Tattooed Up! Why We Sin Against Our Skin

By Deric Muhammad -Guest Columnist- | Last updated: Jul 6, 2012 - 9:56:55 AM

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“Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the Lord.” –Leviticus 19:28


When we were made slaves in America, many plantation owners branded our forefathers the same way they branded their livestock. The purpose was to identify the slave as being a White man’s merchandise. If the slave became a “runaway,”  he would be brought back to the plantation that had been branded on his flesh and beaten until the whip lashes on his back became lifelong scars themselves. Whether we realize it or not, being “tatted up” is nothing new for Black people in America.

To put it plainly, tattoos are simply a form of BOLD EXPRESSION. All past generations have had them. It is a way of declaring unconditional conviction for a person, place, thing or idea. When something has been tattooed into your skin, it says that you are willing to die in support of it. The scriptures speak of a generation that “seeketh after a sign.” Tattoos are signs. Signs are symbols. It’s time to move beyond signs and symbols and get to the real thing. In other words, if you have the love of Jesus tattooed in your heart there’s no need to have his name tattooed on your bicep. It won’t make you love him more.

One of the many tragedies of slavery is that we, as a people, lost our own identity. It left us with nothing of substance to pass onto the next generation. Since then, every passing generation has tried to find a way to let the world know “Hey! I am here!” Our young people subject their bodies to becoming canvases for symbolism, because the substance on the inside was not passed down as it should have been. For when the substance of knowledge takes root on the inside, there is no longer the need for the symbols (tattoos) on the outside. I hope I’m making sense.

I hear people criticize tattoo-wearing youngsters all the time, but seldom do we ask “why?” Well, consider these points.

This generation is the greatest generation we’ve ever produced. They are also the most ignored. One of their biggest complaints is that parents and other adults DO NOT LISTEN. A visible tattoo gets the attention of an adult who might normally pay you no mind. It’s difficult to ignore when your child comes home with “Tired of Being Broke” tattooed across his neck. You wouldn’t listen when he tried to tell you from his mouth so he made his neck (the only one that he has) a billboard for what he is trying to say to a world that just won’t listen. A tattoo can sometimes be a cry for attention.

Even worse is the fact that so many of our people are not, themselves, effective communicators. Sometimes a tattoo says, effectively, what the person feels they can’t. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad taught that reading and writing were two lost arts among our people. And I humbly submit that these lost arts have not been “found” in America’s public school systems. The more we educate our youth, the less they’ll have a need to speak for them when they can, with brilliance, speak for themselves.

A tattoo can also be a cry for acceptance rooted in the desire to fit in. It has become somewhat of a “rite of passage” in the hood. Having a tattoo has become symbolic of independence, rebellion, and one’s arrival into his or her “own.” It is a sign of one’s ability to endure pain. I can go on and on about the myriad reasons why Black folks “tat up.” But most important, in my opinion, is how we respond.

I am not passing judgment on people who have tattoos. I happen to have one myself. (My first and last considering it was the most painful experience in my life.) And just like my tattoo doesn’t make me unintelligent, stupid or a “born loser,” the same goes for any other person. Just because you see a youngster with a tattoo, that doesn’t mean he wants to rob you. It may be that he has no knowledge of himself and needs to be taught. It may be that he feels this is the best way he knows how to express himself at this time in his life. You’ll never know unless you engage him. And when he or she meets someone who is willing to look past those tats and show love anyway, you’ll see their good nature jump out so far beyond those tattoos that it may startle you.

To my young brothers and sisters: the Bible teaches that the body is the temple of God. It is not God’s will that we defile His temple. Some of us wouldn’t dare spray paint graffiti on a church, mosque or synagogue out of respect for that house of God. Well, our bodies are the true house of God and deserve even more respect than a building with His name on it. Tattooing “Cash Money Millionaire” on your body doesn’t make you a millionaire any more than jumping out of a window makes you a flying eagle. Don’t settle for a tattoo, go out and make it happen. Your desire to be great will never be manifested through the acquisition of tattoos. It will be manifested through the acquisition and application of knowledge, wisdom and understanding. The more substance you have on the inside, the less symbols you will need on the outside.

(Deric Muhammad is a Houston-based activist in the Ministry of Justice. Visit his website at