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

  • Faith

    “Body piercing.” Only one person was truely pierced for our sins, Jesus Christ. As our thought of sin enters our mind we hold the nail to his palms and feet with the other hand holding the hammer. When sin is committed nail is placed on wrist bones and feet and hammer is pounding nails into flesh and bone, into virgin flesh and virgin bone. Think of this next time of doing FAKE body piercing. Just wondering as skin sags and looks like a prune how does the” body art ” hold up or even look???? True memories are held permanently in people’s minds and shared with other hearts in their lives until their souls are called home and meet each other again. Tattoed flesh and virgin flesh turn into dust and ashes they are not for eternity as treasured memories are precious for a lifetime with our beloved ones and even strangers remembering our services to them and others.

  • Adam Spencer

    I think tattoos can be done for many different reasons and I really think the whole concept is rather amoral. I can get a tattoo with Satan or a tattoo with Jesus… Which do you think will portray a better message and initiate a better conversation? I use mine as a daily reminder and a way to evangelize. On my left shoulder is a Chi Rho symbol and around it in Greek is Revelations 3:16 “So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” It is a daily reminder to me to be 100% committed to my Catholic faith or not at all. I plan to add to this with more spiritual art work and ancient texts. If it helps me evangelize to even one person(while reminding me of who and what I am as a Catholic), I figure it is yet another avenue of the Holy Spirit working in me to talk about Jesus and my faith in the Church while trying to live it out. I also think it a gift from God the kinds of artwork tattoo artists can do. And if I am not mistaken, haven’t tattoos been around since ancient times? They definitely mean different things in modern times, but you never know… There could have been an apostle or saint that had one back in the day =) I think in the end it really depends on the intent of why one gets a tattoo, not the fact alone that they get one. Good article though and definitely I respect your position Emily!

  • Mack Hall

    Honestly said, and bravely, since the pack-culture attacks people who choose to speak truth to disfigurement and disease.

  • bill

    Michelle is right:::She says, What really is the point of this article? I guess you could use the same article and replace “tattoo” with “makeup,” “hair cut,” “hair color,” etc.
    Let me add my very large side tattoo from arm pit to hip is of a the genre momento mori – remember man you are dust. Hmm, isnt that what the priest says when he puts ashes on heads? My tat is of a statute of prince of orange who died in battle at age 26. his wife commissioned the statue of him holding his heart up to God – to remind all that he died for God, country and children. Every thing he did was for them. Like me, a father of eight, the tat is all about my God and my children – and to remind me that I am dust – that is all ageless. The tat shows only eight fingers – five and three held up to God (trinity) holding my heart out to him. take a look. plus no one sees my tat but family.é_de_Chalon_%28Ligier_Richier%29.jpg

  • Greg

    “I, uh, notice you don’t have any tattoos. I think that’s a wise choice. I don’t think Jackie Onassis would’ve gone as far if she’d have had an anchor on her arm.”
    Steve Martin, as C.D. Bales, to Darryl Hannah, as Roxanne Kowalski, in the movie Roxanne.



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