KabShab this past Friday involved a pot luck and some chat on various topics came up including tattoos. It revolved around admitted personal prejudices and employment and steered away mostly from religious objections.
I suppose I'm still an end of a generation that held suspicion over the idea of tattoos, at least visible ones. I was an ROTC cadet in college and was regularly reminded about militarily expectations and what might get me discharged and cost me college. At the the same time I saw that the UCMJ was not applied the same between branches as evidenced by a plethora of Marines and visible tattoos. And when I left that life behind I had my ears pierced, much to the dismay of my parents, even though I was old enough to elect to fight and die for the country as an officer (which I declined to do) it was also difficult for them to accept a few ear rings.... cultural norms are strange....
Now some 20 years past I've come into contact with several folks with not only visible tattoos, but face tattoos and these are not Maori warriors, just guys stocking at Target.
Between my religious upbringing and schooling in Classical Studies, I have a mixed relationship with the cultural norms of the past. I understand that it's not the same for everyone, but I always fall back to the idea that tattoos and piercings were the marks of slaves of old. In the 20th century we were marked as slaves in the nazi camps tattooed like cattle.
ה וְאִם-אָמֹר יֹאמַר, הָעֶבֶד, אָהַבְתִּי אֶת-אֲדֹנִי, אֶת-אִשְׁתִּי וְאֶת-בָּנָי; לֹא אֵצֵא, חָפְשִׁי. 5
But if the servant shall plainly say: I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free;
ו וְהִגִּישׁוֹ אֲדֹנָיו, אֶל-הָאֱלֹהִים, וְהִגִּישׁוֹ אֶל-הַדֶּלֶת, אוֹ אֶל-הַמְּזוּזָה; וְרָצַע אֲדֹנָיו אֶת-אָזְנוֹ בַּמַּרְצֵעַ, וַעֲבָדוֹ לְעֹלָם.
6 then his master shall bring him unto God, and shall bring him to the door, or unto the door-post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him for ever.
I'm not going to get into tattoos here, there are mountains of words written on the topic...
What with piercings, something I had experience with I always took these lines of Exodus to be metaphoric of the nation of Israel and not the individual and as a description of our choice of acceptance of the yolk of responsibility. Like the other physical changes that were expected of devotees such as the shaving of the nazarite, or even the brit milah. As Jews we are not exempt from codified body modification, but again, it was not for purely aesthetic reasons, hinting at epicurean dabbelings and heathenism perhaps?
However, my ears were pierced as an intentional break with the military. I wore stainless steel rings in my ears, worth pennies, and a dull silver in color for years. As the years went by I found myself in a place where I had to take them out for some medical images and I just never put them back in. They no longer had any meaning. Now they come back out for Purim, but that's about it, and while my beard whitens I don't suppose I'll ever go back to wearing them full time.
We struggle with intent. The permanence of the tattoo seems the difficulty for me. What intentions do we maintain for life that they might be written into our living skin versus our hearts? If all life is a flow from the unknowable, what is permanent in this world? I mortgaged my life against an education when I was an ROTC cadet. I felt I owned my life again with the separation from the military. It's not the rings that were important in my ears, it was mark of choice they kept open.