I set off a storm in a tea cup the other day when on Simcha Fisher's blog I commented on the "ugliness of tattoos - all tattoos." (Let me just take this opportunity to say that she seems like a really neat woman. I just started reading her blog.)
I had been meaning to write on this topic for a while, so this seems as good a time as any.
Let me reaffirm my key assertion: They are all ugly. That is because they do not belong on the skin.
I know that speaking objectively about a chacun son gout ('to each his own,' i.e., beauty is in the eye of the beholder) is problematic, but let me make my case as best I can.
Pizza is good; ice cream is good; together they are not.
Gothic wording is neat; skin is beautiful; together they are not.
Even the Most Holy Name of Jesus does not perfect the skin.
I can honestly say that I have never seen a tattoo that I thought improved the appearance of the person to whom it was attached. Being now on the tail end of a summer spent on the beach, I can say that I was given no pause to reconsider my essential thesis.
Yet when I make the ad hominen that it is a sign of insecurity, I mean that. I do not mean that people with tattoos are more insecure than I am! I seriously hope they are not. You don't want to spend time in my shoes, my friends! So, please take this personal attack with a grain of salt, knowing the baseness of the one saying it.
Even I, in my zeal for Christ, have given a passing thought to sealing myself with an 'indelible mark' of a cross or the Sacred Name, or some such thing. And, I recognize that this motivation is likely different from a 'look at me motivation,' or a 'I am ugly so I want to hide that with a tattoo' motivation. It might be a sign of love - an 'I love Betty' tattoo can be the result of a sincere act of love. I don't want to single out such romantics, but you've got to admit that there is often (maybe always) an element of insecurity in it. Love in man is insecure. It is not divine love; it is human love. There are worse things, yes, I am not disputing that. As a recovering romantic I know perfectly well what I am talking about here...
Tattoos are not augmentations to human beauty. They can be a part of beauty, but that is only because the original person is beautiful. The best they might do is perhaps provide the opportunity to recognize a person's beauty, a person whose beauty we might not otherwise pause to consider. But it is not an additional of beauty. Let me present some of my thinking with a consideration of a few pictures I think are beautiful:
This is one of Rembrandt's self-portraits. It is stunning. Click on it to enlarge it to reveal the life-like texturing of the paint.
This picture has some of the same appeal as Rembrandt's above. It is very interesting.
I like old people, what can I say? Beauty is not something predictable or prosaic, for sure. It comes in all shapes and sizes, to include Bl. Teresa of Calcutta and to exclude Pamela Anderson. There can be beauty even in something hostile to life itself, such as Mars:
I do not know in what beauty consists.
Now here is the tattoo putting its best foot forward:
Let's even-off the presentation with some men:
You've got to admit that David Beckham is a handsome man, but...
And who doesn't like 'The Rock'?
Finally, the 'Christian tattoo' argument:
And, finally, my boy, J.T.
After all of this - and I have tried to make the best pictorial case for tattoos - I cannot say they add anything. Handsome was more handsome before, lovely lovelier before.
After all my searching around the web for tattoo pictures for sake of this post I have confirmed my thoughts about the paganism and sexualism of tattoos. I have seen a great deal more body than I would ordinary like. A good ol' Christian like St. Augustine would probably just sum up the issue as one of sin, the sin of valuing the external rather than the internal. Tattoos are probably not worse than many of the things we obsess about, that distract us from God, but that is no argument for their virtue.
It cannot be denied that tattoos are a part of a secularized culture. They have never been a part of the Christian tradition. I do not know enough about tattoos in other non-Christian traditions to say what response missionaries should have to them, so I ignore that dimension here. Tattoos have been shunned by our tradition because of its association with Roman paganism, and in the Old Testament, Near Eastern paganism. The positive value that Christians understood this proscription against tattoos was that of being in the image and likeness of God. This was primarily understood to pertain to the rational soul, but was also attached in some sense to the body as well. It is not that Christians generally anthropomorphized God. They held that all parts of man were directly the gift of God. Christians saw in the Incarnation a very strong message about the body's importance, which they defended against the Gnostics and the Greek philosophers. The reality of Jesus' body was a part of the deposit of faith, a teaching that we were meant to apply to our self-understanding. Whether tattoos utterly compromise this truth or not is another question. The fact is, the Christian tradition has understood it to do so.