giving it a lot of value because this value will last forever.


5 Comments to “A Philosophy of Tattoos”

  1. Max, I understand what you are saying, but I also know that it is difficult in today’s day and age to get employment with tattoos all over your body. My son-in-law had to remove his piercings in order to get a job. Many companies have policies of covering up tattoos along with removal of certain piercings. I’m not against tattoos…. my husband – who is pastor – has a tattoo. I just know that there are businesses out there that will not hire or may require covering up the tattoos.

    And yes, we are not to judge one another… but people unfortunately do. I for one have been judged wrongly on many occasions with people thinking that because one may be “fat” they are lazy. In the 80’s I had an employer eat those words when he had to fire a “skinny” girl for not doing her work and being out sick all the time. After my 3 months probation he apologized and gave me a promotion!

    May the Lord continue to bless you and heal you cousin.

    • I understand what you’re saying but the limiting of career options isn’t too much of a concern for me. I factor that in with every other decision I make that limits my job opportunities. Where I go to school limits it, where I live limits it, what I studied in school limits it, what publishing I have done limits it, what experience I have limits it, etc. Personal appearance is not at the top of the list for flags being raised on job limiting factors. Right now, I teach a couple classes with a professor. I’ve lectured in short sleeves in front of hundreds of students and no one has ever had a problem with it. For the most part, I love long sleeves and sweaters anyways. If the university I work for decides that they would prefer that my tattoos be covered then that’s fine. Their house their rules. But that’s the same with any other dress code issue. So, it doesn’t rub me the wrong way at all and I don’t think it’s as big of an issue now a days as it has been in the past.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful defense of tattoos. It’s helpful to get a serious aspect on this from that side. I know that tattoos are deeply personal for many people, and that the “should we/should we not” debates can likewise get personal and heated. I respect your decision to get tattoos, and I think I understand your reasoning. So please don’t read my arguments against tattoos as anything personal against you :)
    My issues with tattoos are as follows:
    1) It’s not the Leviticus passage that concerns me, but more broadly my theology/philosophy of the body. Our bodies, though finite and corruptible, are gifts from God, and temples of His Spirit. As such, I have a hard time justifying graffiti, no matter how significant, special or spiritual that graffiti may be. The body is not a canvas for artistic expression — that’s what canvases are for :)
    2) Related to the significance of the tattoo: I have known many people who have tattoos that have incredibly deep meaning, such as my friend who has his wife’s and kids’ names on his arm. Nobody questions his love or devotion to his family, and that’s part of my point: the tattoo is not needed. This is what I tell the kids in my church when they talk about getting a cross or something tattooed on themselves, “live as though you don’t need a tattoo for people to know that you are a Christian.” I would say the same to people with names or symbols of loved ones — your life and the way you treat them should make a tattoo of such devotion obsolete. The moment I feel I need a tattoo to express my love for Christ or for my family is the moment I realize that something’s wrong with how I currently express that love.
    3) I know this isn’t the case for everyone, but it seems to me that in most cases, a tattoo is simply a way for people — especially those who are younger — to say “look at me,” and to partake in the kind of “look at me” attitude that permeates so much of popular culture. It’s “look at how cool/rebellious/hardcore I am,” or even “look at how spiritual/committed/Christian I am.” Again, I can’t know everyone’s mental state, and I know this isn’t every case, but it seems to be the primary attitude of tattoos. Now, I have known some women who have talked of getting tattoos in places where only they or their future husbands would see, and even then it seems that the rush of rebellion might have come into play, without having to worry about the consequences of everyone else seeing what you’ve done, just in case you do regret it.

    These are my main issues with tattoos, but it’s primarily the theology of the body that I take issue with. A tattoo speaks to me of a lower one than I think we should have, that it’s of benefit at best or no consequence at worst that we put permanent markings on our bodies.

    Thanks again for your insights, and my apologies if I’ve offended you! It certainly is not my intent, and I welcome any corrections to what I’ve said. On a lighter note, as far as the “rebel/cool” thing is concerned, it seems everyone is getting tattoos these days, so it’s we non-tattoers who have become the rebellious ones! :)

  3. Leviticus 19:26-28 was a command to the Israelites to have nothing to do with the pagan nations around them that worshipped demons and false gods.
    Tattoos still have pagan/demonic roots, and Chrsitians should steer clear of getting them or getting anymore.
    Our bodies don’t belong to us, but to God. We need His crystal clear permission before you mark it up with tattoos. Would you deface the outside of a church? No.
    Should we as a Christian, deface our bodies, which is the temple of the Holy Spirit?
    People who get tattoos probably don’t pray about it.
    If they did, they wouldn’t like the answer.
    People will try all means to justify having them.
    No, we aren’t under law anymore, but grace, however, it doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want to.
    I recommend reading the book “What’s Behind the Ink?” by a Christian pastor (who happens to have a tattoo).

  4. Borrowing from the normative discussion, when ascribing meaning as to why a person applies tattoos, I have found, from my own personal experience, that I wish for people to have a clear and concise mental and physical image in mind of who and what I represent. I’m a philosopher by trade, PhD, and I want my tattoos to cause people to stop and reflect in their own life and meaning, after having considering my representation. An independent thinker hopes that others will draw upon their energies and examples to present their own life. Good article.

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