Is it a sin to get a tattoo?

What is the morality of tattoos? This was on the mind of Donald, who called Relevant Radio® from Wisconsin to ask, “I was wondering if tattoos are acceptable or if that is a sin?”

“We would normally not take the risk or spend the money involved in tattooing, at the risk of infection and contagion – the risk involved with any medical-type procedure – and inking yourself with a needle has those kind of medical risks, though they’re small. But in addition to that, you would have to have a serious reason to spend that kind of resources that could be used better for something else,” responded Msgr. Swetland, expert in moral theology and host of Go Ask Your FatherTM.

While he discourages against tattooing yourself for recreational purposes, Msgr. Swetland says they are not absolutely prohibited in all circumstances. “I know of cases where people have had scarring because of an accident or burn or something like that where tattooing is used to actually restore an appearance and restore a look that had been lost because of an accident or scarring or burning. So those are medically indicated because you are trying to restore a person’s original appearance as best you can.”

This can be a difficult topic as opinions vary greatly on the morality of tattoos. “I’ve been challenged on this by some in the military … where all the people in a certain platoon or a certain group get a tattoo of their group. And while I understand that, I still am concerned that we’re wasting money, resources, and putting someone at risk medically to do something that doesn’t really need to be done,” said Msgr. Swetland.

Other people argue that tattoos can be expressions of style or fashion, or an even important part of different cultures. “In cultures where this is regularly done to signify certain things like a coming of age or you’ve reached maturity or you’re now considered a full member of the group and that’s what they do in their culture to signify this, you could accept it there. There’d be a serious reason because that’s a communal reality. But … at least speaking in the West here, I would encourage people not to get tattoos unless they had a serious reason.”

An anonymous caller from California wondered if it was required to have his tattoo removed if he had repented of getting it. “This comes up in medical ethics when also discussing reversing immoral procedures such as sterilizations. … It’s not required when we repent and confess and ask forgiveness for a past sin to go through the expense of having them removed, in the cases of tattoos, or of reversing a sterilization process because of the expense and the medical risk involved. You can do that, but it’ not morally required.

“I do know that many people who have tattoos, especially tattoos associated with gang membership, in discussing that with people, they have desired to have them removed and feel it more urgent because of the dangers involved and the bad witness it can be to continue to have those kind of tattoos on one’s person. So, I think in those kinds of cases it could become more morally important to do so. But that has to be a prudential judgment,” explained Msgr. Swetland.