I’ll just get this out there right away—I’ve never liked tattoos. I wouldn’t say I ever felt strongly about them, either, that is, until I was at a waterpark with my kids. My Dad had a tattoo from his time at boot camp with the Marines, but growing up I didn’t see many tattoos. It’s just in the last ten years that they’ve gone from a fringe phenomenon to something you see on a daily basis. This is simply not something that the Church speaks directly on, so I have to be careful of asserting too much, but I think that since so many people get tattoos in youth, its worth saying, “think twice.”

Back to the waterpark. I was just floating along the lazy river when I saw a very beautiful young woman. She was covered from head to toe with tattoos. It actually moved me to tears, to see her natural beauty disfigured by the hand of the tattooist. I’m sure he’s a fine artist, but he can’t match the hand of the Creator. At that moment tattoos seemed like graffiti—scribbling—on the Temple of God.

The Catechism does not address tattoos, but it does speak about caring for our bodies and their health as part of the fifth commandment. It lays out some fundamental principles to help us think about how to care for our body:

  • “Life and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God. We must take reasonable care of them, taking into account the needs of others and the common good” (2288).
  • “If morality requires respect for the life of the body, it does not make it an absolute value. It rejects a neo-pagan notion that tends to promote the cult of the body, to sacrifice everything for its sake, to idolize physical perfection and success at sports” (2289).

Tattoos do not cause physical harm to the body (usually at least), but it comes down more to care and stewardship of the body. The body is not an idol, but a temple; we do not control it, but should use the body to glorify God. We develop the body’s potential to achieve natural health in order to support its ultimate and eternal purpose.

We’re not talking about serious sin in relation to tattoos, but rather about their fittingness. Is there anything worthy of your body to impress on it permanently? Unlike angels, our bodies and minds grow and contract constantly throughout our life. It’s a blessing, and sometimes a curse, as we enjoy the process of discovering and enjoying new things, but we also struggle and fall backwards. In our state of flux, we want our faith to remain firm, but even there we are called to grow in faith and to understand what we believe more and more. It’s hard for us to lock ourselves in to anything in particular forever. Tattoos, despite their gradual fading, attempt to make a permanent mark on the body amid its natural flux.

How good are our reasons to permanently mark the body? Our faith in God, our marriage vows, and death—these things we can, or at least should, count on. Everything else passes away, bodies included and any marks we place upon them. We do live in expectation of a body that will not pass away, and we respect our bodies now in anticipation of this Resurrection. Our bodies fall into God’s plan of salvation history. He is the Creator and Lord of the Body and He has given them to us to care for as part of our natural dominion. Though physical, they relate directly to our spiritual identity and mission. Our souls image God most directly, but the body is the sacrament of the soul and should express its spiritual nature to the world.

I admit, there is a difference between having one or two modestly sized and fittingly placed tattoos and absolutely covering our body with them. Some Christians, especially the Ethiopians, have a tradition of small, religious tattoos. Some of my friends have gotten religious images tattooed, such the Sacred or Immaculate Hearts, but to me it somewhat trivializes the holy images to place them on our bodies. I am not inspired, but confused when I see the Immaculate Heart on someone’s back. Should I venerate it, I wonder somewhat humorously? It may come back to the fact that the body itself should be the sacrament of the soul and it does not need a further mark to shape or prove it. Rather, our bodies glorify God, serve as His Temple, and offer Him worship, as Paul exhorts us: “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1).

Flannery O’Connor, in her own mysterious, dark, and lovely way, may have reflected most profoundly on the relationship of tattoos to the reality of our bodies serving as icons. Her short story, “Parker’s Back,” relates how a nonbelieving man obsessed with tattoos just happens to marry a fundamentalist (and apparently joyless) woman. He can’t seem to resist her or get away from her. After a near death experience, which only O’Connor could conjure, he decides to fill the only remaining space on his body—his back—with a Byzantine style tattoo of Christ the Pantocrator. When his wife sees it, she beats Parker’s back for the idolatry of imaging Christ, filling it with welts over the face of Christ.

I don’t think O’Connor wrote the story as a commentary on the morality of tattoos! Rather, she points us, essentially, to the fact that Parker himself should image Christ to his spouse, not the particular image on his back. She points us to the underlying issue at stake with tattoos: will we allow the body itself to serve as the symbol of the soul or will we obscure its imagery with other competing symbols? (The same principle would apply to clothes as well). Pope Francis asks us to “accept the world as a sacrament,” which includes also “the acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift” (Laudato Si’, 9, 155). We do not “enjoy absolute power over our own bodies,” (ibid., 155).

I think tattoos have been on the rise as we claim more independence and ownership over our lives. Slaves were tattooed by their owners in the past and soldiers marked as well as a sign of their pledge of service. God, in a sense, tattoos our soul, when he placed his indelible stamp upon them when we receive the sacraments. Choosing to place an image or words on our body may be a sign that we belong to ourselves; it may even be an attempt to prove it to ourselves. Unconsciously, we may be marking our bodies to show our own control and lordship over them. Rather, we should allow the body, as “fearfully and wonderfully made,” to speak in itself.

No black and white answers exist when it comes to tattoos. Once again, we must judge their fittingness. If nothing else, I would encourage you to pray hard and think twice before getting one.

  • Shane M.

    I agree with Clare Short, personal opinions passed off as moral imperatives are dangerous and are best kept to one’s self. Refrain from speaking your opinion and offering it up as the voice of the Most High.

  • Clare Short

    This is your own personal opinion and nothing more. It makes no difference to ones salvation whether they get a tattoo or not. Perhaps you should keep your opinion to yourself?

    • R. Jared Staudt

      I would call it a theological argument. It hinges on fittingness not on a moral absolute. Something can be harmful without being absolutely prohibited.

      • Shawn Albert

        Agreed. I think the criticism of you on this point is just typical knee jerk reaction of someone who doesn’t want to hear anything they don’t agree with, which usually means that you struck a nerve. Good article.

  • Ezekiel Cristobal-Addison

    In 1992 I permanently scarred my right wrist. I have to see it everyday. It is a horrid reminder of the most tragic moment of my life. I have chosen to get a tattoo. It will cover its memory with his mercy. I will look at it and remember instead the greatest day of my life — the day he washed me of all my shame, took me in his arms and said, “This is my house and you are welcome here.”

  • Chris

    I appreciate that you’re taking an appropriately soft stance on tattoos given the church’s relative openness to them. Still (and, maybe, precisely because of the Church’s tacit acceptance) this seems like as much of a subjective matter as anything in the Church and I think your post glosses over some of the very good, well meaning reasons that devoted Catholics get very beautiful, well meaning tattoos. I don’t have any tattoos, but my wife does. The largest and most visible is an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on her arm. I’d love for her to tell you about the dozens of times people have come up to her and told hey they liked the “dream catcher” on her arm. Obviously, they had only glanced at it in passing and got seriously confused. What does that allow her to do? It gives her permission to say the name of Jesus Christ to a stranger WITH context. She would tell you how many conversations have been inspired by her tattoo about the beauty of the Church and, indeed, how much the Church values beauty because she recognizes that a thing is only beautiful inasmuch as it resembles God and his love for us. Beauty, then, even in the form of a tattoo facilitates our drawing nearer to God. A friend of ours has a tattoo of Mary that has forced her to have some difficult (and yet both necessary and beautiful) conversations with her sister who, though raised in the Catholic Church, now attends a local non-denominational mega church. Yes, they might have had these conversations without the tattoo, but there’s no doubt that the tattoo moved things along. I disagree with your opinion that tattoos trivialize holy images for precisely the same reason you warn against them. It’s PERMANENT art on one’s body that communicates God’s love that everyone sees every time they see you. Don’t you want people to see Jesus when they see you? Yes, in your actions, the way you live your life and love others, but ALSO YES, literally, on your body. How can that be trivial? I think the greater risk of trivialization is found in all the little medals of saints and other holy images that are passed around like charms or, worse, kitsch. I get little medals in the mail from various religious communities and organizations all the time. What am I supposed to do with them? Stick them in a box and never look at them again? Now, that’s trivial.

  • goldie5

    A priest friend of mine was asked about his stance on tattoos and had a great answer. He said to think of it this way, a Ferrari is a beautiful automobile created by man and you don’t see owners of that finely crafted car putting bumper stickers on it. The human body is created by God so why would the ‘owners’ want to put bumper stickers on that finely crafted body. Ok, he was a lot more eloquent than me but you get the point.