Thu 30th Oct 2014 | Last updated: Thu 30th Oct 2014 at 16:13pm

Facebook Logo Twitter Logo RSS Logo

Comment & Blogs

Tattoos are a matter of taste, not morality

Personally, I loathe them. But it’s hard to argue that they are per se immoral

By on Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Joanna Southgate was allowed into Ascot despite her inked arms (Photo: PA)

Joanna Southgate was allowed into Ascot despite her inked arms (Photo: PA)

Tattoos are in the news again. It seems that not only does virtually everyone have one these days, but that you can go into the Royal Enclosure at Ascot and no one will bat an eyelid if you show off acres of inked flesh. Indeed, if you are tattooed you are in very good company, along with Edward VIII, George V and of course Samantha Cameron, all of whom were or are tattooed.

But no one really seems interested in the moral implications of tattoos. They are permanent, though they can fade with age, and therefore a tattoo is only to be chosen after careful thought, as you will have to live with the choice you make for the rest of your life. This is why most tattooing parlours will not tattoo people under a certain age. This should give us all pause. It seems to be a denial (quite rightly in my opinion) of a person’s right to choose, and the idea that a person has complete dominance over their own body.

Some religious believers are against all tattooing per se. This is because tattoos are condemned in the Bible at Leviticus 19:28. And so it is that Evangelicals still view tattooing as immoral (see here for an example) as do the Jews (see here for a Jewish view).

The Catholic view of tattoos is surely more nuanced, as no Catholic moralist argues, as far as I am aware, that tattoos are per se immoral. It might be right to have a tattoo for a good purpose. But what that good purpose might be, I wonder… It seems hard to argue that fashion, or the realisation that everyone else is doing it, is in itself a good or proportionate reason to cover yourself in tattoos. Or even, for that matter, to have a small, discreet tattoo. However, we do allow ear-piercing, even for quite young girls, and what on earth is the point behind that?

If asked (not that I have been yet) for advice by someone who was contemplating getting a tattoo, I would urge them not to go ahead. We are in the image and likeness of God: while we can adorn our bodies, we should not deface them. Tattooing strikes me not as adornment but as defacing the body. But it is a hard thing to be precise about. It may in the end come down to taste, which is not the same as morality. Personally, I loathe tattoos. That, in itself, is not a moral feeling. But I think there are good moral reasons not to have a tattoo; and few cogent moral reasons to justify them.

Incidentally, the admired Hollywood actor, Mark Wahlberg, is having all his tattoos removed. This may be part of his seriousness about his Catholic faith, and his turning away from a troubled past. Mr Wahlberg is a tough man, but it seems even he finds tattoo removal painful – which all goes to show that having one in the first place is a bad idea.

  • Benedict Carter

    The Church has always been against bodily adornment that offends against modesty and perhaps against the Pauline observation that the body is the temple of the Holy Ghost. 

    The modern fixation for inserting metal widgets into or through every protruding part of the body, or for tattoos, hardly displays an attitude of modesty or of acceptance of St. Paul’s observation. 

    Therefore there IS a moral dimension to this question. Such defacements (Fr. Lucie-Smith is correct to use the word) may not spring from an immoral purpose but hardly match up to our Christian calling. 

  • karlf

     Don’t the opulent living conditions of the Vatican Palace offend against modesty Benedict?

  • Toadehall

    Here’s my take for what it is worth.  While I understand Father’s position, I think I land in a  slightly different place or at least say it differently.  EVERYTHING we do involves a moral choice, just not everything is a major one.  Every choice we make brings us closer to God or not.  Sometimes those choices are hugely, undeniably, irrevocably bad behaviors that are intrinsically evil  Most are not.  Most of us don’t do things intrinsically bad, just not as well as we should, most of the time.  Example: it is not intrinsically evil for me to buy a new dress even if I already have one.  There may be good reasons to do so.  But there’s likely a better use for my money than satisfying my wish for new clothes.  So yes, to tattoo  or not is a moral choice in my opinion but as the post points out, there are lots of shades to it. And as I grow in faith I hope that I understand the choices, however small, that continue to bring me nearer God.

  • Oconnord

    I admit nothing annoys me more than the idea that men should be treated like hormonal teenagers with impulse control issues. If you steal a car, you can’t defend yourself by blaming the owner for leaving it unlocked or having a nice car. 

  • Scotty Ellis

     “Male circumcision has health benefits.”

    Actually, the consequences of circumcision far outweigh any benefits, except in a few specific cases.  But this article is not about circumcision, so I will leave it at that.

    “Again no one suggested that it is a perfectly moral arrangement. But
    using the word “rapist” again ignores the subtlety of the original
    language, as already pointed out to you once before.”

    I’m afraid you cannot sidestep this issue so easily.  Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Bible confirms that the verse is about violent rape, as do, much more to the point, Jewish rabbis, such as Azriel Rosenfeld.  Again, this issue is not the point of the article, but suffice to say there is more than a little disagreement on your interpretation.

    “Scotty, a lot of what you say seems willfully ignorant. Like this:
    “Jesus and Christianity didn’t appear in the world until about thirteen
    and a half billion years into this universe’s existence and tens of
    thousands of years into recorded human history, so there the sticky
    matter of all the things that happened B.C.” Well, yes, of course it’s
    quite well-known when Jesus lived and founded the Church. We all know
    that, Scotty.”

    What exactly are you accusing me of being ignorant?  You see to agree that what I said is true.

    “The point was that the Truth embodied by Jesus is eternal.”

    Of course, this is a matter of faith that seems uncertain.  But even admitting it is true does not undermine my point, which is that Christ chose to wait to incarnate – and that much of history went on before that incarnation and had an undeniable effect on how His disciples understood that incarnation.

    “Sort of like how the Pythagorean theorem was true before Pythagoras was born, wasn’t it?”

    It has been applicable for most of the universe’s existence, although it is not “true” in an absolute sense.  It is a mental model, a tool that is applicable in every case we experience – but, then, space and distance is not absolute in the manner required for such a distance-relation to be “Absolute Truth” (whatever that means).  It is absolutely true within Euclidean space – there is no reason to assume the universe conforms to such an abstraction, especially on larger scales.  There are quite possibly places and frames of reference in the universe where such a “law” would break down, along with other laws, such as at singularities, or if space as a whole has spherical or curved geometry.  But, sure, I’ll grant you that reality was what it was before Pythagoras abstracted a handy geometrical principle.

  • Scotty Ellis

     “I find tattoos for the most part distasteful. You don’t.”

    I respect that difference.  I personally have no tattoos and don’t want one, and I find many tattoos to be in bad taste.  I also have seen quite beautiful tattoos.  Either way, I see nothing particularly immoral about tattooing.

    “For the record, you do NOT indicate to me that you fully examined the
    Deut passage with pure heart and mind. Your tone points to a dismissive
    attitude that is somewhat dishonest. I elaborated on the translation and
    still you replied as if my text was never written with a rhetorical

    I have read other sources and translations.  I have Matthew Henry’s monumental commentary on my bookshelf right now, and he seems quite clear that the passage refers to rape.  Matthew Henry was, of course, a scholar well-versed in Hebrew who I assume would know what he was talking about.  I am not well-versed in Hebrew, so I try to weigh commentators by their knowledge of the language, among other criteria.  Additionally, I have read Jewish rabbis who seem quite clear that rape – violent rape – is included in the Deuteronomy passage at hand.  So, there appears to be disagreement.  Are you a Hebrew scholar?

    “I don’t see the problem with circumcision because if that is what God
    commanded, then it must be. Abraham nearly sacrificed his only son on
    the same principle of obedience.”

    Have you read Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling?  It is a beautiful – and, in my opinion, deeply haunting – exposition of the Isaac and Abraham passage on Moriah.  I cannot believe that God would command such a thing, but Kierkegaard lays bare what you must believe if you do: you must be willing to say:

    “God might very well tell me to kill my son.  If I had Abraham’s faith, I would do it – and that is a good thing.”

    You may be comfortable with this.  I am not- indeed, I cannot imagine God would say any such thing at all, much less command the extermination of entire people groups.  Again, it may not strike you as morally suspect that God would issue such commands, but then it seems quite upside down that a Christian would approve of genocide and then moralize about tattoos.

    “Cannibalism is condemned by the Father yet here is Christ with the
    Eucharistic sacrament which I treasure above all confusing the faint
    hearted or intellectually proud. Same with the Trinity and monotheism. 
    Surely these ‘discrepancies’ should see you discarding the NT as well?”

    There are, of course, explanations which serve to avoid the cannibalism problem – such as the appeal to the Aristotelian substance/accident distinction.  But that’s not really my primary concern.  I am not here to deconstruct the Eucharist or to conclude whether the sacrament’s similarity to pre-Christian bread and wine religious rituals indicates that God intended to make use of such prototypes in order to prepare the way for the ultimate revelation of Christ or whether it means that the Christian cult is entirely derivative.  I simply meant to say that there is a disconnect between what many Christians seem to blatantly approve of – such as the mutilation, murders, and genocide of the Old Testament – and what they then proceed to condemn others for – such as having gotten a skull-and-crossbones tattoo.

    “Christ is not who he says he is if the OT is false. Full stop. Which
    means hanging on to the “better” bits in Christianity is spiritually and
    intellectually worthless. And for someone of your disposition that
    would seem to me intolerable.”

    Well, I see the matter as far more subtle.  If God is revealing Himself through religions in a way that corresponds to man’s ability to receive that revelation, then there is the possibility for growth and correction.  It makes no sense to say of past beliefs, “because this one bit was wrong, the whole system must be wrong!”  This would be a bit like if Copernicus had said, “What?  The Ptolemaic system doesn’t really account well for the orbit of Mercury?  Well, the whole thing’s a farce – there is no Mercury!  There is no solar system!”  Clearly, an over-reaction.  But this is what you would have me do – throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, and say that if there are inconsistencies or imperfections with the Catholic faith that I have to say it is entirely wrong and worthless.  This may sit fine with you, but I will have no part in such heavy-handed intellectual fits.

  • teigitur

    Indeed. But there can be no denying thats the way SOME men are. But not me of course, or you.

  • Mark Sells

    I think you make some good points.

    I love “Parker’s Back.”  I’ve read all of O’Connor’s fiction and nonfiction.  Just to be clear, though, she probably would not have approved of anyone getting a tattoo.  That’s not the point of the story.  Parker’s great advantage over his wife is that he is drawn to the face of Christ and recognizes it intuitively as the face of God.  He affirms the Incarnation.  She rejects this truth (whatever her official creed may be) when she denies that God has a face.  Parker, like all of O’Connor’s broken and backwards heroes, speaks the truth as best as he can understand it through all the distortion of our Protestant and often post-Christian world.

  • Oconnord

    Of course not us…. It’s not as though one of us took time off to do some much needed DIY, but actually spent the day playing xbox.

  • Scotty Ellis

     I don’t know what Flannery O’Connor would have thought.  I honestly don’t know much about her, personally.  I have a biography of her on my shelf that I just haven’t gotten around to reading.

    That said, I think there’s a little bit more to the tattooing.  In a way, tattooing is seen as incarnational in the context of the story: Parker is literally incarnating (making flesh) the image of God.  There is a way in which his wife’s iconoclasm is utterly Jewish – the rejection of image and symbol as idolatrous.  Parker is far more Christian (whatever his shortcomings may be) and he does not see images as a threat to transcendence. 

    I suppose I brought it up because the story makes tattoos in general a means of grace.  It is the tattooed arabesque dancer who starts Parker on his journey to the hill and the tree (the sign, of course, of Calvary).  I see tattoos, like any artistic medium, as morally indifferent in themselves, open to the embodiment of both base, vulgar, coarse sentiments as well as open to the incarnation of charity, beauty, and so forth.

  • teigitur

    lol, never really did get into that.

  • matt

    Tattooing introduces a very serious problem – it directly impacts blood donation and supply.  Since tattoing needles penetrate the skin, they can introduce disease.  For some time, people were being contaminated with HIV, hepatitis, and other STDs, through tattooing, unless there was adequate sterilization.  Blood banks responded to this threat, by the policy that those who get tattoos, or other body piercings, cannot give blood for a year.  Even worse, the now fashionable habit of getting extensive body tattoos, effectively prevents these individuals from giving blood for many years.  Those of us who give blood, are now being called every two months, because there isn’t an adequate supply.  Think about this.  These warnings about tattooing should be a priority in every school, and by every organization.   For those who think tattooing is so chic, so fashionable, please!!  Your blood is needed! 
    And there is a secondary result – the most reliable blood supply is coming from bloodmobiles parked in front of Catholic Churches….

  • Jason

    I admit this is trite and way off topic, but I just have to know: what is with the two large cherries next to Joanna Southgate’s head in the photo?!?  There cherries are so bizarre, that I actually don’t notice the tattoos as much.

  • JByrne24

    Aren’t the cherries her Ascot hat? I mean you don’t get cherries that big!

  • Let it be…..

    This is an interesting subject. I myself only became catholic over a year ago, two years prior I got a discreet small tattoo on my neck ( back ) of my star sign which is libra. I loath it absolutely loath it I had no understanding at the time what it would one day mean to me in a religious sense. I’m looking into having it removed ……so many young ones are doing it because it simply looks cool in their opinion and they forget they will live with that for the rest of their lives, or because everyone if their friends has one or several more. They look awful I’m in full regret of mine especially now that I understand the whole starsign believe is just morally wrong only the lord knows our destiny not the daily mails starsign interpretation ……..

  • Mark Sells

    I agree.  O’Connor is definitely using tattoos in that way.
    The wife’s iconoclasm is also a kind of Puritanism taken to its logical extreme, its roots in eastern iconoclasm and even Islam.  The first iconoclasts within the Church (Leo the Isaurian, for example, in the 8th century) were influenced in their error by Islam.

  • Parasum

    Except that they tend to import unCatholic attitudes & doctrines into the Church. They are often Fundamentalist, but the Church does not need a pathological condition of Christianity (which it is) to add to its problems.

  • Agent Provocateur21

     Kim, we’ve been living in the End Times since the birth of Christ….

  • Agent Provocateur21

     Wrong Mr. Oconnord, simply wrong. Chastity is for ALL, including women. If a woman reveals too much breasts or other intimate parts of her body; I am sorry, that is a sin in itself. It is written : woe to those who cause temptation (Luke 17: 1-3). No man is an angel. Even monks on the holy mountation of Athos do NOT allow women to enter their land. Why? Because they are humble and pure in heart, they know how weak they are. So please stop telling other people to grow up and spend some time in reflection.

  • Oconnor

    Simply quoting scripture and then making a pious point about temptation ignores both my arguments. I raised two points, the “eye of the beholder” and the “slippery slope” nature of BGLM’s comment.

    The hypothetical woman in question obviously doesn’t agree with your opinion of chastity or chaste clothing. Should she have to change and only wear certain clothes to suit your christian sensabilities? Or does she have the right to wear what she wants and feel safe doing so, (within social norms of course).

    That of course leads to the slippery slope, if women have to dress to chaste christain standards for the “sake of your soul”, then why not to Afghan or Saudi standards. The arguments you use are exactly those used in Saudi to enforce the Hiqab, driving ban and other laws which reduce women to chattel.

    Perhaps you should take the time to reflect that thankfully very few people wish to follow biblical morals anymore. And the world is a much better place for it!

  • Parasum

    “Much of what you write about tattoos would equally apply to make-up – lipstick, eye-shadow etc., and pierced ears for earrings, and indeed jewellery of all kinds, for both men and women.”

    ## How is that an objection to the OP’s argument, though ? If women paint themselves like trollops, rather than dressing modestly, with Christian virtues as their adornment, that does not make their course of action right. St.Paul, echoing Isaiah, had a better idea:

    “9 Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and
    discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments,

    10 but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness.”

    If women did that – and men too – the Church might be a lot more influential for good.

  • SarunaA

    Another liberal catholic view on tattoos.

  • George

    Joanna Southgate is a beautiful woman. What shame that she would mess her body with those disgusting tattoos. I do not get this whole f’en craze. It is just nutso. She is very feminine looking but with the tats she loses that. Horrible juggment. Sorry if I offend anyone with tattoos , but that is how I see this.

  • San Jose is the way

    As an atheist, I am with the religious community that is against them. I am completely shocked at the cavalier attitude for the insecure wannabes, that follow the Hollywood herd and just get one after another, without realizing ramifications of their actions , as far as future job prospects, social standing and even a choice in a mate. It is beyond comprehension for me. Reading many of these blogs even more shocking that college students are shocked that they are being judged by interviewers because of them. My has America sunk. That lady in the pic is a beautiful woman. It breaks my heart that many beautiful women undertake in this self mutilation. Simply disgusting. At least the beatniks could cut their hair when the music stopped.