Is it wrong for a Christian to get tattoos? To determine this we must look at what the Bible actually says. In order to do so, proper hermeneutics must be done. What is hermeneutics you wonder? Well I am glad you asked - it is the method of ascertaining what a Bible text meant to its original hearers/readers (Exegesis) and then determining how to it applies to us today.
So what does the Bible say about tattoos? There is only one scripture which mentions this directly, and it is:
At face value, it seems almost certain that the Bible forbids getting a tattoo. However, there is a problem with this sort of application. If we are to keep this literally, we should have to keep some of these other laws as well:
I am pretty sure everyone reading this would have violated at least one of the three mentioned above. So if we are to say the Bible strictly forbids tattoos, we better be careful about buying clothing that is made of two or more materials (that rules out most of the clothes at the mall), forget about grooming (which is bad news for most Asian people: who cannot grow full, glorious beards) and better put down that BBQ and roasted pork (yes, bacon too).
So how do we go about this then?
1. THE NEW TESTAMENT IS A RENEWAL, NOT A CANCELLATION OF THE OLD TESTAMENT
The easy answer is "Hey, we are Christians - we live by the New Testament and are no longer bound by Old Testament laws." There is an element of truth to this, but we must understand that this does not mean the Old Testament has less value than the New or that we can throw out everything in the Old.
Think of the Old and New Testament as "contracts". When a contract is renewed, certain conditions are amended, some new ones are introduced but at the same time some older conditions are carried over. For instance, if you started working at a company you may be given a contract that fixes your working hours, responsibilities, salary and benefits. After a while you get a promotion which means your new contract offers you improved salary and benefits, however your working hours are the same and your responsibilities are increased.
So, what is voided in the New Testament are civil and ritual laws from the Old Testament. However, the moral laws which bound Israel still applies to Christians today. That is how we distinguish what is binding and what is not in the Old Testament. If you read certain commandments in the Old Testament and go "this does not make any sense" or "why are these rules so strange" - chances are you are looking at a civil and ritual law for ancient Israel.
Moral laws on the other hand, are blatantly obvious to distinguish (like for example the 10 commandments). Make no mistake about it - the New Testament actually holds a HIGHER moral standard than that of the Old. Just read through the teachings of Jesus.
Ultimately, Jesus did not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it (Matthew 5:17). That is why we do not follow laws anymore, but we follow Jesus - who is our righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30). In fact, in Mark 7:14-22 Jesus himself speaks of how it is not what is on the outside that defiles a person, but rather what is on the inside. A person could have the cleanest appearance, but yet have the dirtiest thoughts or darkest heart.
2. RIGHTS VS RESPONSIBILTIES
While the Bible does not specifically prohibit tattoos, nonetheless there are still principles that we have to apply as Christians. In 1 Corinthians 10:23-33, Paul talks about eating food that is sacrificed to idols. He speaks of how "we have the right to do anything, but not everything is beneficial." He further explains in verse 24 that as Christians "we should seek of the good of others and not just our own good." That is also repeated in verse 33.
In this passage, Paul basically argues that there is nothing wrong with eating food already sacrificed to idols, BUT - if it causes someone else to stumble, you should not do it (verse 32). This principle can be applied to anything in our Christian walk as well, and everything that we do should be unto the glory of God (verse 31).
One of the defining marks of a truly mature Christian is that they comprehend how that as they grow and mature they have a responsibility to other Christians - and they are not preoccupied chasing their "rights".
While I personally do not believe there is anything wrong in getting a tattoo, and I at one point actually wanted to get one - I however chose not to for the simple reason of not wanting to stumble people. Being a pastor and Christian Leader in a conservative environment like Asia, I know that tattoos are often associated with bad character. So for me, my commitment to God and His people is more significant than my want of a tattoo.
3. OTHER FACTORS TO CONSIDER
If you are thinking of getting a tattoo, here are some factors you should consider as well.
Modification - Be aware that a tattoo is more or less permanent. Getting it removed is not only costly, it is also a very very painful process. Go on YouTube and check out some videos. Think long and hard on what kind of tattoo you want to get, do not just go for the cool factor. What may be trendy and cool now will not be after 5 years - and you may end up regretting it.
Motive - What is the reason for you getting a tattoo? If it is an act of rebellion towards your parents, leaders or society - ask yourself would Jesus approve of such behaviour? Is it just to draw attention to yourself? Or is it just a personal expression of art and creativity? A follower of Jesus has to check his motives - and ensure his heart is in the right place.
Modesty - The bible has much to say about modesty, but that does not mean you have to be prudish as a Christian. On the contrary, modesty and trendy are not necessarily at odds with one another. However we really should not be chasing trends but following Jesus anyway. If getting a tattoo compels you to jeopardise your modesty just so people can see it - time to reconsider.
Message - A big one, and basically sums everything up. What kind of message is your tattoo sending? Some pieces of art are meaningful: it speaks of scripture, experiences, memories of loved ones etc. But others could be sending the wrong message, and as Christians we have to be mindful of the design that we choose. Also think of the environment that you will eventually be in. If you aspire to be a professional (accountant, lawyer, doctor etc) having a tattoo in a conspicuous area may often harm your career than help it.
Money - In case you did not know: tattoos cost... ALOT! If you do decide to get inked, consider all the other factors and make sure you are making a well-thought, thoroughly-calculated decision. Getting a huge piece may be extremely cool, but it may not be worth the kind of financial trade off that you need to make for it.
While getting a tattoo is not a diabolical sin - we have to realise that choices result in consequences and we have to be willing to bear it. A tattoo may be able to open doors to witnessing to different types of people, it may also help you break into an artistic community or make you more "real" to different people... but you may also get unfairly scrutinised by the people around you depending on the culture and environment you are in.
Hope this help clears things up :)