Friday, October 26, 2012

Are tattoos immoral?

Dear Rev Know-it-all,

Are tattoos immoral?  Does the Bible forbid them?  

Barbara “Barb” Eryen

Dear Barb,

The Bible does say in Leviticus 19:28 “'Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves.” On the other hand the Bible also forbids pork, shrimp and uncircumcised males. In its context, the prohibition against tattoos in Leviticus probably refers to religious markings, not modern tattooing. I am not sure that tattooing is immoral. It is, however, sad.

If you go to a gym these days or anywhere that people are wearing short sleeved shirts, you see tattoos on a huge number of people. And not just tattoos. One is reminded of the old Marx Brothers’ tune “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady.”  Allow me to quote Groucho Marx, “My life was wrapped around the circus. Her name was Lydia..... Oh, Lydia the Tattooed Lady....When her muscles start relaxin',Up the hill comes Andrew Jackson.”  But I digress....

If it is true that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, why have so many decided to smear graffiti on the walls? There are, I think, a number of reasons.

The first is perennial: shock value. It has been true since Ham laughed at his drunken father Noah that children want to get the better of their elders. The younger generation has always wanted to shock the older generation. It is a way of asking “Do you really love me?” If I can make your life miserable, you must really love me. I remember my mother (a saint) taking all the wind out of my sails once. I was a fashionably attired young pseudo-hippy, with my orange bell bottom pants, my purple tie-dyed T-shirt, and sandals, as well as a scraggly ZZ Top beard and longish hair. Thus attired, I asked her if my generation was hard for her generation to endure. She said, “Oh, no! We were much worse to our parents than you are to us.” She pointed out that she was a teenager in the roaring twenties: speakeasies, short skirts, boot-leg gin, twenty three skidoo and all that. It was the first time in history that young people could get farther away from their parents than a horse was willing to take them. And if they had too much to drink the horse usually knew the way back home. My parents’ friends would get in the old model T, and drive down to Toledo where they would get hammered. No cell phones, no safety helmets, no GPS no clue. Grandma would sit up all night worried until the wayward children rolled back home with the sunrise. 

Imagine that. I couldn’t make my parents lives more miserable than they had made their parents’ lives. I think it was at that point that I stopped trying. Dissipation is very hard on the constitution, after all. How then do young people  shock a bunch of aging environmentalist hippies, that is, their parents? Easy, they mutilate their bodies. We jogged and ate hamster food. They smoke and scrawl Chinese sayings  on themselves. I love it when some non-Chinese person has a tattoo in Chinese calligraphy. They believe with all their heart that it means something inspiring like “I’d like to give the world a Coke...” They are barely literate in the western alphabet, yet they trust some equally illiterate tattoo artist to get the complex Chinese writing system correct. For all they know their tattoo means, “Get a load of this goofball...” 

Where was I? Oh yes. Tattoos make me sad. When I decided that I wasn’t nearly as different from my parents as I hoped to be, I could look at myself in the mirror and realize I looked like an idiot and go change my clothes. Tattoos allow no such freedom. And therein lies the second and sadder dimension of the current fashion: tattoos are permanent. They are about all that is permanent.

I suspect that the tattooed neo-barbarian generation is desperate for permanence. Marriages end with remarkable ease nowadays. A child may go through three or four new daddies in a few short years. With each new daddy there may come a new address, a new religion or no religion at all. A few new daddies, a few new pairs of grandparents, a new address or two and the very thought that something might be permanent is eagerly to be hoped for, even if the permanence is only that of ink under skin. 

A person who gets a tattoo says, “This is what I believe; this is who I am. It won’t change. It can’t change.” Then they want to change it. Too late, they are committed. The tattooed youth has made a more permanent commitment than his or her parents did when they swore before God and the State, “‘til death do us part.” That’s the meaning of tattoos. They are ‘til death do them part, until the skin falls from the bones, or until you can come up with the couple thousand dollars to have them burned off with a laser. A great irony of tattoos is that they aren’t really permanent. Over time, the ink bleeds into surrounding skin and the sharp picture carved into young skin eventually looks like a soggy napkin on an old arm or other sagging body part.

Sadder still is the lack of belonging that tattooing indicates. The tattooed wear badges of membership in a society that believes itself to be different. The non-conformists all seem to be non-conforming in the exact same way as they always have. Back in lower, upper Hessia, whence come my forbears, everybody wore the same ridiculous outfit. White knee socks, black clothing, with touches of color for youth. Frock coat for men, knee length skirts with thirteen petticoats for women and a little pill box hat to hide a woman’s long braided hair. It was an outfit that said I belong. I suspect that a tattoo is a badge that says I need to belong too, but the organizations that used to provide belonging, the family, the church, the town, have all failed. I want to be committed, but I know no one who is committed to me, so I will commit myself to that fellowship of cookie cutter tattooed rebels who are struggling to be different in just the same way. I will commit myself irrevocably. I will disfigure my body. This is what circumcision did in the ancient world. Now it’s done with needles as well as knives.

Another possibility is that tattoos are painful. They are a red (and blue and green etc.) badge of courage. We, the litigious generation, the safe generation, the generation of health warnings and bizarre medical procedures, have on our hands a bunch of children who want to be dangerous. Or, at least, to appear dangerous. We tried to spare them any pain at all. We invented sports that had no winners, education that had no grades, playgrounds where you couldn’t skin you knees, relationships that had no consequences. We would not spank them, we would not send them to bed without their supper and this is how they repay us, by having some perfect stranger engrave their tuchuses with an electric needle that may be infected with the plague. All the strange piercings and pointy objects, all the vivid colors that make a rutting baboon look subdued, say, in effect, hug me if you dare! I am not concerned. I am not afraid. I am dangerous! If I have done this to myself, just imagine the pain I can cause you! I am dangerous!!!  

We, the aging hippies, told them, “Put on your shin guards and your safety helmet, give your new daddy a kiss and go to bed.” We wanted to make them safe with whole grain, preservative free, low fat, free range tofu. We didn’t give them the safety of a family that loved them and a faith that sustained them and so they want to be dangerous. They fail at dangerous. They are just sad. They attempt to be different, to rebel just like everybody else rebels. I wonder what their children will do to shock them?

Rev. Know-it-all


  1. Father,

    There was a site on the internet called "Photoshop Disasters" that documented some really egregious foul ups in doctoring images. At one time, I had a site bookmarked that had some hilarious tattoo mistakes for Latin mottoes. Your comment on the Chinese tattoos is all too true! Suppose the complicated pictograph for "Courage" actually means "Eat at Wan's Cafe"? Love your blog, BTW.


  2. If you will make tattoos of Gods or Religious signs than it is not good otherwise it works great.liquid latex online

  3. Tattooing makes me sad, too. I have never understood why anyone would want to go through the pain, only to be stuck with a permanent sentiment or logo, essentially, that will not reflect their wishes at some point.

    Your point is very well-taken, that children DO need - and in my humble opinion, deserve - permanency. As you say, we aging boomers had family, we had Church. I had Catholic school. Thank you for helping me to understand what I always felt about wearing the plaid Our Lady of Angels uniform: I belonged, I was part of a group that was so solid (2000 years), so sane, so well-organized, and with people who were so SAFE. I learned who I was and, years later, when people were 'sorry' for me for having had to wear that uniform, I had the pleasure of saying, "Oh, it was a GOOD thing!"

    And now I know why.

    Thanks, Rev. Know-it-All!

  4. Reverend,

    I am an 18-year-old college student, and I got my first tattoo a week before I moved in to my dorm. My tattoo was paid for by my parents. In fact, my mother helped me select the tattoo that I eventually would have on my skin. Tattoos are sometimes received as a patch of rebellion, belonging, permanence, etc., by the most recent wave of defiant young adults, but to say that this is always the case is a very harsh overgeneralization.

    People get tattoos to match their spouses, as a symbol of their commitment to each other. Others have the dates of their children's birthdays, and others still may even simply have a piece of artwork that represents a long-standing trait of themselves, for the sake of owning a unique piece of art that they need not hang on the wall or protect from burglary. Believe it or not, some people even get tattoos for religious significance (and not just the trendy cross tattoo).

    My tattoo has no skulls, Chinese letters, or temporary interests. My tattoo is a simple portrait of a lion. Given the name Daniel at birth, I have always identified with the biblical character in Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon. Daniel, having been the wisest of the wise men, a man of god, was also known for his integrity. From the denying of sacrificed meat to his unfailing faith in the lion's den, his consistency and commitment to the One he loves reminds me of the kind of man I want to be.

    My tattoo has become something more than just a piece of artwork. It has become a symbol of my conviction. In addition, when others ask the meaning behind the tattoo, I have a chance to spread God's love by telling them about the Lion's Den story, and I brag about how God rewarded Daniel's faith by closing the mouths of the lions in the den.

    My heart goes out to those who permanently mark their bodies for the sake of rebellion. Their intentions are misguided, and the consequences are everlasting. But always remember, Reverend, that there are two sides to a coin.