The Morality of Tattooing


August 23, 2018

There was a time, not in the hoary past, when tattoos were an indulgence of louche members of the demi-monde, as observed by Alexandre Dumas. They seem to have become respectable as our culture erases the borderline between the demi-monde and the monde entier. Priests have become somewhat accustomed to pious communicants with arms totally decorated like a Persian tapestry or Michelin roadmap, in what is idiomatically called a “sleeve.” Even facial tattoos are appearing. Some are in the form of written slogans, which one supposes would appear to a narcissist backwards in a mirror. Other designs are more audacious, like a portrait of Anne Frank on the cheek of the “hip-hop” producer Arnold Gutierrez. One used to have to go to state fair sideshows to see tattooed men like those who have become part of the vernacular on Main Street. Roughly over one fifth of all adults in the United States now sport more than one tattoo, up from about 14 percent in 2003, although these figures are, of course, estimates.

One practical problem with this fad—if it is just a fad—is that it cannot be corrected in mature years like hairstyles or clothing. If these markings can be removed, it is only by a long and painful process, more so if the depiction is in a less accessible part of the body. But the bigger issue is whether a tattoo befits what is increasingly referred to with unqualified insouciance as “the dignity of the human person.” If it is undignified to execute someone, whatever the crime may be, as some would now propose, is it unworthy to turn the human body into a human billboard? And if the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19-20), are such decorations embellishments or defacements?

An Old Testament prohibition of what was considered a pagan practice (Lev. 19:28) was for a particular time and circumstance, and not all Levitical prohibitions have universal application for the Christian. Yet the Council of Northumberland in England decreed in 787, the same year as the Second Council of Nicaea: “When an individual undergoes the ordeal of tattooing for the sake of God, he is greatly praised. But one who submits himself to be tattooed for superstitious reason in the manner of the heathens will derive no benefit thereof.”

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A possible forgery paraded an outright prohibition of tattooing as a pontifical decree of Adrian I, but there was a logic to it. Pope Adrian had aligned himself with the Franks against the tattooed Lombards who were nibbling at papal territories, the final straw being the boldness of the Lombard king Desiderius in seizing the Duchy of Pentapolis. The problem was solved soon enough, during the reigns of Cunincpert and Liutprand, when the Lombards became totally Catholicized. (In one of those curious circumstances that may be less significant than one might wish, the largest tattoo parlor in Portland, Oregon, in our own time is on Lombard Street.) Before Adrian, in the fourth century, Saint Basil the Great had declared: “No man shall let his hair grow long or tattoo himself as do the heathen, those apostles of Satan who make themselves despicable by indulging in lewd and lascivious thought. Do not associate with those who mark themselves with thorns and needles so that their blood flows to the earth.”

In 316, the practice of tattooing the faces of criminals was abolished as un-Christian by the emperor Constantine. In part this may have been because “followers of the Chrestus” had been so branded. In addition, the Romans had been perplexed, and admittedly terrified, by the Picts who painted themselves in dark indigo from head to toe. They were an enigmatic people who eventually intermarried with clans from the Inner Hebrides and contiguous parts. Their society was partly matriarchal, and the women were even more “depicted” than their men. It is not certain if they really were tattooed, or just wore war paint like the American Indians, but it is certain that they used a dye from the “woad” plant, a form of mustard, which, even if injected beneath the skin, would last only a couple of weeks.

There is evidence that, before the Edict of Milan, many Christians deliberately tattooed themselves in bold defiance, rather like the unsubstantiated report of King Christian X wearing a yellow Star of David during the Nazi occupation of Denmark. Later, Christian tattoos proclaimed the Faith in the Holy Land and Anatolia, as recorded by Procopius of Gaza in the sixth century and a century later by Theophylact Simocatta. For some, tattoos replicated the wounds of Christ. Crusaders customarily had themselves tattooed to identify their bodies as Christian for burial. During Ottoman rule in Bosnia, Christian Croats used tattoos to prevent conversions to Islam. Tattooing the right wrist with an image of the Cross is still common among Copts; the Gerges family ply their tattooing trade at the Church of Saint Simon the Tanner in the Mokattam hills.

Tattoos go back even further: there are tattoos on the five-thousand-year-old body of the Ice Man (Oetzi) found frozen in the Alps. Their purposes are unknown, and at least in part were probably a kind of talisman. There is a greater frequency of tattooing among the mentally ill today, but many psychiatrists think that their use by relatively normal people is often a passive-aggressive way of compensating for low self-esteem especially among young adults. This is even more so the case in extreme forms of body piercing. A Mayo Clinic report has drawn attention to the increased risk of infections such as Hepatitis B and C through the use of tattoo needles.

First Tattooed American
John Ledyard, a Dartmouth College undergraduate who matriculated in 1772, later became the first American tattooed in the Polynesian manner, and saw nothing inconsistent in this and his Christian zeal, influenced by the First Great Awakening. While proficient in Greek and Latin and skilled in classical drama, he was unable to pay his tuition, and left the college in a dugout canoe, rowing down the Connecticut River to New London. Robert Frost would call him “the patron saint of freshman dropouts.” Then he sailed to England where he joined the crew of Captain Cook on his third journey aboard the HMS Resolution in search of the Northwest Passage. He served as a mariner, with the master being William Bligh, who was later to attain opprobrium as captain of the HMS Bounty. In Polynesia, Ledyard’s arms and hands were tattooed with reddish brown dots in a geometric pattern. It was Cook who adopted the Polynesian name “ta-tau.” This is not to be confused with the seventeenth century Dutch drum beat “doe den tap toe” signifying closing hour for drinking in barracks, from which we get the military tattoo, such as the Royal Edinburgh Tattoo.

The American naval historian Ira Dye debunked the belief that Captain Cook was the first to introduce a Polynesian style of tattooing to the West, having had his buttocks tattooed in Tahiti. Various explorers were already familiar with the practice, and in 1791 the remarkable hydrographer and explorer Charles Pierre Claret de Fleurieu, who barely escaped the guillotine, remarked a similarity with practices long-established in Europe.

After being the first United States citizen to see Alaska, Ledyard returned briefly to Dartmouth and wrote a journal of Captain Cook’s last expedition to the Sandwich Islands and beyond, including an account of his death at the hands of Hawaiians in Kealakekua Bay. This was the first book to receive a copyright in the new nation of the United States. Ledyard then embarked for Paris where he was befriended by John Paul Jones and Benjamin Franklin. Thomas Jefferson, as Minister to the Court of Louis XVI, introduced him as the first tattooed American at Versailles, and secured him a passport from the empress Catherine the Great, hoping that Ledyard might cross Russia and secure a trade agreement with China. Agents of the empress arrested him in the Siberian town of Hrkutsk as a possible spy and deported him to Poland. He eventually ended up in Egypt, seeking the source of the Niger River, and died in Cairo of accidental poisoning at the age of thirty-seven.

It cannot be said that tattooing became acceptable among Ledyard’s fellow Connecticut Yankees, but eventually it attained a sort of esoteric caché among European aristocrats, and not without precedent. King Harold II had tattoos of his various victories illustrated all over his body, but certainly not the Battle of Hastings. In 1862, as Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII received the first of several tattoos, a Jerusalem Cross, while in the Holy Land. His son George V, while Duke of York, was tattooed with a dragon on his arm in 1882 during his trip to Japan, and suit was followed by the rulers of Spain, Denmark, and Germany. Winston’s mother, Lady Randolph Churchill had a snake tattooed on her wrist, and her son copied her with an anchor like Popeye’s on his arm.

Maoris Culture Down Under
Nowhere is tattooing so artistically developed as among the Maoris of New Zealand, probably through Samoan influences. But the Maori method is unique and different from generic tattooing. “Ta moko” involves incising the skin, leaving a grooved surface. While this came to be considered barbaric among some Pacific populations, being totally abolished in late nineteenth century Japan, “ta moko” lasted for a while as a Maori status symbol, although Catholic missionaries discouraged it. In order to combat smallpox with modern medicine, the “Tohunga Suppression Act of 1907” restricted the incantatory rites of tattooed Tohunga medicine men, a stricture made absolute by the “Quackery Prevention Act of 1908” during the reign of the admittedly tattooed King Edward VII.

No one is more symbolic of the modern Maori identity and cultural pride than Whina Cooper (1895-1994). The granddaughter of an American whaler and daughter of a Catholic catechist, Heremia Te Wake, was born in northern Hokianga where unsung heroic missionaries had arrived in 1838, bringing the Gospel to the Nagapuhi region despite many obstacles and dangers. In her long life, from simple beginnings, she championed Maori property rights, leading the famous Maori Land March of 1975 from Te Hapua to Wellington. In her marriage, which contravened tribal customs, she was protected and mentored by a priest, Father Charles Kreymborg.

In 1981, Queen Elizabeth II, as “Te Whaea Nui”—the Great Mother, honored Cooper as a Dame of the Order of the British Empire. By her life’s end, she was popularly called “Mother of the Nation” and a million people watched her funeral on television. In recent times, Nanaia Mahuta became the first member of the New Zealand parliament to wear a “moko kauae,” reviving the traditional chin tattoo worn by distinguished women, but Dame Whina, not particularly opinionated about the matter, had managed to do more than any other Maori woman without it.

There has been something of a resurgence of “ta moko” as a cultural statement. The Maoris have a traditional welcoming ceremony for strangers, and I had the honor of participating in one in Auckland. They affect a ferocity completely out of character with their kindly character, for it is sheer theatre. Tattooed warriors wear abbreviated clothing suitable for tropical heat, and perform a ritual dance, the “haka,” meant to intimidate the visitor with its menacing sounds, grimacing faces and threatening gestures. If one does not blink, one is welcome. I passed the test easily since I travel frequently on the New York City subway system.

Amputating the Expressive Possibilities
To bring this into the current Western cultural sphere, a committee report of the Pontifical Council for Culture in Rome on January 29, 2015, addressed the question of cosmetic alteration of the human body, and disapproved of procedures such as “facelifts” and “tummy tucks,” pronouncing that elective plastic surgery can “amputate the expressive possibilities of the human face which are so connected to empathetic abilities” and “can be aggressive toward the feminine identity, showing a refusal of the body.” Something may have been lost in the received text as rendered by Vatican translators under the innocent impression that they have a capacity for English, but one infers that the commission would not approve of tattoos.

However, in Rome’s Palazzo Colonna in February, 2018, at a “sneak preview” of the Metropolitan Museum’s controversial “Heavenly Bodies” exhibition, which opened in New York the following May, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, was photographed smiling next to the fashion designer Donatalla Versace who could not smile because surgical procedures had limited her expressive possibilities. Ravasi was the same prelate who keened in 2016 at news of the death of David Bowie, the singer whose left calf was tattooed with an image of a man on a bicycle holding a frog.

At a gathering of three hundred young adults in Rome on May 19, 2018, a seminarian from Ukraine, where a tattoo festival is held annually in Kyiv, asked Pope Francis for a pontifical opinion on tattooing. In a development of the imputed anti-tattoo doctrine of Pope Adrian I, while supposedly not contradicting it, His Holiness said, “Don’t be afraid of tattoos” and cited the example of Eritrean Christians tattooed with crosses. He added: “Of course, there can be exaggerations,” but a tattoo “is a sign of belonging” and talking about it can begin “a dialogue about priorities.”

Perhaps in a less spontaneous encounter, the Holy Father might have added that the Holy Catholic Church provides three sacraments whose character is more indelible than any self-mutilation. Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders cannot be repeated, and confer a seal by which one belongs to Christ and is disposed to actual graces. This is the message that missionaries spread throughout the world, and which needs to be heard again in the homelands of those missionaries.

(Photo credit: Razzouk family tattooing in Old City Jerusalem; Addie Mena / CNA)


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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