The Thinking 

On the Morality of Tattoos

April 2, 2011


THE REV. James Jackson, FSSP, of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Littleton, Colorado, offered his reflections on the subject of tattoos to his congregation in his parish bulletin last year. He wrote:

If the tattoo extols what is base or ugly (remember beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, but is an objective reality), then it is contrary to the virtues of modesty and purity. Rejoicing in or promulgating what is ugly is also against the proper order of creation and the Creator.

His entire essay is reprinted below.





I was asked some time ago to give some guidance on tattoos, and though it took far too long to get to this, here is my advice on the subject.

In the Old Testament we read the following: “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh, for the dead: neither shall you make in yourselves any figures or marks. I am the Lord.” (Lev. 19.28)

With that being said, we Catholics are not fundamentalists (may it please God) and it would be wrong to condemn everyone everywhere who has a tattoo, or even many tattoos. It so happens that in some cultures, marks on the flesh are quite acceptable. Ethiopian Christians tattoo the cross on their foreheads and I understand this to be an ancient custom. I’m not advocating cultural relativism here, but there is a social element to this morality.In Western societies however, a tattoo would serve a very different function e.g., mere decoration. So when would the decoration be unacceptable? Here are a few guidelines:

1. If the tattoo damages the body (which is a temple of the Holy Ghost), then this is a sin against the 5th Commandment. Some tattoos do just this and thus constitute self-mutilation. In fact, any tattoo (or jewelry for that matter) which is contrary to good health (tongue piercing for example) is against the 5th Commandment. If the damage to the body or to health is serious, then the sin is serious. If the damage is slight, then the sin is slight.

2. If the tattoo is a diabolical image, this obviously would be against the 1st Commandment. Any sort of pictures of the devil or of pentagrams or what-not which extol or honor evil violate the commandment, though the pictures could be a serious or a slight violation. You may find this odd to say that it could be slight, but in the sense of a cartoon or impish playfulness it could be only slightly sinful or perhaps not sinful at all.

3. If the tattoo extols what is base or ugly (remember beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, but is an objective reality), then it is contrary to the virtues of modesty and purity. Rejoicing in or promulgating what is ugly is also against the proper order of creation and the Creator. Again, this promulgation can be serious or slight.

4. If the motivation for the tattoo is to shock or repel others, then this is contrary to fraternal charity. If the motivation is to shock or repel one’s parents, then the sin is against the 4th Commandment.

5. If the tattoo is designed to be irreverent,such as tattooing a crucifix or an image of Our Lady, then this is contrary to the 2nd Commandment. This also applies to the tattooing of the Holy Name on the skin. The violation of the 2nd Commandment can be slight or serious in this regard too.

6. If the tattoo is the result of vanity – showing off to others how cool (or daring or brave or whatever) you are, then this is contrary to humility, and is an exercise of the sin of pride. This really has to do with intention however and not so much the external reality.

7. If the tattoo is procured as a result of immaturity, self-centeredness then it is contrary to the virtue of humility. I think it is rare that the sin in this sense would be serious. This would be more in line with a “youthful rebellion,” though I don’t mean to excuse it.

In short, it would be very hard to justify a tattoo of any kind in our country. I can think of no good reason to get one and plenty of reasons why not to get one. When I refer to a good reason I am referring to the goal of this life, which is union with God and everlasting life in heaven.

Even presuming for a moment that the tattoo did not violate any of the Commandments or virtues, it is still dangerous psychologically. Here in Colorado it is state law that the one giving the tattoo must inform the recipient that the reception of tattoos is psychologically addictive.I don’t know much about the effectiveness of such warnings, but the fact that they must be given is significant.

Furthermore, I can think of nothing which would justify the expense of getting a tattoo. They are not cheap. Their removal is even more expensive, leaving behind damaged skin. So if there is some justification for it, I just don’t know what that would be.

If a Catholic has a tattoo, are they morally obliged to remove it? That depends on several things. If the tattoo is a serious violation of a commandment, then yes, a serious obligation to remove it exists. If the tattoo is not visible to the public or is only slightly sinful then the obligation of removal is slight. If one does not have the financial means to remove it, then that too is a mitigating factor to its removal.

Finally, it seems clear that tattooing is contrary to right reason. Human skin is not canvas. It was created for a different purpose.


                                       — Comments —

Michael S. writes:

Here’s a stronger view:

“… and so any tattoo—tribal, Satanic, or “cute” — marks your body with the sin of idolatry…”

Karen I. writes:

My mother-in-law got a tattoo on her arm in her mid-fifties, which was also when she stopped attending church. She got it enlarged two years later. My husband was horrified that his mother would do such a thing. He said the one good thing about it is that our kids will never think tattoos are cool because Grandma has one! 

My former neighbor (a mother of four) also got some tattoos. She wanted to be cool so she chose a tiger on the top of her breast, where it would show if she wore low-cut tops. She also got what we call a “tramp stamp” on her backside. It showed if she wore low cut jeans. The tattoo artist made the tiger’s paw too big and it looked like a tiger stepping on her breast so she kept that covered up. I guess she considered the “tramp stamp” a success though, because she constantly sat outside on her front stoop in low cut jeans to show it off. I was thrilled when she moved because it meant I no longer had to look at her rear with a tattoo above it.

Laura writes:

Tattoos are hideous and evil.

When people need tattoos to make the human body interesting they have become aesthetically comatose.

Fred Owens writes:

“Tattoos are hideous and evil.”

Yes, but why have they become so popular? Tattoos have been considered the mark of savagery for centuries. Sailors and ladies of the demi-monde had them, but respectable folks did not. I remember spending time with an “old salt” at the nursing home when I worked there. He told me tales of the Seven Seas as he lay dying, and he had a magnificent eagle tattooed across his chest.

I make an exception for him. Most of the tattoos I see nowadays are aesthetically revolting, never mind the moral question. So I ask again — why do the young folk favor them so much? I believe they unconsciously seek a kind of permanence and security.

The world seems topsy-turvy — nothing is clear and certain, not religion, not their parents, and not their government. Friends come and go. The climate might change. Jobs might disappear — but you can get a tattoo, and you can keep it forever, it will never change, and you will never lose it. You will have something, marked on your body, that is more permanent and more secure than anything else that you might believe in. You get a dragon tattooed on your forearm and you have a true friend forever.

Laura writes:

Tattoos are a form of bravado, a pretense of courage and rebellion. Teenagers often act in an arrogant way because they are uncertain and dependent on the opinions of others. Similarly, tattoos are badges of rebellion worn by conformists. Self-mutilation makes people feel alive when they are spiritually dead.

Simone writes:

Your post about tattoos brought to mind an article by Theodore Dalrymple in which he exposes the shallowness of those who proudly sport ‘idiot badges’ on their bodies.  I’ve saved it to read with my daughters, as a cautionary tale, when they’re a bit older, although I’m confident that the prohibition in Leviticus will more than suffice to keep them from mutilating G-d’s handiwork.

Laura writes:

Dalrymple writes about his interviews with people who had tattoos:

What is striking about these “tattoo narratives” (as the author calls them) is their vacuous egoism. The interlocutors speak, and appear to think, in pure psychobabble, that debased and vague confessional language that allows people to imagine they are baring their souls when in fact they are exposing their shallowness. This is something the author does not notice because she herself belongs to the psychobabble culture. One cannot but feel sorrow for people who think that by permanently disfiguring themselves they are somehow declaring their independence or expressing their individuality. The tattoo has a profound meaning: the superficiality of modern man’s existence.

James P. writes:

I started seeing tattoos on white college students in the early 1990s. Those kids are now about to hit 40. When I see someone in that age group with tattoos, it always strikes me that the tattoos didn’t age very well, as I suspected they wouldn’t at the time, What might have seemed daring and edgy on a 20-something in a bar back in the day looks totally ridiculous on a 40-something mom in a minivan today.

Laura writes:

As Karen I. points out, there are middle-age people who are getting them. They apparently have no horror of what they will look like in a couple of decades. I guess they don’t believe they will get old.

Tattoos are depressing. It doesn’t matter whether they’re on a young person or someone pretending to be young. They are all ugly in a monotonous way, like the loud rock music in pharmacies and supermarkets.

Eric writes:

It is graffiti on your body. A person with tats looks like a subway car after the ‘youths’ have attacked it with spray paint. They have artistic pretensions, just like tattoo ‘artists.’

A reader writes:

My husband has a tattoo. He got it to “warn” others not to mess with him, so it definitely originated from a sin against “fraternal charity” as Father explains. But that was when he was very young. When I met him, it was not proportioned well. It needed to round up over his shoulder a little more to look like it belonged there. It’s a long tribal. They have become pretty common. That is the only tattoo he has, and so far, he has let my “no” to anymore stand firm. I used a marker and drew what I thought needed to be added, and he had it done. I find it extremely attractive, to be honest. I don’t know why. I think most tattoos are just ugly mistakes. But his just suits him. At least for now. Maybe when he’s an old man he’ll regret it! I think he will more than likely feel it was worth it. 

My husband does Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I have noticed that the MMA fighters (UFC, etc.) almost all have tattoos. The men who only practice BJJ are less in the inked-up numbers, but the trend definitely bleeds out from the fighters. I wonder if getting tattoos because you’re involved in this sport relates at all to the innocence of getting them for social purposes in a tribe.

Bruce writes:

Thanks for blogging on tattoos. I feel so strongly against them that I have nothing analytical to say.

They are still spreading rapidly here, and have been for about 20 years. Fairly ordinary girls are getting their necks tattooed up behind the ear – impossible to hide; it cannot be long before faces are included.

I have even seen tattoos on female librarians.

To see this is terribly depressing to the spirit. The soulless corruption of England is so nearly all pervading.

Brittany writes:

I agree that most tattoos are stupid and unattractive but some body art can be beautiful like henna. Other tattoos can have meaning like having a dead love one’s name on your arm. You mutilate yourself in a way by having your ears pierced too.

Sage McLaughlin writes:

I have a confession to make:

I have a tattoo on my right upper arm. It’s a hideous, devil-inspired thing. In the awful days of my Augustinian youth, I was literally crazed. Fortunately, this means that no one can accuse me of being “judgmental,” or claim that I just don’t understand the issue. I understand it all too well, from the inside, and can attest to the truth of Dalrymple’s description of the process, its motives, its psychic significance. The frivolity of the act itself is confirmed by the frivolity of the arguments raised in its defense.

Anyway, there’s nothing much to be said that hasn’t been said. Sometimes when a topic comes up like this, though, it’s healthy for the maintenance of one’s humility to admit fault. :)

Laura writes:

I’ve made worse mistakes.

Matthew writes:

Thanks so much for posting a thread on this.

Tattoos are self-mutiliation. They are a scream of despair and pain, much like facial piercings. People feel ugly and empty inside, so they disfigure themselves in order to express their pain. Of course they convince themselves that it’s because tattoos are cool and attractive, but the truth is that they are in pain. Tattoos have become popular because a lot of people are in deep spiritual pain.

Everyone knows that tattoos are ugly and trashy. That’s WHY they get them. It’s self-destructive, just like using heroin or working at a strip club. Every year, people start using heroin knowing full well that it is addictive. They start using it anyway. That’s an extreme example of self-destructive behavior. Getting a tattoo is not as serious as using heroin, obviously, but it’s on that same spectrum.

A couple of years ago, the New Yorker ran a funny cartoon on this which is pretty insightful.

In the end, tattoos are a symptom of our sick and decadent society. Sadly, this society creates a lot of hurt and broken people.

Van Wijk writes:

Just out of curiosity, do you consider every sailor with tattoos to have some sort of mental problem? Did King George V, who had a dragon tattooed on his arm, have a mental condition for wanting to get tattooed?

Laura writes:

We’re talking about the mainstreaming of tattoos, not tattoos as the badge of a distinct subculture.

Father Jackson wrote:

It so happens that in some cultures, marks on the flesh are quite acceptable. Ethiopian Christians tattoo the cross on their foreheads and I understand this to be an ancient custom.

Sailors have worn tattoos for hundreds of years. That’s a different phenomenon from middle-aged women and thirty-something librarians wearing tattoos. There’s a man who stocks shelves at my supermarket. He’s a decent-looking man in his twenties. His arms are entirely covered in tattoos.

Van Wijk writes:

You wrote: “We’re talking about the mainstreaming of tattoos, not tattoos as a badge of a distinct subculture.”

Okay. But otherwise, tattoos are indicative of some mental instability, yes?

For the sake of full transparency, I’m heavily tattooed, down to the wrists on each arm. I’ve found them aesthetically pleasing since I was a young child and have always felt drawn to them.

I’d like to thank Matthew for the best laugh I’ve had all week. You can take everything I’ve ever said with a grain of salt, since my statements and arguments are the product of a shattered, depraved mind, thrashing about in an attempt to convey my profound inner torment. :-)

Laura writes:

Obviously many people agree with you and find tattoos attractive. Do you find the ones you see everywhere attractive too? It’s not the owner of the tattoo that notices it the most; it’s other people.

Steve T. writes:

Father Jackson writes:

5. If the tattoo is designed to be irreverent, such as tattooing a crucifix or an image of Our Lady, then this is contrary to the 2nd Commandment. This also applies to the tattooing of the Holy Name on the skin. The violation of the 2nd Commandment can be slight or serious in this regard too.” 

I amateur box, therefore I come into contact with many heavily tattooed men. In my experience, at least among the Mexican boxers I’ve met, their whole-back tattoo of La Guadalupana is NOT meant to be irreverent at all. It’s meant to be a loud proclamation of their (specifically) Catholic faith, their devotion to the Most Holy Virgin, and their pride in their Mexican identity. And at least in one documented case, the Lord has used such tattoos as a channel of grace to draw a lapsed Catholic back to the Faith. Paulo Roberto, who is famous in Europe as a fighter, specifically points to how a unique set of circumstances drew him back into the confessional and back into the Church in this interview on EWTN’s The Journey Home.

I am not advocating tattooing or attempting to negate the too-often neo-pagan or downright demonic nature of many tattoos. However, I am highlighting that tattoos are not always meant to shock or horrify, and for some they are a testiment of faith.

Laura writes:

An act that proclaims or publicizes one’s faith is not necessarily good. If I were to spray paint a crucifix and a Bible verse on my house I would be visibly proclaiming my faith. But I would also be defacing property and creating an eyesore. Our skin does not belong to ourselves alone. It is what other people see.

People may have good intentions in having themselves tattooed. They may believe it is beautiful or an important expression of faith. But they are also proclaiming that tattooing itself is good. This is an encouragement to others who may not have such honorable motives or choose reverent tattoos.

Laura adds:

Here is a good analogy to tattoos of the Blessed Mother.

This woman teaches “pole dancing for Christ.” She believes this dancing is a respectful and sincere expression of faith. She may be a decent person, but her reasoning is misguided and what she is doing is wrong.

Truthfully, I think it is presumptuous to wear permanent holy images on one’s skin. This is a form of self-idolatry.

Van Wijk writes:

You wrote: “Do you find the ones you see everywhere attractive too?”

A shoddily-done tattoo will look hideous, regardless of its subject.  A tattoo done by an experienced artist, that does not depict something vile, can be exquisitely beautiful

Laura writes:

Since the tattoo artist asserts that tattoing itself is good, he has no grounds to object when someone creates an ugly tattoo and says he finds it beautiful.

Laura adds:

I don’t find the tattoo Van Wijk mentions beautiful. I don’t find the image beautiful because it is on skin and thus calls to mind 1) the pain involved in receiving or removing the tattoo and 2) the inevitable appearance of this tattoo 30 years from now.

The skin is the most sensitive of human organs, the medium of exquisite contact with the physical world and with other human beings. It is sensitive to pain and pleasure like no other part of our bodies. There is nothing more beautiful in the young. It records time and change as if a sculptor was assigned to each one of us. I cannot understand leaving our own inferior impressions, however tasteful or artistic they may be, on what is so finely and mysteriously wrought. We must experience some injury to our awareness of what skin is or, by some misfortune of fate or congenital deficiency, never have possessed it in the first place, before we are tattooed.

Matthew writes:

Van Wijk asked earlier whether I think that his tattoos, which cover both of his arms, are a sign of inner pain. The answer is that I think they are. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, and I’m not trying to put him on the spot. Everyone has got issues, including me. A big part of life is learning what our issues are and how to deal with them. I know that I have come to an understanding of many of my own issues, such as anger, slowly. It’s not like I woke up one day and a light bulb suddenly went on, symbolizing the fact that I’ve got things all figured out. One of the reasons why I am a traditionalist is because I think that the traditions established by our forefathers provide a road map for getting through life and avoiding pitfalls. You don’t have to figure out what is harmful and what is helpful by yourself. For example, there is a good reason why divorce has always been stigmatized – it’s harmful. Sometimes it’s hard to see that when you aren’t getting along with your spouse, or when you meet someone else who you are attracted to. When that happens, the social stigma is what saves you from throwing your marriage away and destroying your family and your children’s sense of self. 

I do think that tattoos are a sign of inner pain. As Mrs. Wood mentioned, I think that the pain associated with the act of tattooing is symbolic and very suggestive of why people are subconsciously motivated to do it. I think that people are disfiguring themselves and making themselves look ugly and low-class because, deep down, they feel ugly and low-class. I am not saying this to be hurtful, it is what I think. 

Sure, if you are in the Marines, I suppose a globe and anchor tattoo or USMC is OK. Ditto the Navy. But even then, you wouldn’t expect a general or an admiral to have one of those tattoos. That is not to say that there is anything wrong with being an enlisted man or an NCO – of course there isn’t, I’m not a snob. But you get the idea. 

If you have tattoos and like them, that’s great. But I personally think they were a mistake and suggest that in some way, you weren’t happy when you got them. I would urge you not to get any more, but that’s up to you, it’s none of my business. But you might want to think about why you got the tattoos to begin with. We’ve all got our issues. I know that I have done self-destructive things, more than I care to admit. In today’s society, this happens a lot. My guess is that for you, tattoos were a self-destructive act. Again, I don’t mean to single you out and I am sorry if this is offensive. But you asked, so I wanted to give you a truthful answer.

Van Wijk writes:

That question was facetious.  I thought that was fairly obvious.

“Sure, if you are in the Marines, I suppose a globe and anchor tattoo or USMC is OK. Ditto the Navy.”


If a tattoo is in and of itself an indication of inner torment, as you assert, what makes a sailor or Marine immune?  If a person with a tattoo has a twisted awareness of what skin is, explain why the awareness of the sailor is intact.  Explain the difference between the two cases, and what it is exactly that makes the sailor different. 

As far as tradition goes, this one began (or, more properly, was reintroduced) with Captain James Cook’s expedition to Polynesia in the 18th century.  Tattooing was common among the pagans there, and many of Cook’s men returned to England with tattoos.  Most of the criticism in this article is based upon Christian teachings.  I respect Laura’s prerogative just as I respect Christianity, but I am not myself a Christian.  Let’s say that I am, in fact, a pagan.  Since the pagan tradition of tattooing is vastly longer than that of sailors (which itself was only made a tradition because of contact with pagans), on what basis do you now criticize my tattoos?  Are they still a product of inner pain if they are meant to honor my ancestors the Picts?

Laura writes:

I think both Father Jackson and I made it clear why tattooing is different, though not necessarily good, when it is the tradition in a subculture. A person who wears a military uniform is not promoting the general use of the military wardrobe. A military man or sailor wears a tattoo to affirm his identity.

This entry started off with a priest’s reflections on tattoos. It is about the Christian perspective on the issue. But Van Wijk does not address the overall concern here, and that is the remarkable mainstreaming of tattoos in Western society, especially in America and Britain. He asks, “on what basis do you now criticize my tattoos?” Does Van Wijk prefer to live in a pagan society or a Christian one? If the former, then he should have no problem with middle-aged mothers walking around with bared breasts and rear ends so that their artwork might be seen or teenagers sporting diabolical images. If he prefers the quality of life in a Christian society, then he should reject the spread of tattoos beyond a small masculine subculture because they are an affront to Christian morals.

My hunch is, Van Wijk would respond that there are more important things to think about. To which I would respond, a society is built on its manners. Taken one by one, they are unimportant but cumulatively they are very important. Tattoos contribute to a general atmosphere of degradation and selfishness. People defer less to each other and to agreed-upon standards of beauty. Try to mount a cohesive assault against the serious threats to our culture in a climate that encourages tattooed grandmothers and you will find yourself with scanty forces.

Van Wijk writes:

You wrote: “I think both Father Jackson and I made it clear why tattooing is different, though not necessarily good, when it is the tradition in a subculture.”

I’ve already recognized the Christian argument. I was addressing Matthew’s baldfaced assertion that one must be in inner torment if one is to get a tattoo. Let him answer my points, if he is able.

“But Van Wijk does not address the overall concern here, and that is the remarkable mainstreaming of tattoos in Western society, especially in America and Britain.”

Because I don’t see anything inherently wrong with it. If I did, I would not have been tattooed myself.

“If he prefers the quality of life in a Christian society, then he should reject the spread of tattoos beyond a small masculine subculture because they are an affront to Christian morals.”

Being a traditionalist doesn’t mean turning my brain off. If something doesn’t make sense to me, I’ll question it. I accept Christian morality because, in the vast majority of cases, it is self-evidently true; I do not accept it because Christians insist I must. Your argument boils down to “Tattoos are immoral because the Christians say it is, and if you don’t like it, go live among the pagans.” If that’s what you’re selling, you’ll find few buyers.

I seriously doubt that the Church immediately accepted sailor tattoos as acceptable for a “small masculine subculture” upon Captain Cook’s return. It’s more likely that it derided the practice as heathenish. Yet now it is accepted. There was a point in time when this tradition did not exist. The tradition was brought into being by men, as all traditions are. Who is to say what traditions are forming right now?

“My hunch is, Van Wijk would respond that there are more important things to think about.”

I don’t engage in leftist tactics, and I’d prefer it if you didn’t presume to know my mind. I’ve always accepted principle, regardless of how innocuous or small the subject seemed. In this case, beyond the Christian argument (which I find unpersuasive), I see no principle. What I see is the more or less arbitrary preference of one kind of tattoo over another.

Laura writes:

I never said you shouldn’t question the disapproval of tattoos. If I believed that, I wouldn’t have considered your arguments. Nor did anyone say you must accept these other arguments, which were much more elaborate than “tattoos are wrong because Christians say they are wrong.” Theodore Dalrymple is not a Christian and his arguments were quoted too.

I conjectured what would be on your mind because we were not engaged in live conversation. I knew you would correct that impression, and that I would give you the chance to correct that impression, if it were wrong. If that’s a leftist tactic, I am a hopeless leftist and you have found me out.

I don’t know the history of the Church’s position on tattoos. Father Jackson did not address the issue of tattoos among sailors and military men. I was the one who said these were in a different category and I can’t speak for the Church.

The idea that men have created all traditions, including those in domesticity, childrearing, dress, and manners, is big news to me. I suppose then I will have to keep quiet on the subject and accept that more and more women will look and act like sixteenth-century sailors and savages. Revulsion toward that is “arbitrary” and unenlightened. 



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