Let’s tackle the biblical aspect of your dilemma first. Our own view is that the Bible has nothing specific to say to Christians on the question of the permissibility of tattoos. It’s true that the practice was forbidden in the Old Testament Law. Leviticus 19:28 says, “You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead, nor make any tattoo marks on yourselves: I am the Lord.” The difficulty is that it’s not exactly clear how this commandment relates to the modern situation, since, in its day, it was probably directed against practices associated with pagan idolatry. (Something similar seems to be behind the injunction laid down in the previous verse, Leviticus 19:27 — “You shall not round off the side-growth of your heads, nor harm the edges of your beard.”) The custom of making “cuts” in the body was a heathen way of attracting the gods’ attention by arousing their pity. By way of contrast, in today’s culture tattoos are generally viewed as being cosmetic or aesthetic in purpose.
That’s not to mention that Christians are called to live by grace, not by the law. The epistle to the Hebrews makes it clear that the purely cultural and ceremonial aspects of the Old Testament law — rules having to do with burnt offerings (Leviticus 1:9), dietary restrictions (Leviticus 11:10), agricultural methods (Leviticus 19:19), capital punishment for witches (Exodus 22:18), and the pagan associations of customs such as tattooing (Leviticus 19:28) or cutting the edges of the beard (Leviticus 19:27) — were merely “shadows” of the reality that was to come in Christ (see Hebrews 8:5, 10:1). As such, they are no longer to be regarded as binding upon New Testament believers.
In more ways than one, then, it would be a big mistake to resolve this issue by hitting your teen over the head with the Bible. Apart from the theological and exegetical weaknesses of such an approach, its authoritarian harshness most likely would only squelch meaningful dialogue between you and your son. It might even inspire a rebellious backlash. You’d be better advised to get him talking about his reasons and motivations for wanting a tattoo. Ask questions like, “What would a tattoo mean to you? When you think about getting one, how does it make you feel? Would you be angry or disappointed if we said no? Why?”
The point, of course, is to understand your teenager’s heart. Some teens want a tattoo in order to be “cool” or to feel accepted with their peers. Others think it will make them appear stronger, tougher, more self-reliant and capable of facing their fears. Still others see it as a way of proving that they’re grown-up — in which case a lecture from mom and dad about rules and regulations will only aggravate the situation. As parents, you can impose your will if you want to; in some instances, if a child is unreasonably belligerent and self-willed, this may be the only thing you can do. But in most cases a hard-line approach is almost certain to prove counter-productive. It’s far preferable to get a handle on the deeper issues — for example, insecurity, poor self-image, a desire to be liked by others — and then explore several different ways of addressing them together.
If the conversation is kept reasonable, conciliatory and mutually respectful, then at some point you should have an opportunity to express your feelings and explain your reasons for not wanting your son to get a tattoo. Perhaps the most sensible way of doing this is to point out that tattoos are permanent. Once they’re on, they won’t come off unless they’re removed by a painful and very expensive process. Urge your teen to think seriously about this. Ask him, “How do you think you might feel about having a tattoo when you’re 30, 40, or 50 years old? How do you suppose it might affect your life and your career aspirations?” From here you can transition into a discussion about the basic idea of permanency — a concept which is becoming increasingly foreign in modern culture — and the connection between present actions and future consequences.
If your teen is intransigent, you might suggest a compromise: a temporary henna tattoo could be a way of making a trial run without taking on a permanent commitment. If he’s willing, you could agree to revisit the question when he turns eighteen. Remember, when dealing with adolescents there are times when you have to know how to give a little in order to maintain influence over the long haul.
It’s important to add that there are medical and legal considerations that need to be taken into account and discussed with your teenager as you navigate this question together. In the first place, tattooing is a procedure that can have some troubling health consequences, including the following:
Local bacterial infections of the skin.
Allergic reactions (e.g., rash or itching at the tattoo site).
Other reactions, such as granulomas and keloids, that can disfigure the skin at the tattoo site.
More serious infections, such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and HIV, that can be spread when tattoo needles are contaminated with infected blood.
In light of these health hazards, it goes without saying that do-it-yourself tattoos — the kind your son might get in a makeshift “tattoo parlor” (read: a friend’s garage or basement) — should be avoided. And that’s not to mention the cost, discomfort, and potential ineffectiveness of attempts to remove unwanted tattoos in the future.
In the second place, you should be aware that, precisely because of the medical issues mentioned above, commercial tattoo parlors are subject to a variety of legal regulations. This usually includes restrictions on the age of the customer. Nearly everywhere, tattooing an individual younger than 18 is either illegal or requires written parental consent. This means that you, as the parent, have the legal authority to veto your child’s decision to get a tattoo. We’d encourage you to exercise that right freely.
One final thought: where tattoos are concerned, we would have serious concerns about any teen or young adult who is tempted to go to extremes — for example, by covering his or her head, neck, or face with tattooed images. From our perspective, there’s a point at which this ceases to be “body art” and crosses a line into self-mutilation, an issue that would need to be addressed by a trained psychologist or counsellor. Parents should also take steps to educate themselves about images and patterns that are associated with gang membership or that carry drug-affiliated meanings.