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?
Recently on The Patrick Madrid Show, Patrick discussed the story of a woman, Melissa Sloan, who is covered head to toe in over 800 tattoos and is now not only banned from her local pub and from appearing at her children’s school but is unable to find a job. She said she would take any work at all, but she can’t even find anything.
While this is an extreme example of the way one’s life could be impacted by the tattoos they get, Patrick explained that this is the way tattoos used to be viewed: employers didn’t want their employees to have (visible) tattoos. Some customers might interpret tattoos as a sign of poor judgment or as an indicator of a less-than-reputable lifestyle.
Given the story of Melissa Sloan, it would seem that there’s still a remnant of that philosophy among employers.
“It raises the question: Does getting a tattoo change the way people look at you?” asked Patrick. “What I mean is, are there other people — I’m not one of them by the way — who look down on you? Is it possible that getting a tattoo, even if it’s just one or two, might cost you a job? Is it wise to do that to your body even if, for you, it’s really cool?”
Patrick emphasized that although he does not approve of the practice of getting tattoos, he acknowledges the freedom of others to get them and in no way looks down on those who are tattooed. His main concern was for the way others might interpret the mark of a tattoo and whether that might harm the way people perceive tattooed people when it comes to opportunities in life. So, he put these questions to his listeners and received several calls from differing opinions.
Diana from NJ called in to point out that many people get tattoos of religious images like the crucifix, Our Lady, or the Sacred Heart of Jesus and she perceives those tattoos as a way of honoring and showing reverence to them. Patrick said that he respects the decision of those who do apostolate through tattoos, but he still disagrees with the practice as a whole from a practical perspective.
Hallie from TN told the story of how she wanted to get a tattoo in her 30s, but her normally easy-going fiancee pleaded with her to refrain. 10 years later, she doesn’t have any tattoos and she said she’s so glad she listened to her now husband. Louis from IL called in to say that he had given in to that impulse when he was fifteen years old, living a wild lifestyle, and got a tattoo of a marijuana leaf. However, on his eighteenth birthday, he got it covered up with a different tattoo and eventually “straightened out his life”, becoming a surgical assistant by profession. One of his patients, being operated on for organ harvest, was found out to have just gotten a new tattoo. Because tattooing was the #1 cause of the spread of Hepatitis C at the time, they had to cease harvesting. Louis said he’s implored his kids to not get tattoos, but none of them listened.
Dan from MN called in to the show to give the perspective of someone who is covered in tattoos and even used to work in the tattoo industry. He said he’s the stereotypical tattoo guy Patrick is talking about, covered in ink save for his hands and face. His father, who was a Navy man, was covered in tattoos, so his parents never took issue with it when he was younger. And when he had the opportunity to become an artist, he took it and he ended up tattooing for 28 years. He emphasized Diana’s earlier point that the most common tattoos people asked for were for religious reasons. Patrick asked Dan, who clarified that he is Catholic, that if he could do it all over again, would he still get the tattoos or would he remain uninked? Dan said he would still get tattooed, but he would get different ones.
While a subjective conversation that can somewhat be reduced to taste, the real question about tattoos for Catholics surrounds their morality. What does the Church have to say about it? Is it wrong to get a tattoo?
On a previous episode of The Patrick Madrid Show last year, a listener named Rocio called in to tell Patrick that at 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, indiscipline, and prodigality.
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. In many cases, they 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 a few years ago about Catholics getting tattoos and they base the 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. 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 with prudence and temperance.
Tune in to The Patrick Madrid Show weekdays 8am – 11am CT
Interested in learning more about the Catholic Faith? Download the FREE Relevant Radio® App!