What does the Church say about tattoos?

Tattoos are a controversial topic because, for centuries, they were seen by society as a mark of rebelliousness. Marking yourself through pain and permanent ink was not a common process for gentlemen and ladies of the time. They were worn as an indicator of your personality and more often than not, they appeared on the skin of sailors, pirates, chieftains, soldiers, and other men of action. Further down the line, they were adopted by a different kind of rebel, the artists of the world: musicians, painters, and other creatives.

But now, tattoos appear in virtually every place you go. Your barista might have a rose on her forearm. It could be the architect designing your house or your personal physician that’s sporting a full sleeve. Putting aside how you might personally feel about tattoos, does the Church have anything to say about this (mostly) permanent form of body art?

Rocio called in to The Patrick Madrid Show to ask this very question. She said that at this past Sunday’s Mass, her pastor contended that tattoos are a form of self-expression founded in ego and are therefore sinful. Rocio, who doesn’t have tattoos nor a plan to get any, said that she hasn’t found anything from the Catholic Church to back up that idea.

“The Church doesn’t have a teaching, per se, that getting tattoos is bad,” said Patrick. “There’s a difference of opinion on this issue, but what I think your priest was driving at is certainly true, and that is, if the motivation to get a tattoo is vanity, then yes, that can easily be sinful.”

Patrick continued, saying that vanity is very closely related to the sin of pride, the greatest of all sins. It is rooted in our desire to appear beautiful and desirable to those around us so that we may feel attractive and wanted. While it’s not a sin to desire to be attractive, it is a sin to become infatuated with the way we look in order to satisfy that desire. When someone combs or brushes their hair, they’re merely performing a common action in order to appear more presentable. But if that person were to undergo fifty plastic surgery operations, cover themselves in tattoos and piercings, and spend extravagant amounts of money on personal care, they clearly have a problem not only with vanity, but with narcissism, self-control, and frugality.

But the case doesn’t even have to be that extreme. Patrick gave the example of the muscular gym rats you see walking around showing off their arms and legs. They probably aren’t wearing tank tops because the weather’s nice or they’re going to the beach. They’re wearing tank tops because they want you to see their bulging biceps and traps. For some people, it’s the same way with tattoos. They might wear clothing that exposes their tattoos so that others will look at them, admire them, or compliment them. We all suffer from vanity, and over-accentuating the time and effort we spend on our bodies may place us in an occasion of sin.

“This is just an observation that goes to the point of what you’re asking about. I would agree with the priest that if getting a tattoo is rooted in pride, in the form of vanity and wanting people to look at you and admire you, that would be sinful. The Church doesn’t say you can’t get a tattoo, but what the Church does say is ‘Examine your motives’.”

The Catholic Gentleman published an article in June of 2014 about Catholics getting tattoos and they base their argument for their allowance on two other things: type and degree. Type refers to the content and location of the tattoo that one might be getting. Obviously, it should not be on a private region of the body or depict any immoral image: anything impure, images relating to the devil or the demonic, overtly gruesome or hateful images, etc.

The degree of tattoos relates to the extent to which one gets tattoos. One’s affinity for tattoos should never verge on obsession, addiction, or infatuation. They shouldn’t be placed in imprudent places or cover one’s entire body. Though tattoos aren’t intrinsically wrong, we are still charged with acting in prudence and temperance.

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John Hanretty serves as a Digital Media Producer for Relevant Radio®. He is a graduate of the Gupta College of Business at the University of Dallas. Besides being passionate about writing, his hobbies include drawing and digital design. You can read more of his daily articles at relevantradio.com and on the Relevant Radio® app.