Tattoos, body piercings and the church

By  Dylan Robertson, Youth Speak News
  • March 20, 2008

{mosimage}Victoria Laaber goes to Mass every week and is an active part of her parish youth group. She also happens to have piercings on her nose and tongue, as well as a tattoo.

“The tattoo signified something close to me and a new time for me, a time of change,” said 16-year-old Laaber from Kitchener, Ont. “It is an angel standing on a pile of skulls — this signifies my battle against depression.”

According to a 2002 cross-Canada study by Léger Marketing, Laaber is part of a growing portion of the population that has a tattoo or body piercing — 18 per cent of Canadians fit this bill.

Figuring out where a young Catholic should stand on the issue of body art is difficult. Many point to a popular quotation found in Leviticus 19:28, “You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you,” to argue that Christians should not get piercings or tattoos. Some put this into context however, saying that this is part of a list of social rules asked of the Israelites in order to distance themselves from rituals of foreign tribes.

The question of whether tattoos and piercings are a sin has been raised in many online forums. Some argue that body art is a trend or that it creates a false image and that this goes against being meek and modest by following the ways of the world.

“The issue to consider is the pride and vanity. We must examine ourselves to see why we want a tattoo or, for that matter, why we want to wear decorations that come off, like rings, necklaces, ear rings, etc.,” said Br. John-Paul Ignatius Mary of the Order of the Legion of St. Michael in Iowa. “Ostentatious displays and decorations are generally not consistent with Christian modesty and decorum and as Christians we are to be modest and to avoid vanity and pride.”

Christians are taught that their bodies are temples of God, as stated in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.” Even though rates of infection are low, some argue that a risk is still being taken against one’s body without a valid reason. It can be seen as degrading one’s body through self-mutilation.

 “I don’t think that it’s morally wrong because my tattoo isn’t something bad and it hasn’t changed my relationship with God. But I can see why people would see it as wrong since it’s not how we’re born,” said Britta Morrigan, 18, of Oshawa, Ont. “I don’t tell people that I have a tattoo unless they’re really close to me because I get labelled and judged really easily.”

For centuries various cultures have seen body art as coming-of-age symbols. Some Eastern Catholics continue the practise of tattooing small crosses on their hands as a testimony to their devotion despite being a minority.

People can choose to see body art as being expressions of one’s beliefs and argue that they don’t care what people think of their appearance. But this can be troublesome, since North American employers often fear that customers will associate tattoos and piercings with impulsive, reckless, immature and even criminal behaviour.

But appearances can be deceiving. Kris Dmytrenko, associate producer at Salt + Light Television in Toronto, has one eyebrow piercing and used to have a lip piercing as well.

“In my experience, in high school just because people looked clean cut didn’t mean they weren’t involved in illicit lifestyles,” said Dmytrenko. “My last job involved campus ministry, and I think that it helped dispel stereotypes about a Christian in today’s society.”

Body art can do more than just dispel stereotypes of Christians; it can act as manifestations of particular lifestyles.

“I think we’re seeing more and more in youth ministry with tattoos and piercings because it has to do with their radical nature,” said Dmytrenko. “It may be a reflection of a counter-cultural life against the norm and I think we should recognize and accept this.”

Another point for youth to consider is what statement they are making and how they will feel about having a tattoo or piercing a few years down the road.

“If you’re going to get piercings and such be ready for the consequences of it,” said Laaber. “Choose wisely because they’re basically there for life; piercings might grow in, but they leave scars.”

(Robertson, 17, is a Grade 12 student at All Saints Catholic High School in Whitby, Ont.)

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