So I confess: I grew up in a white middle class Baptist church in the buckle of the Bible belt—south Texas. Now don't get me wrong, I love Texas (don't judge me), but as I've traveled and lived outside the States, read authors of various persuasions, I've come to realize over the years that my little White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant doctrinal heritage doesn't always have the right T's crossed or the correct I's dotted. Part of this distorted doctrinal heritage can be summed up in the Baptist axiom (admittedly, now mainly repeated with humor):
Don't smoke or chew, or go with girls that do.
This denominational mantra is symptomatic of an un-Christ-like understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus within the Bible Belt fold. It showcases a typical Pharasaical pursuit of maintaining the religious high-ground. It crafts peculiarities—that ought not to be arrived at—from a general code of ethics, that might arguably be described as anchored in the Bible. For example, "Bad company corrupts good morals", so don't go with girls that do. While that's all good and dandy, it's the "do" that we err in accurately depicting. Instead of building towers we've started building moral codes.
וְשֶׂרֶט לָנֶפֶשׁ לֹא תִתְּנוּ בִּבְשַׂרְכֶם וּכְתֹבֶת קַעֲקַע לֹא תִתְּנוּ בָּכֶם אֲנִי יְהוָה
You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the LORD. (ESV)
Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the LORD. (KJV)
You are not to make gashes on your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves; I am Yahweh. (HCSB)
You must not slash your body for a dead person or incise a tattoo on yourself. I am the LORD. (NET)
Now, it seems to me that what all these translations assume is that the reason behind the second prohibition is the same as the first (viz. this is indicated by translation of the conjunction ו [waw] as either "nor" or "or"). That reason for the initial prohibition being, that cutting oneself up was a way of mourning back in the day, and God says don't harm yourself for the dead. So what is assumed is that this whole tattoo business is also a custom of mourning that is similarly viewed as a harmful thing to do to yourself. The problem is that tattoos, to the best of our knowledge, weren't a part of any mourning practice back in the OT times—not of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia or Ugarit, all of which were close and influential neighbors (Huehnergard & Liebowitz 2013:62–69). In fact, in Lev 21.5, a passage just a few sections after our target text of 19.27, we hear more completely about the prohibited mourning practices of ancient Israel and tattooing isn't even mentioned.
Priests must not shave bald patches on their heads or cut off the ends of their beards or make gashes in their bodies (CEB)
So if tattooing wasn't a practice engaged in when it came to mourning, what was it associated with? Huehnergard & Liebowitz (2013:70–73) suggest, quite convincingly, that this activity was commonly performed on individuals who were counted as slaves. In other words, if you were a slave then you probably had a tat. What this duo concludes was very enlightening for me, and had such a rich exegetical consequence that I hadn't expected from a simple text, that for most of my childhood had been used to legitimate the instruction to not get a tattoo (because, God said so).
Please read their concluding remarks.
Based on the above evidence, we suggest that in the biblical period tattooing was associated with the mark of slavery. The exodus from Egypt plays a crucial role in Jewish theology and law. God redeemed Israel from bondage. We propose that, in order to emphasize Israelite freedom from human masters, the Torah prohibited tattooing, the symbol of servitude, as evidenced by the marking of slaves in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Though the Israelites never became free, but exchanged masters (they were no longer slaves of pharaoh, but of God), acceptable signs of this new form of servitude included the wearing of tefĳillin (phylacteries) on the hand and head, and the Sabbath. Circumcision was not a sign of bondage but covenant (Gen 17:11). Otherwise they were to distance themselves form any formal expression in the flesh of servitude, such as a tattoo. Only the passage in Isa 44:5 suggests the possibility of marking oneself with the divine name. Thus, the avoidance of tattooing would serve as testimony to the Exodus and freedom from bondage, much in the same way as desisting from labor on the Sabbath in the Decalogue version in Deut 6:15 was meant to serve as testimony to God’s redemption of Israel from Egyptian bondage. (Huehnergard & Liebowitz 2013:74).
What a powerful testimony to God's love for his people. He instructs them to be who they are: a freed people. He does so with instructions rooted in mind renewal. He does the same for us (Rom 12.1–2). If we are sons and daughters of His, may we live like it—and yeah, get a tattoo if we want. This "letter" doesn't apply to us, though the "law" still stands.
Huehnergard, J & Liebowitz, H. 2013. "The Biblical Prohibition against Tattooing." Vetus Testamentum (63), 59–77.