Let me lay all my biases out from the beginning: This opinion comes from both a Catholic/Faith perspective, but also deeply on my own opinion of tattoos. And I have yet to hear any argument that has convinced me that getting a tattoo – especially one of visual prominence – makes any sense whatever. I think they are stupid, pure and simple. I know that rankles people, but I have a right to my opinion. So, I’m going to be evaluating the question from the perspective of someone coming from a good, Catholic, family who is debating the relative merits of getting a tattoo, but wanted to make clear my initial bias in this question. I admit I will not be able to refuse my opinion of it from my personal bias, and actually I am not even going to try all that hard to do so, because quite honestly I think the reason I already feel that way (and always have) is because I did the more balance, honest evaluation of their merits years and years ago.
So, anyway, my wife has these occasional get-togethers with other homeschooling Catholic moms. The families range in various sizes and in various stages of where they are in life. Some have large families (8+ kids) with some kids already graduated and in adulthood, and it goes all the way down to those with a couple young kids just getting rolling.
Without exception, every family takes their faith life seriously, and it is important to them to pass on their Catholic faith to their children. Of course, we all have our own approaches and styles, and one could debate the strategy of trying to make this happen all day long. Ultimately, all this really tells me is that none of us our perfect and it shows the importance of relying on God all the more in our journey as parents. One of my favorite little prayers to utter is “God, please help these kids turn out OK despite my own stupidity and laziness.”
One of the moms is struggling a bit because her 2nd oldest son has a couple tattoos. And now the third one has a sizeable tattoo on his forearm and wants to get one on his other forearm. She has tried to argue for why this isn’t a good idea, and as is typical of young men, they think they know better than their mom. Now, these young men, to my knowledge, have not strayed in their Catholic faith, still find it important, and still practice it. They do not see any conflict with the faith and getting a tattoo.
And this is where my opinion comes in.
First, let me be clear. I do not think, nor will I suggest, that there is anything intrinsically evil or sinful with tattoos. Like many things, the real question is a matter of what is driving someone to do something. But I do think that someone really needs to be honest with themselves in evaluating why they want a tattoo if they are indeed considering one. This shouldn’t be problematic – we really should do this with everything we do. Why do a I want ten million dollars? Because I want to give it away to the poor or because I want to have an easy life with little or no responsibility? Most of us would fall somewhere in between those two extremes, and while most of us aren’t going to get ten million dollars it’s still a worthy mental exercise to go through an honest evaluation and promise yourself and God what it is you would plan to do with it if it ever happened.\
Here are my opinions and responses to some of the clever (or not so clever) arguments on the matter.
- Argument: Getting a tattoo today is like getting your ear pierced years ago. It has become much more accepted, and is not looked at as a big deal. Full disclosure – I got my ear pierced in my college days. I was in a rock band, admittedly liked the looks of it, and I did it. I don’t even regret it. I thought it looked cool. There was no more motivation behind it than that. But I am not being a hypocrite here, in my opinion, with that comparison. Because even back then, I considered the questions, and even then there were people getting tattoos and doing all sorts of other things. I knew and considered that at any time this was reversible. I knew that at some point in my life, I may well consider the wearing of an earring silly or immature. I knew I could take it out at any time if the situation called for it without needing to mask it. It may or may not have been a dumb thing to do, and I may or may not have had other opinions of me diminished because of it, but the impact was minimal. Also, I could switch it up for the right occasion – a simple stud for normal wear or something gaudier for a show, or nothing at all for a trip to the parents who I knew didn’t love it. So, I get the comparison, and the social attitude may be comparable, but the reality of what you are doing is not comparable.
- Argument: But <insert morally upright individual> has one, and if he has one, it can’t be all that bad! In Catholic circles, the argument du jour is Father Stan Fortuna , who is a Catholic Priest with tattoos. OK, this is always a stupid argument for many reasons, and I’ll address why. Before I do, let me go on record as not intending in any way to disparage Father Stan Fortuna. I honestly have no qualms about him doing what he does or having a tattoo – again, he knows why he does. But whenever someone points to “a” person as the example among a sea of counterexamples, it is in no way an honest argument. If you are truly going to make your life decisions based on the example of others, then you don’t look for exceptions to justify your own behavior. You look for what the majority of people are doing that you admire and respect. Exceptions are just that – exceptions. And there’s a reason why they are exceptions. Now, lest you think I am making an argument about just following the crowd, that’s misreading what I am saying. Being a devout Catholic in and of itself is already not following the crowd. But once you commit yourself, then you do want to follow the examples of other devout Catholics. Most importantly, Venerables, Blesseds, Saints, and the other holy men and women we meet in our life should be very important role models, emulators, and mentors for us. We should follow this crowd whenever the question is something that has a moral or spiritual component to it. And in this case, the vast majority of examples in this group have not littered their body with tattoos. Exceptions exist, of course. But you have to acknowledge the predominant behavior and consider why that is the case. And it is a much stronger case.
- Permanence Matters: My opinion. But while young people don’t like to consider getting older or meeting other people or needing to be a good example for future children and all that, time moves quickly. I’m 48 and I can still very clearly remember my high school and college days. I remember how I thought about things, felt about things… young people today have a difficult time thinking we can relate but I can tell you those youthful memories are very clear – we do get it. I may think it’s stupid to color your hair pink, or pierce your nose, or wear some of the clothes you wear. And I may argue why those things are stupid, and you may ignore me because I’m older and I don’t get it (even though I generally thought the same thing when I was young). But ten years from now you won’t have that hair color any more, you probably won’t have the nose piercing, and you won’t be wearing those same clothes. Because you’ll grow and mature and change the way you think, and for your own reasons decide that it’s time to move on from that experimentation. But you ink a huge Eagle – or even a Cross – on your forearm or your back and it’s there forever unless you go through the agonizing and expensive experience of having it removed. To not even rationally consider this element of getting a tattoo shows a lack of maturity and foresight, in my opinion.
- Desecration of the Temple matters: OK, I want to reiterate that the heart is what matters. And someone may really think and believe that they have a good reason for doing what they are doing. And they may even think God likes them getting a religious tattoo. But God still made you the way you are – without them. Relating this to permanence, you are purposely changing yourself. Others may disagree with me, but this smacks of someone thinking that they can improve upon what God has made you. This isn’t trying to keep you healthy or fix a medical condition. It’s fundamentally changing the intended design of who you are and how you were made. Sure, it may be cosmetic in nature, but it’s also readily apparent for all to see.
- Size matters: I am against all tattooing, but like all other things of questionable nature there is scale as well to consider. If I see someone with a pierced nose, I may think it unnecessary and a bit silly, and I don’t really get the draw, but it’s not an overwhelming shock. If I see someone with a nose, lip, eyebrow, and cheek pierced I am going to form an unfavorable opinion of that person in some way. I try not to be judgmental, and I am not supposed to judge the heart, and I try my best not to. But this person is also bringing a bit of this upon themselves by publicly mutilating their body. My judgment isn’t really one about the salvation of the person. It is more a general feeling that something is really missing in this person’s life that they are trying desperately to fill. Others may go to other unfavorable thoughts of what that person might be like it. And you can lecture as much as you want about that being wrong, but it is also human nature, and quite frankly it’s not 100% wrong. We are given the discernment to separate out right from wrong and right things from wrong things. Without even judging the heart of a person, I am not going to apologize for knowing that there is something wrong or problematic about the actual act and display of getting multiple piercings. I will just try not to jump to conclusions about the person – though it can be very hard to separate the two. Likewise, I could probably live with a small tattoo that may have some unknown personal meaning, but the more there are and the bigger they are is going to directly impact my first impression of you. And as to the argument that it’s my problem and not yours, that’s dead to me. Sure, any judgment may be my problem to an extent, but it’s also yours. Whether endearing yourself to future in-laws, applying for work, making new friends, etc. these things are all your problem. And unless you never judge anyone for anything, you can’t expect others to act any differently. And if nobody ever judges anything, then God help us all.
I could actually go on. Believe it or not, there are still additional points I could make. But I’ll leave it to this last thing:
- Find older people in your Church who you know to be faithful people, who also have predominant tattoos. Get to know them and then ask them if they are glad they have them. I have done this on a few occasions, and in most cases there is regret. In some cases there is acceptance that they did what they did and it doesn’t bother them. In no cases yet have I heard anyone thrilled to death about how great their tattoo is, and they’d do the same thing all over again, and only regret that they don’t have more.
Of course, I could be completely wrong.