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With body art and piercing entering the mainstream, and more young people joining the trend, the Register takes a look at what the Church says about the practice.
BY TIM DRAKERegister senior writer
Russell Grigaitis’ position look forward to September — because it brings long
sleeves that cover their tattoos. A rose decorates his upper right arm. An
old-fashioned marching drum decorates his left shoulder. But Grigaitis regrets
the tattoos he received while in his 20s. At the time he received the tattoos,
Grigaitis was a heavy-metal drummer who wore his hair long and hoped to make a
career out of rock ’n’ roll. The tattoos went with the image. Today, Grigaitis
considers it graffiti.
“I view it as damage that I’ve done
to myself,” said Grigaitis. “I no longer think my tattoos are beautiful. After
studying the theology of the body, I am convinced that tattoos are an abuse of
With body art and piercing entering
the mainstream, and more young people joining the trend, Catholics want to know
what the Church has to say about the morality of the practice. Is it
ornamentation or mutilation?
A recent survey by the American
Academy of Dermatology found that more than one in three Americans between 18
and 29 have at least one tattoo. About half of that generation says they have
gotten a tattoo, dyed their hair an untraditional color, or had their body
pierced somewhere other than their ear lobe.
“The cultural status of tattooing
has steadily evolved from that of an antisocial activity in the 1960s to that
of a trendy fashion statement in the 1990s,” said Hoag Levins, author of the
report, “The Changing Cultural Status of Tattoo Art.”
Old Testament taught against the practice, in Leviticus 19:28 — “You shall not
make any cuttings in your flesh … or tattoo any marks upon you.” But it’s more difficult to find recent Church
pronouncements on the practice.
“The Catholic Church has
consistently taught that mutilation of the body via any means is an objectively
sinful act and therefore a grave moral matter,” said Deacon Robert Lukosh of
the Archdiocese of Portland, Ore., who has written about the subject for Envoy
But does that include tattooing?
“We see a progression from a prohibition of
ancient cultic rituals and their intrinsic allied purposes and ends to a
serious matter that must be considered in its entirety — object, intention and
circumstance — to determine its moral rectitude,” said Deacon Lukosh. “What we
do with our bodies does matter and has bearing on our life now and in the life
He said that body art as a form of
adornment that is ordered to the ultimate good of the person and to humanity
can be morally permissible if it observes modesty and avoids vanity — and if it
respects the fundamental integrity of the human person, including the integrity
of the body.
Sometimes, the intention of a tattoo
rules it out of bounds. Ancient cultic rituals are off-limits. Body adornment
might be ruled out no matter what because the “personal mutilation that many of
today’s extreme tattoos and piercings entail,” he said.
Tattoos with words or pictures that
celebrate the demonic, are unchaste, or offend against charity are considered
In addition to the moral concerns
such as modesty and vanity, there are also health concerns. Hepatitis
Weekly reported that obtaining a tattoo could be a key infection
route for Hepatitis C, the most common viral infection affecting the United
States. The disease attacks the liver and is potentially fatal.
Theology of the Body
Theology of the body proponents have
wrestled with the morality of tattooing, but haven’t come up with any concrete
In a recent online discussion group
among the Theology of the Body International Alliance (TOBIA), Thomas Schmierer
said that marks such as tattoos are a form of communication.
“The specific tattoo image
communicates something,” noted Schmierer. He recalled asking a woman about her
tattoo of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and whether it had a special significance
“She said it didn’t. She said she
got that design just because she liked it,” Schmierer added. “Her tattoo
communicated something to me that she didn’t mean to communicate.”
Others, such as Grigaitis, feel that
tattoos detract from the beauty of the body, which the Church teaches is the
temple of the Holy Spirit.
“God created the body,” said
Grigaitis. A tattoo is like putting graffiti on a work of art.” He compared it
with trying to improve a painting by Michelangelo.
On an EWTN forum, Father Bob Levis
said that in addition to their pagan origin, “all tattoos desecrate the
wholesome and beautiful bodies God created for us.”
But, “It’s impossible to give
black-and-white judgments on all bodily decorations,” said Father Peter Joseph,
former vice rector at Vianney College, the diocesan seminary in Wagga Wagga,
Australia. “It is not always possible to draw an exact line and say where the
bounds of moderation have been exceeded.”
However, “this does not mean that
there is no line,” he added. “The human body is meant to be treated with care,
not maltreated or disfigured. It is an expression of the deeper beauty of the
Not all who have received tattoos
regret them or condemn them. In fact, some say they make use of them for
“I was 21 when I got it,” wrote
Jenny Nansel on the TOBIA forum. “It’s something I do not regret. Mine is a
Celtic cross and it really does mark who I belong to.”
Catholic youth minister Brian
Hoyland of Rosemount, Minn., agreed. He has approximately 18 tattoos, most of
them religious, on his right forearm. They include Jesus wearing a crown of
thorns, a pair of hands praying with a rosary, the angel of death, Our Lady of
Guadalupe and a vine. On the back of his triceps is a cross with the Alpha and
Omega on either side.
“They open doors for talking about
faith,” said Hoyland, a convert to the Catholic Church. He recalled witnessing
to about 20 people while he was working as a bouncer.
“Scripture says it’s not what goes
into a person, but what comes out that is important,” said Hoyland. “I’m not
trying to be a tough guy; I’m a walking billboard for God. The tattoos force me
to be ready to give people an answer, and I have to be aware of how I behave
Still, while Hoyland is an advocate
for the faith, he’s not an advocate of tattoos.
“I don’t think everyone should be
getting them,” said Hoyland. “Too many people get them and later regret them.”
Hoyland has one non-religious tattoo that he received when he was a late teen
that he doesn’t like.
Hoyland thinks that many young
people receive tattoos and piercings because they think it will help their
“There’s a sadness in a lot of
people,” said Hoyland. “They think getting a tattoo will heal that.”
Tim Drake is based in
St. Joseph, Minnesota.
High Cost of Removal
Young People Want a Fresh Start
When he was a teenager, getting his
arms and neck smeared with ink seemed like a good idea to Jesus Mendoza.
Now, Mendoza is going to great
lengths to remove the six tattoos that hint at his erstwhile gang involvement.
He’s even burning away the Virgin Mary that symbolizes the love he has for his
The 21-year-old wants a fresh start.
And the attention-grabbing tattoos are a visual reminder of the life he wants
to leave behind.
“I don’t look at this as a mistake,”
he said of the skin decorations. “I look at it as a part of growing up. I’m not
ashamed of it. I’m who I am because of that.”
But now that he’s preparing to go to
a community college this fall and hoping to pursue a career in business
management, he doesn’t want the social baggage that comes with the ancient form
He feels branded.
“It’s the stereotyping,” he said.
“The question is: What do you think when you see a young Hispanic male with
tattoos? You’re going to think gangs. And I think that, too, now.”
He pauses. “You don’t want to live
What he’s learned, however, is that
getting the tattoos is a lot easier and cheaper than getting them removed. His
experience is a cautionary tale for those who haven’t thought through the
Mendoza started receiving laser
treatments two years ago under a low-cost program run by the Dallas County
Health and Human Services Department.
Now he’s going to the Dallas Tattoo
Removal Clinic, a year-old private business that’s helping to fill the void.
The clinic offers free services for clients younger than 21 who want to remove
gang-related tattoos on their hands, face or neck.
“We realized that there were so many
tattoos out there. So many young people out there were making mistakes, and no
one was addressing it,” said Michael Whitehurst, who runs the clinic with a
It usually takes multiple treatments
to remove a tattoo, depending on its size, the color and quality of the ink,
and the depth of the engraving, Whitehurst said. The clinic charges as much as
$150 for each treatment, compared with the hundreds of dollars that a cosmetic
surgeon would charge, he said.
Some folks react negatively to
tattoos because they think they’re trashy or low-class, Whitehurst said. But
others, including potential employers, have broader concerns.
“A lot of employers are really
prejudiced about tattoos because they associate them with hepatitis and HIV,”
The attitude stems from concern
about the needles being used, he added.
The reality is that some young
people who get tattoos don’t get their parents’ permission, and they don’t go
to a professional tattoo shop.
Whitehurst’s own daughter, Celia
Elmore, 22, is a good example.
Celia said a friend put tattoos on
her legs when she was 15.
“We sat around one afternoon and put
stuff on each other’s legs,” she said. “We used India ink and a regular needle
with a string around the end so that the needle [would go] the same depth each
“It didn’t really even bleed,” she
recalls. “So we didn’t think it would stay.”
It stayed. And now her dad is
removing the small tattoos from her legs, including the image of a happy-face
devil with horns and a goatee. She’s also getting the bumper-sticker tattoo
that runs along her lower back removed. It’s the one she got to celebrate
Now, she said, she’s sorry she
“desecrated” her body.
“When you see what some people do to
try to remove them, it’s shocking,” Whitehurst said. “I’ve seen cases where
people tried to use battery acid, lemons and lemon juice, cigars … and irons.”
— Dallas Morning News (KRT)