Why no tattoos?
The ultimate reason not to get a tattoo is because the Torah categorically prohibits it (Leviticus 19:28). Period.
Think not of the Torah as a set of incomprehensible rules that one must unreasonably enforce upon himself by means of guilt or blind faith. Instead, consider the fact that the world has not always existed and hence does not exist independently. Rather, it has been wondrously brought into being with an incredibly detailed design. Every effect has a cause, every design a designer, and every orchestra a conductor. The immaculate intricacy of our universe denotes a purposeful design intended by a purposeful Designer. See the Torah as the world’s blueprint, the instruction manual that our world’s Divine Manufacturer imparted to ensure the fulfillment of mankind’s (and the entire world’s) purpose.
If the Torah has prohibited making markings in one’s flesh, it is in the individual’s own best interest to observe this rule ordained by his very own Creator and Designer, the One Who certainly understands what is good for him in body and spirit infinitely better than anyone else.
However, the fact that the Torah communicates this rule to us allows us to speculate as to its reason and underlying benefit.
Let’s consider some possible reasons why tattoos are prohibited:
The true value of the human being is indefinable, indescribable and unfathomable, a literal part of G-d from Above, as it were. In the image and likeness of our Divine Creator, just as G-d is indefinable and inscrutable, cannot be represented or objectified in some trivial image or depiction. Any man-made image or likeness is merely a distraction, sullying and obscuring one’s pristine connection to G-d.
So too, a marking on our body trivializes and objectifies the body. But in reality, the body is a vehicle for an infinite G-dly soul that cannot be marked, labeled or represented in any image or artwork.
Slave-owners tattooed their slaves to prove ownership, as cowboys
branded their cattle. Ford and Honda mark their cars to identify their name brand. Human beings are higher than brands, labels or images. The soul is eternal, and in a sense, the body ultimately is too (Resurrection of the Dead is a basic tenet of Jewish belief). It is on loan from our Creator. Self-inflicted gashes, mutilation, excessive body piercings or tattoos all bespeak a lack of respect and reverence for the body, and hence, the body's true Owner and Designer. It’s kind of like etching a name, smiley face or obscenity onto someone else's freshly-poured cement. Or like scrawling graffiti onto a venerated national monument.
Perhaps that's why the depraved Germans tattooed human beings at Auschwitz. In addition to the obvious utility that it enabled them to keep track of prisoners like widgets in a supply chain and automated their horrific slave labor and killing machine, it was also an obvious attempt to dehumanize their victims and strip them of any sense of dignity, hope or courage. The erstwhile-free individual was now nothing more than a nameless number, mere property of the Reich. A mark on the skin is obviously a statement of self-identity, and an indelible one indicates immutable and perpetual subjugation. Why on earth would a self-respecting human being wish to subjugate oneself to a tattooed number, word or image, in the same manner as the accursed Nazis inflicted on their hapless victims!?
Tattoos also reduce the body to a mere transitory shell, a disposable writing surface that may be scribbled on or illustrated without any regard for past or future. Indeed, tattoo markings often have only momentary and ephemeral relevance.
Imagine an infatuated lover tattooing his partner's name in the height of passion, only to terminate his relationship at some later point. Now they have split up and are no longer meaningful to each other. But for the rest of his life, he bears the name of someone who means nothing to him or less...
Would you tattoo your phone number into your skin? What if you change your number?
The same is true of any tattoo. It is a skin-deep and short-lived thrill of having a phrase, word or image indelibly etched in one's skin. But what happens when the fleeting appeal wears off, or the attitude to that phase, word or image changes? A large percentage of people ultimately regret their tattoos, according to recent studies.* So why would a self-respecting human being label himself permanently with a superficial mark of vanity that is here today, gone tomorrow, while his inherent value and self-worth ought to remain forever?
Even if the phrase or image represents a loved-one or idea that perhaps ought to remain forever dear to the tattoo seeker, tattoo is the wrong way to perpetuate the memory.
Let it be etched in your heart, let it inspire you daily, but do not mar or scar your body with it. For then, what ought to be a living memory is now reduced to lifeless ink intrusively inserted where it doesn’t belong… a dead, man-made icon where there was supposed to be only life.
Perhaps that’s why the Torah juxtaposes the prohibition of tattoos next to the injunction against making gashes in skin out of grief for the dead: “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor imprint any marks upon you: I am God.” Tattoos in the skin are akin to death marks… they are not a sign of life. Only your untarnished, natural living flesh is a sign of life.
Why must your skin remain unsullied and intact? Because “I am God.” The ineffable Divine Name used here (“Yud-kay-vav-kay,” also called the “Tetragrammaton” in English) can be interpreted as the One Who continually brings (you) into existence. Indeed, belief in the phenomenon of constant creation ex nihilo, that G-d is creating the world anew every moment, is a basic tenet in Judaism. At this present moment, you are being created as an entirely new being. Just as you were born in a pristine state, without blemish or markings, so too your body is a constant reminder of God’s continually creating you. “מבשרי אחזה אלוקה” – “From my flesh, I perceive God” (Job 19:26).
Your flesh bears witness to its Divine Creator. No images or words can define God, and no images or words belong on your skin.
Perhaps that’s another reason why the Torah concludes the verse with “I am God.” A tattoo is akin to idolatry, creating a lifeless carving on what is meant to be a living tribute to the living God. As such, the tattoo is emblematic of death, not of life.**
With the tattoo, one's living flesh is now permanently polluted by a foreign and artificial invader. The meaningful thought or memory has been reduced a superficial icon to be flaunted like a tee-shirt that can never be removed.
I'd reason with the tattoo-seeker: if you'd really enjoy seeing that image or name on your chest or forearm, how about buying a stamp and stamping it on in erasable ink after every shower?*** Do that for now and then let's meet again to discuss in five or ten years. You can always revisit the tattoo option later if you still want it, but can't remove it if it's the reverse. Why should its permanence be important to you? Is it a symbol of surrender or devotion to something irreversible? Can you express that feeling or devotion in a more self-respecting way that preserves the beautiful and natural state in which G-d created you?
It's okay to put on and take off different labeled or illustrated clothes. You may even mark your designer suit with permanent markers. That’s your personal preference, so long as you can change the suit at whim. You bought the suit so it’s yours…
But for crying out loud, please don't permanently mark up your birthday suit! That's G-d's suit that He painstakingly and lovingly hand-tailored just for you, so please don't mess with it. Indeed, He knows you better than you know yourself, and knows that you look absolutely perfect in it! Now and forever. As a youth, as an adult, when you're hoary and gray, in the grave, and at the resurrection. So respect that irresistible, G-d-given body of yours! Keep it clean and authentic, unmarked and indefinable.
** Interestingly, Rashi comments that the Torah uses for tattoo, כתובת קעקע (literally "writing that is sunken") shares a common root with והקענום, "and hang them," in Samuel 21:6, since the gallows were thrust into the ground and the executed man hung upon it, it is as though the one hanged were inserted and sunken into the ground. This further reiterates the point above, that the tattoo's sunken ink is associated with morbidity.
*** It should be mentioned that even fake tattoos are discouraged by Jewish law, since they can be easily mistaken for real ones. This principle is known as “mar’it ayin,” that one ought to avoid causing others to have a false impression that he is violating Torah law.