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Tattoos: Not just for bikers anymore

Julie Filby

Once upon a time tattoos were limited to the tough guy population—soldiers, bikers, rock stars.

Not anymore.

These days you might see a butterfly tattoo on a mom at back-to-school night, a tribal design on a colleague at a business meeting, a star pattern on the girl next door, or a cross on the person sitting in front of you at Mass.

It’s a fad that’s affected virtually every age group, race, gender, industry and religion. A Pew Research Center survey found that 36 percent of Americans ages 18–25 have a tattoo, 40 percent of those 26-40, and 10 percent of those 41-64. While I don’t have one myself, I know many people who do: most who happily sport their body art, and a few who regret it.

Love or loathe them, perspectives continue to differ regarding the appropriateness and morality of tattoos. Which made me wonder: What does the Church say about it?

In the article “Physical Graffiti: Tattoo You” in Envoy Magazine issue 7.4, Deacon Robert Lukosh from the Archdiocese of Portland wrote that tattoos are morally permissible as long as they respect the dignity of the person:

“Body art as a form of adornment, that is ordered to the ultimate good of the person and to humanity, if it observes modesty and avoids vanity, and if it respects the fundamental integrity of the human person—including the integrity of the body—can be morally permissible.”

However some argue that Scripture prohibits tattoos in the Old Testament book of Leviticus: “Do not lacerate your body for the dead, and do not tattoo yourselves. I am the LORD” (19:28).

OK, don’t do it. Bible says.

“Not exactly,” according to Mark Hart of Life Teen International, who’s affectionately known as the Bible Geek. Hart explained that this verse referred to the ancient mourning practices of the Canaanites that were forbidden for the Israelites. The law was meant to communicate to people that mourning wasn’t necessary if they believed in God’s salvation. It also sought to prevent people from hurting themselves (tattooing could be deadly back then).

“It’s not altogether correct to say a blanket statement like ‘tattoos are against God’ or are ‘anti-Biblical’ because they’re not,” Hart said, adding that the decision of a tattoo goes beyond what the Bible says about it and should be taken seriously.

Hart said some of the holiest people he knows have ink.

“We have to be able to look beyond the exterior... The saints of today are not going to look like the saints of 200 years ago.”

Perhaps getting a tattoo isn’t a question of “good or bad” or “if”—but “why?” Why do people want them in the first place?

People get tattoos to memorialize a person; honor a relationship with a child, parent or spouse; commemorate an event or accomplishment; reflect their heritage; express their personality, convey their religious beliefs; and sometimes, to evangelize.

Christopher Baglow, Ph.D., a professor of theology at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, studies postmodern culture and its relationship to Catholicism. His research suggested that the tattoo phenomenon is so prevalent (“more normative than exceptional”) because it visually demonstrates something significant about self-identity in today’s culture:

“I think in tattooing you see specifically a response to the loss of identity that occurs in a world in which everything is gray; a world in which everything can be deconstructed, and (it) doesn’t mean what it seems to, but can be a play for power. We stamp (our bodies) so no one else can have that canvas.”

Baglow said bodily marking is deeply ingrained in the Catholic faith, though in some ways the concept has been lost in the contemporary practice of the faith.

“It’s the reality of love that differentiates the people of the Church and manifests their identity. Let postmodern Catholics get tattoos. Do not discourage their affection for the outward signs of the faith. But also remind them that these signs, without love, are lies.”

In a world filled with colorful tattoos of angel wings, Chinese characters, loved ones' names, and anything else you can imagine, it doesn’t appear there’s a black and white judgment. Sounds like the more instructive Bible verse could be “…your body is a temple of the holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God…” (1 Cor 6:19).

SHARE YOUR STORY: Do you have a tattoo? Why? What does it mean?

Topics: Culture

Julie Filby, wife and mother of two (ages 8 and 5), is a reporter for the Denver Catholic Register newspaper. She also enjoys blogging at Mother’s Musings about the simple ways Christ is unmistakably present in every-day family and work life. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter. She also contributes to CatholicMom.com and Catholic Lane.

View all articles by Julie Filby

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