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

October 1, 2011 by  
Filed under Patrick's Blog


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).


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39 Responses to “Physical Graffiti: A Catholic Perspective on Tattoos, Piercings, and “Body Art””
  1. Oscar says:

    I do agree with him. The deacon never said they are wrong, I suspect because the Church has never proclaimed officially on this subject. I have a Chi Rho(monogram of Christ in Greek) symbol traditionally still used at our churches and priest vestments tattooed on my wrist, I got it after I got confirmed in the faith as an adult at 40 years old, when asked by my young relatives what it means I tell them it means “Christ” and that is a sign of my commitment to explain and defend the church’s doctrines and to live my faith accordingly.

  2. J. M. says:

    I thought this was an interesting article. It seems to me that the question of body piercing and tattooing is not always so black and white. Certainly there are instances where such acts are immoral. However, there are also times where they would be appropriate. For instance, choosing to get a tattoo stating vital medical information would be appropriate in my opinion. It is a lot easier to lose your medical alert bracelet than it is to lose a tattoo.

  3. Lauren says:

    i’m 18 and just got my first one… for me personally i believe that if it isnt anything vulgar or a bad message or satantic or anything bad in general that it’s ok… for my tattoo i got the word faith with the infnity symbol connecting it to show that faith last forever and i eventually want hope and love the same way as well… i got it in a spot that isnt visible to everyone and can be easily hidden…. sadly this article didnt really answer my question :-/

  4. Julie Filby says:

    I was intrigued by this article by Deacon Lukosh when I first read it in Envoy a couple years ago… so, I asked a couple folks who are knowledgeable on the subject–Bible Geek Mark Hart and theology professor Chris Baglow–about Church teaching on tattoos.

    Here’s what they had to say about it:
    http://catholicmom.com/2011/08/18/would-mary-approve-if-jesus-got-a-tattoo/

  5. laurie schultz says:

    I have never been in favor of tatoos – but there are those who like it so it’s between them and God. I however decided to get one to cover a scar – the scar looked like a cross anyway and I wanted to show God that I am his and will remain his – so I have a tiny 3/4 plain one lined cross. However I don’t believe people should tatoo themselves with profanity and evil and in showing an allegience to a gang. That is the military in me – we can’t have any showing when we wear our uniform. I know lots of people with tatoos that I think are nicer and more christian than some who snub their noses at those who wear them. Our Lord knows our hearts and souls – who are we to not?

  6. Chad says:

    I found this article to be very biased and disappointing. The author has no scriptural basis for his rant. He has no teaching or doctrine provided by the Magisterium that states tattooing is wrong. He simply assumes, based on his own personal interpretation, that tattoos will lead you to sin. He acknowledges that the act of tattooing is “morally permissible,” but this is only one small paragraph found at the end of the article. Instead, he spends the rest of the article speaking on the perils of body art. A majority of the article is spent debunking the reasons tattoo proponents use in their arguments in favor of body art. But, this is a moot issue. I do not need excuses to explain my tattoos because there is nothing inherently wrong with them (and he acknowledges that fact as well). The whole article seems to be judging those with body art, but who is the author to judge? The article is slanderous, and it was done in poor taste. Shame on you. Next time, Deacon, look at the plank in your own eye.

  7. Colleen says:

    This speaks volumes to me!

    Leviticus 19:28

    28 You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh, for the dead, neither shall you make in yourselves any figures or marks: I am the Lord.

    • Jack says:

      Do you believe and follow EVERYTHING in Leviticus, including–should you be married–sleeping in a different bed from your husband during your period?

      Or do you pick and choose which of the Levitical commandments you observe–especially if they apply to other people?

  8. George Marchand says:

    Each tattoo is as individual as the person who chooses to have one. It’s pervasiveness however suggests perhaps a tribalism culture?

  9. Your body is a temple and you don’t mar the temple.

    Its pretty simple.

    Our bodies were designed to be in the image of God. Does anyone really believe their tattoo improved on God’s design?

    Luckily, they can be removed with laser treatment these days.

    • Masha says:

      Our bodies are Temples, I chose to adorn my with carefully planned, well-designed artword and beautiful clothes. The well-tattooed body continues to proclaim, not only the image and likeness of God, but the creativity and sense of ‘play’ he imbued in his creation.

  10. Warren Anderson says:

    Granted, I’m not the adonis I once was, but I trust that God made me to look the way I am without need for superficial “improvements”.

    I don’t know any tattoo that looks like anything but an eyesore by the time people get into their later years. So, forget the beautification or self decoration argument.

    Plus, imagine this conversation at the pearly gates:
    Saint Peter: So, why the tattoo?
    Human: Uh, I dunno, I thought it might impress God. Besides, what’s the harm?
    Saint Peter: The only thing that impresses God is if you obeyed His commandment to love one another as He loved you, and all that the commandment entails. You might have considered the Sacrament of Penance at some point prior to death.
    Human: Uh, right. Can I come in now?
    Saint Peter: Nope, not yet, there’s a little purgation needed.
    Human: Is this because of my tattoo?
    Saint Peter: Not so much the blotch on your arm, but the attitude. You thought you could impose your modifications on that which the Lord hath made. Did you forget that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit?
    Human: I thought that was just a metaphor.
    Saint Peter: Think again, or rather, enjoy your stay in Purgatory and perhaps we’ll see you sooner than later. Anyone else with a gratuitous tattoo, skin disfigurement, piercing… bad hairdo?

  11. Jack says:

    There is an Orthodox priest who before his ordination had the Trisagion (Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.) tatooed in beautiful Slavonic calligraphy. on his shoulder in honor of those Christians who died in the Soviet Gulags (many of whom did so likewise, so they would be buried with prayer) and his comrades who served with him in the medical corps who did not return.

    In Ethiopia, it’s considered a great act of piety by monks and women to have beautiful crosses tattooed on their foreheads or right hands, or both, so they cannot take the Mark of the Beast.

    Is this so horrible?

    BTW, I choose not to have any tattoos, myself.

  12. Mark G. says:

    Sorry, Zero. Tatoos do not necessarily reflect what the person believes, certainly not anything about the true nature or value of a human person. What if one once believed & fell, or what if they have come (back) to the Lord, but are covered in demonic images. Can’t be easily undone, can it? St. Francis de Sales said that Christian should be the best dressed, but least adorned.

    Also, the tatoos & piercings culture can’t really be said to uphold a healthy & dignified view of the human person in a Christian sense. It rather re-defines them according to looks alone – the images exposed on them – rather than the character of the soul.

    My niece got a script tatoo on the base of her neck, claiming that, “Jesus has a tatoo” as her defense (Rev 13). I responded that that was his title, not body art. And not to make sport with God or the Scriptures. Christians are marked by baptism. We belong to God & that is our identity now – through the mark of baptism. Adding other marks is a best a scandal & at worst a repudiation of that perfect, saving mark.

    On a more asthetic level, there are just a ton of terrible tatoos on people. And they just turn into blue-green blobs after a while. Nasty. I told my niece that it might seem cool when you’re a svelte 20, but it’s not going be so cool when your dumpy 50.

  13. Susan Jorgensen says:

    I heard a well respected Priest speak on this once. He said that in the Old Testament anything a person had done to themselves that involved ‘blood’ ~ was considered a blood contract with the devil and they were removed from the tribe. He named not only tattoo’s and piercing but also, of course, abortion. He said, frequent confession is the remedy. But . . . that is the remedy for all of our ills, thank God for the Confessional.

  14. I have one tatoo on my right upper arm that both expresses my Irish heritage and expresses the feelings I have for my lovely wife of 39 years – there is a pair of crossed Celt war swords behind a Celtic knot square. The message on the spline of the top-most sword in the ancient Ogham script is “Is Cait mo chroi” which translates to “Katie is MY HEART”. I don’t see how this is disfigurement.

  15. buyviagra says:

    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.

  16. nudrunner@gmail.com says:

    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.

  17. nudrunner@gmail.com says:

    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.

  18. zac says:

    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.

  19. anonchap says:

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

    Exposing Shallowness by Theodore Dalrymple

  20. SeanInIowa says:

    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

    • Patrick G says:

      Here, here, Deacon Sean. There was a whole lot of loaded phrasing in the article that left very little room for tattoos that ARE compatible with health, charity, bodily integrity, and respect for souls of others. The vast majority of tattoos I have come across are expressions either of love or loss. Mine is the phrase “wounded, I will never cease to love” across my back. It is the motto of the religious community I’m joining and is a daily reminder of who I am in God’s eyes. The article marginalized the vast majority of people who get tattoos as though we practically have the devil tattooed on a vital organ.. Does the good deacon really think that everyone who has a tattoo had freaky fringe parents, doesn’t think it’s the Church’s business what we do with our bodies, and thinks that the Aztecs had tattoos somehow justifies mine? A slightly more charitable perspective would have been appreciated in the article. Pax.

  21. Catholic Femina says:

    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.

  22. jasonburkos says:

    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.

  23. Patrick Madrid says:

    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.

  24. jasonburkos says:

    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.

  25. william2415 says:

    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

  26. Jack says:

    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.

  27. Sheila Deeth says:

    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.

  28. Zero says:

    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.

  29. Maureen says:

    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.

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  1. [...] 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.…more [...]

  2. [...] A Catholic Perspective on Tattoos, Piercings, & “Body Art” – Dc. Robert Lukosh, Envoy [...]



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