National Catholic Register


Tattoo Taboos

Catholics Debate the Morality of Body Art


Register senior writer

September 7-13, 2008 Issue | Posted 9/2/08 at 11:28 AM


People in 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 the body.”

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.”

The 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 magazine.

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 to come.”

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 immoral.

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 pronouncements.

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 to her.

“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 soul.”

Walking Sign

Not all who have received tattoos regret them or condemn them. In fact, some say they make use of them for evangelization.

“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 every day.”

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 image.

“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 late mother.

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 of artwork.

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 this way.”

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 implications.

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 medical doctor.

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,” he said.

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 time.

“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 turning 18.

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)