Tattoo or not Tattoo: Tat is the Question—Should Catholics Tattoo Their Bodies?
Are tattoos morally licit for Catholics? My first thought is to say ‘no.’ I am not confident enough in my answer, though, to say that tattooing, with its innate permanence, is a damnable offense. I can, however, think of a few reasons why Catholics in good conscience should avoid them.
The first is that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. An individual who chooses to tattoo his or her body is defiling that temple, by color and asymmetry and grotesqueness. These conditions are even worse when we consider the subject matter of the tattoos people are choosing to permanently mark upon their skin.
Second, the tattoo has its origin with Cain. God punished Cain for murdering Abel. Cain was afraid that when others encountered him, they might kill him. God, merciful as He is, placed a “mark” on Cain so that no one would kill him, for if they did, they would suffer the vengeance of God. This mark was a reminder to Cain of his sin and something shameful to him. Figuratively, this “mark” represents the stain of sin upon his soul.
At least in our culture, the trend of tattooing followed Cain’s trajectory until recently. Tattoos showed up on scruffy sailors and prisoners. If anyone else had one, they were sure to hide it in respectable society; it was a sign of rebellion. Nowadays, I have to carefully choose which checkout line to use at Sprouts, lest my children be scandalized by some pornographic depiction on the forearm of the 20- something cashier. Perhaps everyone in our modern culture is claiming Cain as his own.
Third, is tattooing art? Does tattooing lift one’s mind to the Good, the True, and the Beautiful? Is the medium appropriate for such depictions? Without distinction, I think I can answer ‘no’ to these questions. Perhaps tattooing is a species of vanity? St Augustine criticized woman’s use of make-up in The City of God as vanity and an insult to God’s creation and design. What would he say about tattoos which are so much more permanently disfiguring?
A human soul is housed in flesh. A soul is indescribably beautiful when in the state of grace. St. Catherine of Siena, gifted with seeing a soul in the state of grace, said that she would have thought the human soul was God, if she had not known from her catechism that there is only one God. Our bodies, God willing, will someday match this beauty, when they are glorified at the end of time. In a way, one could say our flesh is destined for heaven, too. Does bringing a tattoo along seem appropriate? Will there be tattoos in heaven? Seeing it from this perspective, it makes tattoos seem even more trivial and meaningless, and nothing less than mutilations detracting from the beauty housed within.
One final though: I have seen so many young women with horrendous tattoos, covering their arms and chests. I realize in this modern, feministic age we live in that being a “lady” is probably snubbed, but I think to myself, “How will she ever have a chance to be a respectable lady? Where is her class?” Perhaps my mindset is too old-fashioned, but behaving like a lady is a natural manifestation of a woman’s nature and is a kind of charity and modesty.
These tattoos are a rejection of that charity and a rejection of aligning oneself with the unique role God has given to women. How a person looks, dresses, and presents himself to others has just as much to do with one’s attitude toward our neighbors as it is telling about oneself. Therefore, tattooing is not only a defilement of the body that God gave us, but a lack of charity toward our neighbor and the respect and love one owes him.