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.

cross-neck-tattoos-for-women

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.

DSCN0495_large

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.

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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.

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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?

Cultural.

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.)

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Categories:Culture Theology

52 thoughts on “Tattoos: Cultural or Catholic?

  1. Maribel says:

    Your article was written intentionally peaceful but it’s sad some comment makers are taking it negatively. :(

  2. Sarah says:

    I completely agree with Jeremy’s arguments. With the argument made in the article above, one could even go as far as to say (against any common sense and church teaching on modesty) that clothing the body is getting in the way of the theology of the body, and therefore, we should all walk around naked.

    1. Albert Mendonca says:

      Well some people do dress as if they are naked.

      That said, is wearing clothes to cover your flesh the same thing as having a tattoo to “express” yourself?

  3. Ron says:

    I suspect that God would very much want us to take care of our bodies but he leaves the choice to us. Suggesting that a tatoo is somehow diminishing our bodies in the eyes of God is a bit of a stretch, however.

  4. Jeremy Tennent says:

    Nonsense. The logical extrapolation of this idea means that exercise to lose weight is somehow interfering with God’s plan for my aging body. Or that we can’t pierce our ears, get cosmetic surgery to hide scars, or even wear makeup. Tattoos, if approached correctly, can express through permanent art the beliefs held dear. Working with God’s plan is not fatalistically resigning ourselves to whatever “happens.” I would remind you that God’s ORIGINAL plan for the human body was for it to NEVER age, NEVER get sick, and NEVER die. Now, here we are in temporary vessels, awaiting our permanent bodies in the Resurrection. If God permits these vessels to get sick, die, and then undergo the ignominy of decay (a fate so horrible, by the way, that our Blessed Mother’s body was spared) then what logic could we possibly use to deny somebody the right to permanently mark their faith onto their body. I had a Celtic cross tattooed over my heart, just before my deployment to Afghanistan, with the idea that I could never renounce or hide my religious identity no matter what happened. And when I’m 70 I will still be proud of the cross, my deployment, and my God. BTW, doesn’t it seem a bit odd that on one hand you condemn the culture of superficiality and then one of your main reasons for opposing tattoos is how they LOOK?

    1. Margaret Calvin says:

      AMEN!!!

      1. Albert Mendonca says:

        The point is not to “worship” your body.

  5. mary franzonelo says:

    Thank you Emily. You say it so clearly.

  6. Jo Naylor says:

    It’s my fault and failure to raise a Catholic girl that has prompted my darling girl to get a tattoo recently, for better or for worse. I wish we had read this article sooner, years ago.

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