Sometimes I admit to feeling very old. I am only 50, but I find myself horrified by so many cultural trends. High on my list are the freakish (according to me) “body art” trends which involve piercings that make me wince when I see them. Lips and noses, tongues, cheeks, eyebrows (and other body parts I cannot mention on a family blog) are disfigured by unattractive “hardware” that interferes with their God-given purpose, and which also must be horrible breading grounds for bacteria and infection. I wince when I see it.

Tattoos as well, once thought of as the implements of drunken sailors and tramps, have become the common fare of many people. They remain to me (apparently an old fogie at a mere 50), a sign of grave immaturity and make me question the person’s judgment. I also find them disfiguring and disturbing in that they cannot (until recently) be removed. What a terrible thing to disfigure one’s body permanently in a moment of poor judgement and youthful folly. Sorry that’s just the way I see it, it is an innate response.

One sad and poignant moment I remember from about ten years ago was when a very pretty bride and her groom came in for marriage prep. I thought she was so pretty, and then she took off her jacket, and lo, and behold, two of the largest tattoos I have ever seen on both her upper arms. I mean they were big, and nasty blue. They would have shocked Popeye the Sailor. I had to ask her, but she just shrugged and said I sounded like her father. At the wedding she decided that big blue tattoos and a sleeveless wedding gown didn’t look traditional enough (I’ll say!), and so she tried to cover them over with makeup. But it was a hot a humid day, and before you knew this very pretty girl took on the appearance of a longshoreman. So sad. I can’t imagine what she was thinking when she did something so awful to her body.

You may say, keep your opinions to yourself Father, tattoos are way cool. But actually it is not merely my opinion. For God too looks askance at the practice, and actually forbids tattoos in one place. As the practice became widespread in the 1990s I often reminded people from my pulpit and the bulletin of the scripture forbidding of the practice:

You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, neither shall you tattoo any marks upon you: I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:28)

It would seem that God did not intend for the skin to be a canvas or a bill board. It is a shocking thing to permanently alter ones appearance, particularly when we consider that our bodies are not our own to simply do with as we please. For again, Scripture says,

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body. (1 Cor 6:19-21)

Some may wish to argue that the Levitical outlawing of tattoos was more a concern for idolatry than tattoos per se. But then I must ask, Is not the modern faddish practice rooted in a kind of idolatry all its own? It is all the rage, and the obsession to fit in, (no matter what God might say, or that the body belongs to Him and is his masterpiece), is a kind of idolatry all its own.

I realize that many who have tattooed themselves acted in ignorance of the Leviticus text. But it is not a text simply to be ignored, and once it is known, it seems to me that we ought to accept that God is not pleased with the practice of tattooing, and cease practicing or praising it.

Imagine then my delight to read that tattoo removal is now becoming easier and more requested by those who realize they made a huge mistake in getting a tattoo. From today’s Washington Post:

She arrives quietly, coming in from the rain after work. She lies down on her stomach atop a sleek, white reclining chair. She lifts her shirt and tugs down her jeans slightly….to unveil a large pink flower tattoo with fat, webby green leaves, which she’s here to have lasered off her lower back. She wants to become a mother someday, and she doesn’t want her children to see this…..she starts crying. “I was only 18. It was a homemade tattoo done at a party…..I wasn’t thinking about what it meant, you know? Little did I know it meant something else — like people calling it a ‘tramp stamp.’ I’m a Pentecostal, and the body is a temple. And I felt really ashamed.”

If tattoos are the marks of an era — declarations of love, of loss, of triumph, of youthful exuberance or youthful foolishness — then tattoo removals are about regret, confessions that those landmarks are in the past. They’re about the realization that whatever you believed in with such force that you wanted it eternally branded on your skin is now foreign to you.

Getting a tattoo, once the province of sailors rather than suburbanites, is so mainstream that tats are inked at the mall and seen on everyone from Middle American mothers to H Street hipsters to Hollywood starlets.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a parallel trend is emerging: tattoo removal, with dozens of businesses and training schools opening across the country…..Tattoo removal by a super-powered laser seems like a facelift for young people, a chance to start over, erase, rewind. Like deleting a bad photo from a digital camera or defriending a Facebook friend.

While older lasers burned off the skin, Slavin’s new model interacts only with the ink and “makes it shake and makes it break,” he says. But it still hurts — it feels like hot rubber bands snapping against your skin, most removers say — and often is more painful than getting a tattoo.

“When it’s all said and done, I’m just not that guy anymore,” says Corey Newman, 29, who is getting married in May and wanted to get three tattoos removed: …He is spending $2,500 to take off tattoos that cost $600 to put on. “I am starting a new life now,” he says. “There’s a big difference between being 19 and 29.”

During a recent week, Saler’s appointment book included distraught mothers dragging their daughters in; ex-gang members with street tats who don’t want to be killed; professional women who are applying for office jobs…..aspiring CIA and FBI agents, along with other law enforcement operatives.

Burly, tattoo-faced Wayne Stokes, 34, arrives. He’s on his sixth session of a removal that might take up to 25.

He has tattoos on his face, neck, hands and chest. Both eyes are encircled by a black leopardlike….design….I wanted to look tough,” he says. “People ask me every day, ‘Why did you do it? Why did you put yourself through that pain of tattooing your entire face?’ I’ve realized I don’t have to keep that trauma on my body.”…when the tattoos are off, he wants to mentor abused kids.

Now that the painful decision to get rid of the tattoos is over, the physical pain begins. ….He gets into the chair and squeezes a ball as the laser hits his skin, turning parts of it red and then frosted white as the ink crystallizes into smaller particles that will be removed by his body’s immune system….Stokes says. “Sometimes I do dread coming in. But it’s the end result. “I want to look in the mirror and see myself again.”

These are excerpts. The Full Article is in the Washington Post is here: Rethinking the Ink

To this new procedure I can only say, thank God. And I hope the procedure will become less painful, less expensive, and that people will run (not walk) to avail themselves of it. I live for the day when the terrible era of “body art” (both piercings and tattoos) will be over. We are wonderfully and fearfully made from the hand of God. I only wish God had sent along a little tag: “Do not cut, pierce or ink, you’re fine the way I made you.”

A little make up and little work with the hair, fine, that’s working with what you have, but permanent alterations, cuttings and piercings that interfere with function are rejecting what God has made. We ought not do it.

I do expect an interesting comment thread! Have at it.


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259 Responses

  1. Steve says:

    As someone who has always had an artistic side I’ve never cared for tattoos. A body even one that seems plain is something incredible and wonderful and beautiful; in short a work of art. To me tattoos “cool” or not are like drawing with crayons on the sistine chapel or making doodles on a cathedral. The skill of the tattoo artist is irelevant. I would never deface another artists work with “cool drawings of my own, much less if the artist is God/nature and the canvas is the body.

  2. Jeff Kramer says:

    We have to be carefull using the text in Leviticus. Because Levitcus requires to put adulterers to death, to offer a ram as a sin offering for lying carnally with a betrothed slave women and you can not round off the hair around your temples e.t.c. I consider using this one verse as cherry picking. And why are earrings and makeup off the table it seems when ever the tattoo debate starts tatoo haters always start the first paragraph with well I’m not talking about makeup and earrings. Why.. Last time I checked we were not born with lipstick and blush. Women should stop shaving there legs because that is mutilating the body.

    • Donna Darbellay says:

      Jeff, recall that Mgsr distinguished between permanent alterations and alterations that are more temporary, like the hair on a woman’s legs–it will grow back. It seems to me that you are trying to defend an extreme act (tattooing and primitive piercings) using other extremes (putting adulterers to death). I think Steve is saying the same thing as Msgr–and what they are both saying is in the spirit of Leviticus confirmed in 1Cor.
      Alright the adolescent may need to paint and prim in an effort to distinguish his or her self, but the use of permanent measures or doing so to an extreme can hardly be held as good or virtuous. So there is a difference between piercing one’s ears once or piercing them ten times and piercing other body parts. Adolescents need virtuous adults guiding them with a little wisdom (inviting them to think about the long term consequences of their actions and to consider the consistency of their actions with their beliefs); they do not need adults rationalizing impulsive actions and dismissing OT wisdom rather than putting it in the light of the NT. Rationalization frequently results in maintaining a regretted act rather than correcting it; it can also change the values of a society when enough persons subscribe to it. Thank you Steve and Msgr.

      • KL says:

        Why is piercing one’s ears once acceptable, but a small and rarely-if-ever-visible tattoo not? Both are permanent (even if one stops wearing earrings, the holes may never close, and even if they do will definitely leave behind visible scar tissue), and I would argue that an earlobe piercing is far more visible than, say, a small tattoo on the shoulder blade. You can always see someone’s earlobes, unless it’s very very cold out and they have a large hat on!

        Furthermore, what distinguishes between “acceptable” piercings and “primitive” ones? Denouncing some piercings as “primitive” is an entirely culturally-determined distinction and not based on any objective moral reasoning.

        In the interest of full disclosure, I strongly dislike the aesthetic look of multiple piercings or any tattoos, regardless of size or modesty. But I simply do not think there is a moral or theological distinction between modest piercing and modest tattooing.

    • Edward says:

      If unrepentant of, adulterers will be put to death in the lake of fire. Jesus Christ said so. So I agree with you on the point that we are not to nit-pick or cherry-pick verses. What is wrong with earrings and a “little” make-up ? If you think that shaving the legs is a sin then you should not shave your legs. Hair cutting is OK by Biblical standards and is NOT mutilation. Men are to have short hair and women long. Jesus Christ is our Lamb of God now. He takes away the sins of those who are repentant, a ram is unneccesary and usless anyway now. Now the rounding off of the corners of your hair I believe it had somthing to do with a religous practice of men and God Hates false, vain worship! So there you go !! Actually if it were not a sin to have a tattoo I would get one or two, but it is clearly a sin so I have to reject the idea and please God and not my own vain ideas !! Others should follow God and not mens ideas !

  3. James says:

    Thanks Msgr. for an Interesting discussion.I like to pose a question. Due to a certain medical condition, If my relative (out of respect for them and their privacy I’ll not say who ) were ever to have a spinal tap or other medical procedures relating to the spine he would likely be paralyzed or dead. They considered getting “Medical alert” tattoo, mentioning the condition, on his back. I doubt the motive for this tattoo reason is vanity or a desire to show off. Although he could get a medical alert bracelet, they can be lost or stolen, etc. Typically tattoos cannot be. So are tattoos specifically intended to relay serious medical information, acceptable or unacceptable? God bless.

    Respectfully,
    J. M.

  4. Kristine says:

    My aunt requested from her daughters that they wait until they were 25 to get any tattoos, with the hopes that they would grow out of the desire. She added that if they did decide to get a tattoo then, she would get one with them. The idea of which is horrifying. My aunt has this unbelievably beautiful snow white skin and hair. The purpose of her propsal obviously was that there is more at stake than just a little ink on your body on a whim. The girls, who were still residing under her roof complied. Now in their mid 30s married, and mothers, there’s not a tattoo among them.

  5. Rick says:

    Jeff, it sounds like you are calling for a wholesale rejection of the Scriptures, or perhaps just the Old Testament?
    My guess is that you have tattoos…

  6. Brenda says:

    To Jeff Kramer:

    If I shave my legs, the hair will grow back. If I tattoo my legs, I will have to Mutilate them to have it removed… that’s a big difference.

  7. Cynthia BC says:

    Has this thread set this forum’s Number of Responses record?

  8. Laurie Schultz says:

    I have a 3/4 inch tiny cross to hide a scar and of course to show I love our Lord…and it was painful – that will be my only one :) I’m not a fan of these large and overwhelming tatoos.. but small ones, eh. I’d be more worried about the person who keeps having multiple plastic surgeries to alter the looks God gave them.

    • Cynthia BC says:

      A sad example being Michael Jackson. One commentator said after Jackson’s death that the multiple surgeries were an indication of self-hatred.

  9. Tom Balistreri says:

    “…a sign of grave immaturity and make me question the person’s judgment.”
    This is the first time I’ve seen in print the same thought I’ve share for all of my ancient 57 years.

  10. Jason Liske says:

    You know, this is why I left the Seventh-Day Adventist Church I was raised in when I was young – all the legalism. God looks at the heart, not the skin. There are sins connected with tattooing, yes. But for pete’s sake, there are far bigger issues out there than tattooing your skin, within the Church and without it.

  11. filiusdextris says:

    I agree with Jeff about cherry-picking text, as we ignore many of the other passages from Leviticus (see http://www.cuf.org/faithfacts/details_view.asp?ffid=233 – “References to this verse are not present in important magisterial documents and in the principal writings of the Fathers of the Church. It is the consensus of Catholic biblical commentators that this prohibition is not part of the unchanging moral law, but part of the ritual law specific to the Old Testament.”). I also think tattoos are mostly disgusting. I personally have not witnessed any I like, though I leave an open mind on the subject. The stronger arguments scripturally come from keeping the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit and, if not prudent risk-wise, under thou-shalt-not-kill type of proscriptions. Citing to CUF again (through them to the Catechism), If the tattoos are acts of rebellion, advertisements for an immoral lifestyle, scandal inducements, or against a prudent budget, they should be avoided as likely sinful. Each act of tattooing seems like a lost opportunity for charity (though this would apply to any frivolity). In certain cultures, I can see them as being more acceptable than others. I think there is room for them morally if the person wants to convey a spiritually uplifting message or wants to remind himself of something very important; I doubt in such cases that tattooing is the best way to accomplish one’s aims, but terming it sinful seems to be too much.

  12. Eric says:

    When i see someone (with or without tattoos), I see the Icon of christ before me, and in that moment I must admonish my judgments for i am a great sinner….

  13. Jason G. says:

    What about women (or men) getting pierced ears? It’s so ubiquitous in our culture, but isn’t it a form of vanity not unlike any of the other piercings mentioned? Does it matter whether it’s one set of piercings or mulitple?

  14. Mark G. says:

    Tattoos seem to cater to the “me generation.” In this regard they are frivolous at best & sinful at worst. There really isn’t any sense that they are good. O.T. texts are always to be read in the light of Christ. While the legal consequences of O.T. proscriptions may no longer be in force, the divine impulses behind them are eternally valid. It is impossible to read the text of Leviticus without concluding, “God is displeased with me permanently disfiguring my body, whether the motive is idolatry or vanity.” Nevertheless, the external marking is primarily a sign of internal disposition; he is certainly much less pleased with a rational soul given over to idolatry or pride. There is another consideration – tattoos are expensive. I cannot think of an argument where this is good use of one’s money.

    Jason, regarding earrings, Tertullian goes off about women wearing make up, coloring their hair, & wearing jewelry; many of his points are valid today, but he takes them to extremes. However, it does indicate that early Christians were much more modest than anything we know now. St. Francis de Sales said that Christians should be the best dressed but the least adorned. While there are certainly many examples of excess, we can also consider the image of the Church as a bride adorned with her jewels. The genuine jewels that make a woman beautiful are the love of God, spiritual graces & virtues, & natural feminine beauty she possesses, not anything she puts on or wears.

  15. Pattie says:

    This ancient 53 year old also agrees that tattoos are hideous and are, to me, a permanent sign of poor judgement. I will say that my youngest son got a biceps tattoo as a young adult, but at least it is (A) covered with most shirts and (B) of the Sacred Heart, meant as a devotion as he re-dedicated his life to Christ.

    Not mention, as a nurse, the potential for infections…….

  16. Dillen says:

    Be careful with the Old Testament and the “Law” which Jesus replaced. The determinations of what will and will not be adhered to in the Old Testament is still in debate to this day, and many of the Church Fathers preached intention of the person when acting.

    I do have a tattoo, it is relatively large, and it is on my ribs. It hurt a lot, but there are 2 things about it that make it special to me. First it is the Tridentine Doxology in Latin, which by the way is in the new liturgical reform, and the entire time I endured it (4.5 hrs) I constantly played through in my mind the scene from the Passion of the Christ in which the cat o’ nine tails rips out the Lord’s flesh at his ribs. I played that 20 seconds or so over and over and every time I look at it I am reminded of the little pain I suffered in comparison to His. To me this is no different that the quasi-accepted self-masochism of some of the secretive orders, similar to Opus Dei etc. I also want to comment on the Sistine Chapel remark. If we were doing what we were supposed to in Mass one would not have time to look at the walls and the ceiling which is adorned with artwork dedicated to God. All church buildings should be the same economical box as any other building, but that is just outrageous right? It is true we are temples but I find it hard for someone to rationalize any difference if such references are to be made. Temple=temple art=art. I will say that my tattoo is easily covered, and I do not particularly like to show it off, but I can understand the disgust of non-art tattoos in conspicuous places.

  17. Joshua says:

    I hear various answers given by priests and laity who are well trained in theology about tattoos. It ranges from it being always wrong to it being acceptable in certain cases (like the medical example, or a soldier who cannot have a religious medal since it creates noise) to it being fine as long as it is not too extensive, isn’t obscene or diabolical, and doesn’t attract undue attention.

    My question is, what is the general answer one finds in the tradition of Catholic moral theology? Most issues, in their specifics, are not directly addressed by the Church. Indeed, it is only when society goes astray that the Magisterium usually moves to define things. AFAIK, the Magisterium hasn’t weighed in here. But it would be helpful to know what the tradition generally says. Does anyone know if any of the old moral theology manuals say anything about it? Jone, or Prümmer, or Tanquery for instance?

    • jem says:

      Josh, I appreciate your thoughtful comments, but I’d like to comment on the example you gave of the soldier who got a tattoo because he/she couldn’t wear a religious medal. Soldiers are required to wear dog tags, which would clank horribly if they didn’t tape them together. This solution works just as well for a religious medal. This technique was commonly accepted and used during my time as a combat soldier in the US Army. I myself wore a crucifix throughout Desert Storm along with my dog tags and never heard a sound from it.

  18. David Sands says:

    Its “fogey” not “fogie”

  19. Tina says:

    My oldest son who is now 19 has been bugging me for a tattoo since the age of 16. I tell him as long as he is under my roof no tattoos. I’m a young mother and him when I was 17 and couldn’t understand myself why I was so against him having a tattoo, when at 16, I myself tried giving myself a homemade tattoo with some friends. Luckily, when it came to my turn the needle broke, then the battery died. I don’t believe in coincidences and now know that was my angel protecting me from making a very big mistake. Anyway, one night after getting into an argument with my son about tattoos, I prayed to God to help me understand why I felt the way I did about tattoos. That night I had a dream that I was sitting on top of a cliff at night with Jesus beside me. Below us is the city so beautiful with its buildings and lights all lit up. Jesus tells me “look what do you see?’ I look and I see people walking through the city streets. He says “Look again what do you see?’ Then I see everyone that is walking by has a beautiful tattoo. I can see the butterfly tattoo, the one of the praying hands, I even see one with the Virgin Mary go by, and I tell him how beautiful they all look. Then he tells me again “Now look closer, what do you see?” As I look closer at the tattoos they all have the number 666 camouflaged in them. I look to Jesus and ask him what does this mean? And he says they have all been marked by the evil one.” Then I wake up thanking Jesus for this revelation. Later, as I reflect on the dream I start taking a closer look at the tattoo shops and the workers in them, and if you look close enough all the ones that I have come across have some kind of satanic feel to them. Who’s to say what these people are really marking your body with? I’ve only had 3 dreams where Jesus has revealed himself to me and this is one of them. Just wanted to share my revelation, maybe someone else reading it might have had a similar one.

  20. mike todd says:

    Do not love the world or anything in it, or the Love of the Father is not in you.

  21. Michael C says:

    Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago you are surrounded by both good & bad influences.
    As a kid, it often seemed like the bad outweighed the good, but if you looked hard, you realized this was not really the case.(not even close)
    When I see a person with a tattoo, It usually strikes me in a negative way.
    I did however have an experience that was completely the opposite.
    One of my teenage friends had a neighbor that was older than us.(18 or 19 years old)
    I did not know the guy, but he always seemed like he would be a bad influence.
    One day when I was walking down the street with my friend, the guy started to talk to my friend.
    I could see the tattoo on his arm from the sidewalk & really did not want to walk up with my friend.
    He greeted us with a smile & introduced himself.
    I was surprised when I looked at his arm, because the tattoo was an image of Jesus Christ.
    This combined with his friendly manner, completely changed my opinion of him almost instantly.
    I understood where he stood & I hope it reminds him every day when he looks in the mirror.
    Someone told me he now lives in Texas & is doing well.
    I do not have any tattoo’s & hope my children will not give in to the pier pressure to get them.
    A crucifix charm would have made the same effect on me.

  22. Anne says:

    The account of the bride with tattoos is too funny, Monsignor. Although, it is probably much more humorous to me than it was to her at the time. LOL!

  23. Rosemarie Kamerer says:

    Dear Bishop, I pray one day my 23 year old son will one day remove his turtles tattoos

  24. Texie says:

    Monsignor is older and wiser, listen to him, we all have a free will, however he is a man of the church and the cloth, respectfully listen and learn as you will do what your gift of free will decides, but Monsignor instructs us from the church of God, it’s your choice to listen or not.

  25. Phyllis says:

    My father had some very impressive and large tattoos which he got sometime during the 1940s, when tattoos were also popular. Historically, Christians have sometimes had small tattoos of crosses, often by their wrist or thumb. I have seen this on Ethiopian Christians, for example, and an Iraqi Christian woman I met who had tattooed a small cross and the dates of two pilgrimages she had made to Jerusalem. I think it was widespread among Christian sailors in the past, who hoped that if their bodies were ever washed ashore after being lost at sea, they could be assured of a Christian burial. I add this just as a little historical and cultural note, as I completely agree with the argument against current styles of flamboyant “body art.” There are many reasons to avoid it, not only the ones mentioned by Msgr. Pope.

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