“Just another guy with a blog.  No big whoop.”

August 8, 2009

Physical Graffiti: A Catholic Perspective on Tattoos, Piercings, and "Body Art"


Every day across the United States — indeed, throughout the world — men and women, boys and girls, get themselves tattooed and pierced. And not just their ears. They are participating in the modern fad of “body art,” which has its origins in antiquity, but which in recent decades as developed into some extreme forms that are often quite disturbing.

— By Deacon Robert Lukosh, Envoy Magazine —

The intentional marking or mutilation of the human body under the guise of “body art” goes beyond simple tattoos or ear-piercing as adornment for women. For many, it is a personal expression of solidarity with a social cause, a trend that attracts predominately young people, driving them to ever wilder and more shocking expressions of what some term “personal mutilation” that includes: total-body tattoos, pierced eyelids, lips, noses, tongues, foreheads, and even disfigurement of the genitalia, in a never-ending quest for the most “outrageous” form of self-expression through what is commonly known as “body art.”

These forms of personal exhibition have spread rapidly throughout contemporary Western society, resulting in a secondary wave of participants (namely, the children of those who engaged in radical body art during 70s and 80s) who, like their parents and role models, are disfiguring their own bodies irrevocably, claiming as their justification “personal freedom” and a right to unlimited self-expression.

In earlier generations, garish tattoos and unusual piercings were found almost exclusively only among members of social groups and subcultures that lurked at the fringes of mainstream society. Aside from your relatives who served in the military (which is definitely not a fringe subculture), chances are, neither of your parents nor any of your grandparents, aunts, or uncles — in the case of those born before 1950 — have tattoos or unusual piercings. But look around today and you will see a massive number of people — especially young people — who have become enamored of extreme tattoos and unusual piercings.

This modern fad of body art permeates American society, affecting virtually every industry, age group, race, sex, and religion. Since many of these people occupy leadership and mentoring roles in the lives of children and young adults, such overt displays have an additional rebound effect by providing tacit justification sufficient to overcome the doubts of those who are unsure if they want to dabble in the body art fad themselves, resulting in yet a third generation of pierced and tattooed bodies. . .

(continue reading this article in PDF form).

15 comments:

  1. Last year when a repairman came to my home I noticed he had a tattoo on his arm that looked much like a Nazi prison camp tattoo. I asked him about it and he explained the tattoo was the same tattoo worn by St. Maximilian Kolbe when he was in the concentration camp. The repairman was a devout Catholic and used the tattoo as an evangelization tool. People asked him about it all the time and it gave him the opportunity to tell them about Kolbe's martyrdom, which would sometimes lead to deeper conversation about Catholic teaching.

    ReplyDelete
  2. i also have tattoos that display may faith and would like to say i do not see them as a "defilement" and i agree that the body is a temple and as such, when was the last time you entered a temple that was not decorated? Also I feel there is a vast gap between tattoos and the mutilation that some people like to call piercing and modification. And as with anything tattoos have to be seen in the spirit in which a stand. A body covered in symbols of faith is usually exactly the type of person they are and a body covered in filth or evil imagery is typically the same as well.tattooing is not a belief system but a way for people to display their beliefs so instead of judging the ink for existing, you need to read what the ink says.

    ReplyDelete
  3. My son has a shirt that pictures a cross and declares "body piercing saved my life." It's an excellent tool for sharing his faith. And tats are hardly modern.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I have worn a tattoo of Christ and the Virgin of Guadalupe for 20 years. I will proudly show it to My Lord, on the day of Judgement.

    ReplyDelete
  5. The body is a temple, and temples are decorated; but, they are decorated on the inside while the outsides may be defaced by the graffiti of vandals. I think it is important to keep in mind that we should belong heart, mind, soul and body to God and therefore we are stewards of our bodies. While the owner may do as he wishes with what he owns the steward must always keep in mind the owners wishes. Decorate the temple on the inside with graces from God and as for the outward appearance decorate by performing acts of faith and love

    ReplyDelete
  6. The body as a Temple is an image that is often used to denigrate those who get tattoos and piercings. Yet, we wear clothing to cover the Temple. Tattooing is given an ill reputation amongst the arch-conservative types because of the predominace of Muslim and tribal people who engaged in the art prior to the British Navy bringing it home to the west in the early 1700's. Hatred of non-damaging and non-obscene tattoos only reinforces a centuries old prejudice against the art as a form of "Musselman Attributes". Tattoos are nothing more than art with the body as canvas. In that regard, clothing (specifically brand name clothing that imparts a "style" on the wearer) does the same.
    I oppose damaging piercing that injures the organs or morphs the body, but I also believe that the person who decides to do such is exercising their free will. Perhaps, as the author believes, such actions are not to deny God or done as an affront to God. Such would be a sin. Perhaps, like many that I know who enjoy tattoos and piercings, it is simply self expression and a form of personal style.
    Perhaps we as Catholics should spend more time accepting people rather than criticising an innocent and non-malevolent form of self expression. Seems to me that the pews are getting emptier, not fuller.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Jason, I think you've missed the point of Deacon Lukosh's article. He's not criticizing innocent and non-malevolent forms of self-expression. He's warning about forms of body art expression which are *not* innocent and which *are* malevolent.

    And I disagree with your theory that the general opposition to tattoos in the West stems from alleged wide-spread anti-Muslim sentiments among Westerners prior to the 17th century. Rather, it is far more longstanding an attitude and and stems primarily from Scripture's prohibition of tattoos in Leviticus 19:28. This prohibition for Israel largely shaped the attitudes of Christians on this issue over the intervening centuries.

    And please keep in mind that this article is not about "accepting people" or rejecting them. It's a discussion about an *activity* that some people engage in. It goes without saying that we Catholics should always strive to be accepting of others, but that does not translate in to accepting everything everyone does.

    And however full or empty the pews in Catholic parishes may be at any given point is completely irrelevant to whether on not certain actions are right or wrong.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Hi Patrick,

    Thanks for the rebuttal. I appreciate your sentiments as well as those of the author. My opinion (and it is such, an opinion) stands. I have met many "Christians" who look down their noses at tattooed people yet their sins are much deeper than the second layer of the epidermis. I know tattooed Christians who may look scary yet possess a great heart and will to do God's work. As far as the passage in Leviticus, there are many Old Testament passages that state laws we do not follow. We now live in Grace, not under the Law. Christ gave us that freedom. The Law also prohibits the eating of shellfish, and only a distinct group of Christians follow the Mosaic and Kosher Laws.

    I understand that this article is not about acceptance, yet I see the actions of people in Church. They spend many a minute judging those around them, how they dress, act, haircuts, and "FORBID!" TATTOOS!!! A man should be judged by his faith, love, charity, and heart, not by the art that adorns his skin, for our faith cannot be but skin deep and lacking in depth.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I really believe that body priercing, tatoos, or anything that changes the body... one must ask themselves if this is befitting a Tabernacle of the Holy Spirit. Many Tattoos are just for personal attention and this hardley a virtue. When an individual is picturing an overly tattooed body or abnormal peircing they must ask themselves if this were on the local parish tabernacle would it be acceptable? If you would not want anyone to see the work you have had done it is probably wrong. Furthermore, tattoos were used to remember something life altering or great, war memorials etc. Recently I met a mom with an unusual tattoo on her ankle. It was a 5" picture of her little boy, later I learned that her son who had Down's Syndrome also had Leukemia. She did it as a symbol to all those people who felt his life was not worth saving. Rather than the locals with tinkerbell and mickey mouse engraved on themselves. As for piercings, some just disgusting and if you truly respected yourself you would not permitt such a degrading mark. Hopefully people will learn to think of themselves as Houses for God rather than objects.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I respectfully disagree that Deacon Lukosh is "not criticizing innocent and non-malevolent forms of self-expression". Throughout the article he consistently uses perjorative terms like disfiguring and mutilation for what can fairly and objectively be called "modifications". I, and most people, would agree that mutilation would not be in concert with God's will. But it begs the question to classify "extreme tattoos" (Lukosh's undefined and unsupported term) as mutilations.

    It is rightly stated in the information from Catholics United for the Faith that tattoos and acts of body piercing are not intrinsically evil. Therefore, the moral determination is far more nuanced than Deacon Lukosh's article would grant.

    +Peace,

    Deacon Sean Smith
    crucifixion tattoo my right calf
    St. Francis of Assisi tattoo on my left calf

    ReplyDelete
  11. For a devastating essay on today's tattoo explosion, google these words:

    Exposing Shallowness by Theodore Dalrymple

    ReplyDelete
  12. I want to get graffiti tattoos. I love graffiti on walls and on my body as long as the writer doesnt suck and has sick skills. Graffiti is calligraphy taken to the next level. There is no drawbacks to tattoos, marijuana, and "wild" music if done responsibly with good judgement despite popular conservative christain believes. Its all in your mind you are what you think.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I agree with everyone.
    I have tattoo's of "Our Lord and Our Lady".
    But some people do take things to the extreme.
    Best wishes to all.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I agree with all.
    I have tatts of "Our Lord and Our Lady".
    But some people do take things to the extreme.
    Best wishes to all.

    ReplyDelete
  15. It is rightly stated in the information from Catholics United for the Faith that tattoos and acts of body piercing are not intrinsically evil. Therefore, the moral determination is far more nuanced than Deacon Lukosh's article would grant.

    ReplyDelete

ShareThis