Tattoos: Cultural or Catholic?

“You have virgin flesh, don’t you?”

I stared at my questioner, a perfect stranger in an airport bar, absolutely aghast. A dozen different responses flashed through my mind in the space of a second, most of them variations on, “In what barn were you raised?”

Before I could utter a one of them though, he added, “I mean your skin. You don’t have any tattoos, right?”

Oh. Right. Still a darned impertinent question. Just not as shockingly inappropriate as I first thought.

The answer, as I informed him, is no, I don’t have any tattoos. Not a one. Which I know makes me something of a cultural oddity these days. Or, rather, more of a cultural oddity. Really, that seems to be my specialty.

Anyhow, I have no tattoos nor do I plan to get any. Mind you, I have plenty of friends that do. Some love their tattoos. Some regret them. Either way, I don’t think their tattoos are sending them to hell. But just the same, I’ve no inclination to get inked myself…with crosses, rosaries, or anything of the like.


See that red: Eeek.

“Why?” you ask.

Five words: The theology of the body.

Let me explain. No, we all have ADD. Let me sum up.

For the uninitiated, the theology of the body is Blessed John Paul II’s anthropology of what it means to be a human person, a union of body and soul, made in the image of God. That anthropology teaches all sorts of beautiful, foundational things about men, women, and life in this world, with one of its core teachings being this: The body expresses the person.

That is to say, the body is how the world sees us and knows us. Through our mouth, hands, eyes, and feet, who we are and what we love is made known to others. Every look we give and every action we take in some way communicates “us.”

Practically speaking, that means people know we’re happy when we smile and angry when we frown. They know we’re sad when we cry and nervous when we bite our fingernails. They see the struggles of our life written in the lines on our forehead and the joy we feel in the twinkle in our eyes.

Thought and feeling, belief and unbelief, virtue and vice—all of it, somehow, someday—writes itself on our bodies. None of it stays hidden. The body eventually expresses it all.

So, what does this have to do with my aversion to tattoos?

1. The theology of the body helps me understand that everything about my body communicates something about me to the world. And it makes me conscious of what I want to communicate.

Tattoos—whether they’re about one’s Savior, one’s children, or one’s Harley—still convey a common message: “I’m a little bit cool, a little bit wild, a little bit rebellious.” For men, more specifically, they also convey, “I’m a little bit tough,” while for women, they communicate, “I’m a little bit sexy.”

And see, I’m not interested in communicating any of those things. I don’t care about being cool, I’m certainly not wild, and as for sexy, well, that’s not the look I’m going for. Lovely? Yes. Feminine? Totally. Sexy? Um, no.

In a world obsessed with sex, I’m striving to be a joyful, attractive witness to the Church’s teachings on love and sexuality, which as a single woman means I’m supposed to be specializing in chastity and (that dreaded word) purity. To the best of my understanding, that precludes emblazoning, “I’m a little bit sexy” all over my body.


See: Mark 6:21-29


2. The theology of the body also reminds me that as I age and change, so will my body.

Mind-numbingly obvious? Yes. But we live in a culture that wants us to forget the mind-numbingly obvious. It wants us to value the young and the beautiful, live for the moment, and perpetuate our youth in any way we can—by nipping and tucking, dressing at 40 like we did at 14, and getting tattoos just like the kiddies do.

But here’s the thing. 40-year-olds who dress like 14-year-olds look mildly ridiculous. They’d look even more ridiculous if they actually wore the clothes they wore at 14. Bodies change. Flesh moves. I weigh now only a few pounds more than I weighed as a freshman in high school. But my body is not the same. Neither are my clothes. That’s because what looked fantastic on me 24 years ago, would look ridiculous today.

It’s the same with tattoos. God made my body to change as I change. He gave it a plan for aging. And tattoos weren’t part of that plan. Which is why tattoos age about as well as a sweater from 1989.


Circa: 1989

Essentially, to tattoo one’s body is the equivalent of picking out one outfit to wear for the rest of your life. No matter how your body, your soul, or fashion trends change, you’re stuck with that same ill-fitting, inappropriate, outdated outfit. Forever. No changes.

No thanks.

3. Last but not least, I have no desire for tattoos because I’m more interested in seeing what God does with my body than I am in seeing what some tattoo artist can do with it.

It goes back to that starting principle: The body expresses the person.

Emily today isn’t the same as Emily 10 years ago. Not on the inside and not on the outside. I have scars now that weren’t there in 2003. I also have lines, wrinkles, and (approximately) three gray hairs. But there’s also a softness to me that wasn’t there a decade ago. There’s more peace, more confidence, and more love. That somehow shows up too. It’s written on my face as much as the years and the pain are.


Laugh lines—my favorite “tattoos.”

That’s the story I’m interested in my body telling. And God’s way, as opposed to mine, is the way I’m interested in telling it. Life—joy and suffering, peace and pain, sickness and health, what I love and what I hate, what I do and what I don’t do—will be tattooing my body according to God’s design for as long as I walk this earth. Then, by His grace, when I get my resurrected body in Heaven, those “tattoos” will shine like the sun.

Why mess with that?


So, tattoos: Cultural or Catholic?


Tattoos aren’t the worse aspect of the culture. Not by a mariner’s mile. And nobody’s shouting “Anathema” at those who have them. At least this redhead isn’t.

But tattoos are still more a reflection of the modernist understanding of the body—as mere matter, a thing to be used, disposed, or altered at will—than they are of a sacramental understanding of the body—as the sign of the person, an image of God, and a temple made holy by His presence within.

That way—through a sacramental lens—is how God calls us to see the body, and that way is also how He calls us to live in the body. Which is why a tattoo virgin I am, and a tattoo virgin I shall remain. Cultural oddity or not.

(Shameless, but totally related plug: My new book on topics such as these, These Beautiful Bones: An Everyday Theology of the Bodyis now available for pre-order. Books ship September 9.)


Categories:Culture Theology

  • Fred

    BTW, I meant to say “Personally at this point I just council people that think my tattoos are cool and want to get one….”

  • Fred

    As a person with two full sleeves, a partial back piece, and a partial chest tattoo – I feel like I’m qualified to comment here. Tatooos are a joke, a waste of time, and money. People can spin all they want about how their tattoos are different, but the bottom line is that I haven’t met one person yet that hasn’t gotten a tattoo to say “look at me”. Yes, they may pick the most personal tattoo that means something to them, but its still an adornment that says “look at me”. All of the authors article is spot on in every case. Personally at this point I just council people that think my tattoos and want to get one, by telling them they are wasting there time and money and that most likely they will regret it in 20 years. So far that advice has saved a handful of people from being an idiot like me. I thank God for confession for my stupidity.

  • Joe G

    I think that we Catholics should take care to not appear to be so “anti-everything” that nonbelievers are repulsed by it. The Church has no teaching for or against tattoos. Coptic Christians have traditionally worn Christian tattoos, and most Copts have a small cross tattooed on their wrists when young. There is also a tradition of tattooing among Catholic women in Bosnia:

  • Mary Anne

    “I hold that not only virgins and widows, but also wives and all women without exception, should be admonished that nowise should they deface God’s work and fabric, the clay that He has fashioned, with the aid of yellow pigments, black powders or rouge, or by applying any dye that alters the natural features. . . They lay hands on God, when they strive to reform what He has formed. This is an assault on the Divine handiwork, a distortion of the truth. Thou shalt not be able to see God, having no longer the eyes that God made, but those the devil has unmade; with him shalt thou burn on whose account thou art bedecked.”

    The above quote does seem to cover tatoos as well as other common adornments that are no longer commonly used by only females. It does come right out and say that such adornments are a mortal sin. The quote is by none other than Saint Cyprian of Carthage, one of the early Church Fathers, who would come under the New Covenant. This quote appears in a collection of writings by early Church Fathers on the topic of modesty and offenses against it. We have travelled far from modesty with not just tatoos. Take a look at these writings by such authorities as Saints Jerome, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Clement of Alexandria, as well as St. Paul. Are they to be dismissed with “times have changed”?

  • NW

    Firstly, the author was not trying to attack anyone with tattoos. This is very clearly one person’s reasoning behind not getting one, and written as such. Lighten up people, no firefights here.

    There’s nothing wrong tattoo per say, but it belies a larger phenomenon. American culture more and more tells us to value the outward body, that physical part perceived by others. Tattoos are sometimes (not always, but sometimes) given as a way to decorate the body, so as to give it more physical appeal. The inward, the immaterial part of the person is not worth as much to America as the outward. Spiritual beauty doesn’t hold a candle to physical beauty.

    She’s right about America’s obsession with youth. It’s in everything from TV and movies to politics. Old things are lesser, and new things are greater. Young is good, old is bad. That’s not directly linked to tattoos, but that sentiment could lead someone to add body art in the hope of preserving the aesthetic that comes with youth.

    Ms. Stimpson wants to keep her focus on inward beauty, the spiritual person, and helps herself to do that by not getting a tattoo. For all the sentimental value they can hold for the bearer, they do tend to draw the focus toward the physical, away from the spiritual. So she doesn’t want one for that reason. That’s a perfectly fine lifestyle choice. I’m sure she would bring anyone with a tattoo to heaven with her given the chance, and in the end, we’re all trying to live so as to get there, right? Best wishes to all, God bless! ^_^

  • Nicole

    It is always important to have well thought out reasons for all we do. Perhaps tattoos wouldn’t be so frowned upon if each one was given careful consideration. However, many faiths and cultures have been tattooing for thousands of years as a means to show their dedication to god(s). And while no faith apart from Catholism has the fullest of truth, there are kernels of truth in all faiths. Many Catholics choose to consecrate themselves to God or Mary etc… We are incarnate creatures – what we do in the body reflects the soul and vice versus. A tattoo can be a visible (and permanent) sign of this dedication. It also serves as a constant (and permanent) reminder that we one time made that commitment. I can take off or lose my miraculous medal but I have to work much harder to remove the sorrowful heart if Mary tattooed on my arm. It has also lead to so many conversation about the Catholic faith is bars and airport trains etc… where the topic of God would never naturally come up. So God can use them as a means of evangelization. I really think/ hope that my tattoo shines as brightly as the other signs of my suffering for Christ on my resurrected body.



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