Monday, August 15, 2011


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.


  1. Well done! I esp. love the photo comparisons. After reading this post I picked up little Isaac and thought of his gorgeous skin with a tattoo - horrible, horrible, horrible. I take it that neither you nor AM are tattooing 13/08/2011 anywhere on your bodies?

  2. Just my soul!

    Oh, what a great answer, huh?

  3. Tattoos are certainly a case of beauty in the eye of the beholder. As a photographer and artist, I can appreciate the beauty of the first three images you presented. But the tattooed images you chose to display are certainly not what I would consider great tattoos. You found images of beautiful people with some pretty basic, mediocre quality tattoos.

    My own tattoos are beautiful to me. But, looking at tattoos from a purely aesthetic point of view is only seeing the very tip of the iceberg. It's difficult to explain how or why, but the experience of getting tattooed goes so far beyond having ink injected into your skin. If you would like to read more about my own personal tattoo experience and how it has effected me, you can see it on my blog.

    That entry was written 7 months ago and everything I wrote back then still holds true today. Getting tattooed has been an overwhelmingly positive experience for me and has changed me in ways that aren't visible on my skin. My ink has become such a part of me that I honestly couldn't picture myself without it. Not a day goes by where I don't stop to admire the art that I have the privilege of carrying around with me everywhere I go.

    One more example I want to leave for you and your readers is the case of women who have survived breast cancer and are left with horrible scarring. Many of these women are now choosing to tattoo over these scars. To these women, tattoos are a way of transforming a disfiguring scar into something that they can admire. Rather than looking in the mirror every day and seeing the ugly scar of a chemo port or mastectomy, they see a piece of art.

  4. Dear PBerge,

    Thank you for the very great comment. I will check out your site, be assured. You make a strong argument. Let me give it the thought it deserves...

  5. Hmmm. Interesting. I find tattoos often to be fascinating but more often to be silly. (As my astute sister Elena has said, "I hate tattoos written in a language the person doesn't even understand." YES. THAT.) I do think that they only look good on arms; I find leg and chest tattoos to be especially unattractive.

    However, I will never get a tattoo as my husband has told me that the only reasonable grounds for divorcing me would be if I ran off with another man or if I got a tattoo. (I *think* the second one is a joke, but when I asked he said, "Well, I'll certainly never tell you.")

    Finally, NO I do not have to agree that David Beckham is a handsome man. I've always found him kind of gross. A good argument against tattoos, though, would be Angelina Jolie, who is an objectively lovely (if scrawny) woman who would OBVIOUSLY look better without her tattoos.

    Good post.

  6. Rebecca, I would divorce Anne-Marie for two things as well: cheating (maybe), smoking (definitely).

    Good point about Jolie.

    Have I revealed too much with the Beckham comment? I am a soccer fan - yes, that's it...

    The language thing. People with absolutely no knowledge of history or other cultures suddenly think they are so deep because they have a Chinese symbol on their arm. It's funny.

  7. I am surprised that no one has remarked on the fact that this is a case of crowd following. People are only getting tattoos now because they see so many of them, which in itself is a good reason not to get one.
    And it's funny that I wrote about this just a day or two after these posts, and I hadn't read either yours or Simcha Fischers'. Must be something in the air.

  8. Julie - Your point may not have been mentioned because it isn't a fact at all. It is simply your opinion on why people get tattoos. For some people, mostly those of the younger generation, this may very well be true. But for so many others, following the crowd is the last thing on their mind when choosing to get a tattoo.

    Many people used to claim that tattoos are an act of rebellion, or a way to stand out from the crowd. But now that they are becoming more and more popular, those same people are saying the exact opposite. Getting a tattoo is a way of blending in with the crowd. So which is it?

    I say neither, but at the same time I say both are true. It all depends on who you are talking about. Everyone has their own reason and there can never be a single correct answer to the question, "why do people get tattoos?".

  9. I find the argument of PBerge about women who get tattoos to cover, for example, the scar of a mastectomy, to be persuasive. These women see themselves as having been disfigured and the tattoo helps them to overcome that. But, save for such a case as this, i.e.: the tattoo as a form of cosmetic surgery that responds to a real disfigurement, I agree with the comments that tattoos themselves are a form of disfigurement. I especially liked Elena's comment about her repugnance over the thought of her son getting tattooed. Perhaps we would do better to see ourselves the way a mother sees her child, even as we grow older. To a mother, a son or daughter is always beautiful and no tattoo is required.

  10. There are many other reasons people get tattoos.

    I am a christian, and I see the butterfly as a symbol of new life. I went through some horrific events a few years back, things that most people would not believe possible in a western country, as well as several other horrific events.

    I got myself a small butterfly tattoo on the ankle as a symbol of a new life, of being a survivor - that I had survived some of the worst things imaginable and yet I had come outside the other side, alive and with my faith intact.

    I know many christians do not understand getting a tattoo, but I got it for myself alone, as a symbol that I am a survivor. Not for what it looks like, but because it is a symbol of hope and new life.