“They may have negative associations in some places and with some people.”
In Guatemala where we served for ten years (1990-2000), a tattoo suggested you were or had been in the military, since at that time they were the only ones with tattoos. And with all the fighting during the eighties between guerrillas and soldiers, there were strong feelings in the countryside about the military, sometimes positive but usually negative.
At that time we recommended that missionaries not have tattoos. Today it is possible that the younger generations are starting to do tattoos; I don’t know. Younger generations in the countries we lived in tended to copy trends from the U.S.
Can tattoos hinder ministry or close doors? Yes, in some countries and some areas with some people.
Will they hinder your ministry? That will depend on where you will live and who you are working with.
Answer from David, who served with One Challenge in Colombia and Guatemala for twenty years and now serves with Mission Data International.
“My tattoo helped me share the gospel.”
Being an MK (a missionary kid who grew up overseas), and working on several missions teams, I’ve found my tattoo to be very helpful, actually. This past summer I spent six weeks in Jordan, and many times my tattoo ended up being a conversation starter. People would ask me the significance of the tattoo and that was a way for me to share my faith without it seeming like I was preaching at them.
When deciding on a tattoo I was very cautious about what I got and where I got it. My tattoo is located on my forearm and is just a simple compass. I did this so I could cover it with a long-sleeved shirt it I was in a place that was tattoo-sensitive. I chose a compass because it is not an offensive symbol anywhere and it allows me to share about my love for the world.
With all of this said, I personally think that tattoos are not harming for those on the mission field, as long as they are smart about what art work they get and where it is on their body. Tattoos are meant to tell a story (good or bad), so why not use them to share the gospel?
Sometime I think that tattoos get too much negative attention, when the focus should be on the work one is doing. At the end of the day, as long as the tattoo isn’t hindering one from performing the work God has sent them to do, then I believe that it’s fine.
Answer from Mick in Arkansas, who grew up in the Philippines and has been on several mission trips.
Editor’s note: For another example of how a tattoo could be seen positively, see this story about a Christian worker in Poland: [Journeyman’s] Tattoos Present Him with Witnessing Opportunities (Baptist Press).
“Consider some of the relevant biblical principles.”
Leviticus 19:28 instructs the Israelites: “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. For I am the Lord.” The tattoo marks might have been a symbol of a local deity; thus, if an Israelite did this, he or she would violate God’s most basic command not to worship other gods. Most likely, Christians today do not have a tattoo of some deity. But this verse raises some basic questions. What does your tattoo and/or body piercing communicate? How visible is it? Where is it located? How does the host culture view tattoos?
Therefore, the short answer is: “it depends.” If you are meeting members of a motorcycle club, then tattoos and piercings might be a benefit. If you are working with business professionals, tattoos might not be helpful.
If you are thinking of getting a tattoo, ask yourself these questions: Why do I want a tattoo? What will I be communicating with it? Will it enhance the Christian message or detract from it? Will it pass the Colossians 3:17 test, “Whatever you do, whether word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him?”
Remember, you are always communicating whether by your clothes or your hair style, but perhaps especially by your body art.
Answer from Ed, who served with SIM for 22 years in Nigeria, Liberia, and Eritrea.
Answer from Janis in Haiti, who has served with Ebenezer Mission Inc; Filipino Chr. Fellowship in US, Haiti for 14 years years.