Where once they were demarcations of sailors, soldiers and convicts, tattoos have become a common form of self-expression in Western society. Tattoos are no longer limited to biceps, but often decorate ankles, necks, faces and are now even being used to create the look of permanent cosmetics.
There is a commonly believed fallacy that one who has a tattoo may not be buried in a Jewish cemetery. It is a fact that Jewish law prohibits tattoos, but that does not prohibit one from a religious burial.
The prohibition against tattoos is written in the Torah thus: “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor imprint any marks upon you: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:28).
The sages further state: “He who writes an ‘incised’-imprint [in his flesh, is flogged]. If he writes [on his flesh] without incising, or incises [his flesh] without imprinting, he is not liable: [he is] not liable until he writes and imprints the incision with ink, eye-paint or anything that marks” (Talmud Makkot 21a).
It has been suggested that the law against tattoos was a means of separating the Jewish people from the surrounding pagan cultures in which it was customary to tattoo one’s body with pagan symbols. There is, however, no specific explanation stated in the Torah, and the prohibition stands whether one has him/herself imprinted with a pagan symbol, a pretty rose, or even a Jewish star.
It should be noted that once the tattoo has been imprinted on the skin, there is no halachic obligation to have the tattoo removed.