Tattoo taboos


Tattoos bother me (and storage buildings, but that’s another issue).

I admit we have tattoos in the family, on the arm of my son, Max, 21. He’s a certified motorcycle mechanic and his tattoo is an elaborate design of sprockets and Renaissance flourishes. When he got the first installment, he told me, Mom, I’m never going to work at a place where this will matter, and besides, I can always hide it under a long sleeved shirt.


I don’t dwell on it, and I don’t see it that often. I’m not about to send him to Florida where a plastic surgeon I know said tattoo removal is a growing part of his business.

Certainly I’m not as distressed about Max’s tattoo as my friend was about her daughter’s navel ring. My friend told her daughter, I’ll give you $100 to take that thing out and leave it out forever. Her daughter took the bribe, removed the ring and the subject never was mentioned again.

My friend’s real concern was that her elderly parents might be upset to know that her daughter had broken Jewish law. This girl doesn’t even wear pierced earrings in front of her grandparents because, according to Torah, piercing is forbidden, and so are tattoos. Leviticus 19:28 states, “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead nor incise any marks on yourself: I am the Lord.”

The last phrase is the tricky part: does it mean all tattoos are outlawed, or just the ones that refer to an idol? That seems to be the loophole for some Jews to justify getting tattooed. Some also make the argument that Jewish law prohibits lots of other things that secular Jews routinely do, so getting a tattoo is not a big deal. (Scholars agree, however, you can be buried in a Jewish cemetery if you have a tattoo.)

I think the bottom line is, for a Jew, getting a tattoo ultimately is a personal decision, but not without risks, both physical and spiritual.