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Fr. Michael Kelly SJ
Should the Church speak out on the craze for tattoos?
The writer argues that we don't have to go out of our way to look unique, because in God's eyes we already are.
- February 4, 2013
Tattoos are ubiquitous and no passing fad. It goes without saying that tattoos have moved off the Navy ships and out of the motorcycle gangs to include the bodies of a large minority of 20-somethings. Models, athletes, and actors, whose bodies are truly their temples, have forever altered those temples by getting inked. Tattoos may be the most visible and visceral symbol of a changing culture, a generation of men and women content to make their Baby Boomer parents look like obedient conformists by comparison.
Not having a tattoo may now qualify as odd in a land where everyone feels the urge to uniquely brand their bodies. Not having one may also become a kind of dividing line at a deeper level. For I would argue that whether one gets inked or not may represent more than whether one is brave enough to permanently change the body we have been given; it now represents - among many, but certainly not all - a more fundamental worldview that exposes how we feel about our unique place in the world.
Before I say another word, some qualifiers. I know that to criticize tattoos has become the real taboo. Tattoos, because they are permanent and intended to say something unique, something to which we commit ourselves with our very bodies, are deeply personal. It used to be a sign of rebellion, so to criticize the person getting the tattoo as a rebel was easy. Now, Christians get tattoos of Bible verses, those grieving get tattoos to remember the dead, and those in committed marriages get tattoos to tell the world of their commitment. And then there are the tattoos that are in memory of a band of brothers, or a similarly meaningful time of intense bonding, like a squadron in the military.
I get that not all tattoos are created equally and that to commemorate the life of a loved one or a sacred brotherhood or event is as good a justification as one can have. I get that if you feel very deeply about something, writing a blogpost won't do it justice. You want the world to know how serious you are, how deeply you feel about that one thing. And tattoos are perhaps the ultimate form of commitment. I get that, and respect that.
But those aren't the tattoos I'm thinking about. I am talking about the ubiquity of relatively meaningless tattoos, tattoos that are not forged out of a trial by fire (say the Battle of Fallujah) or out of deep anguish, wherein the tattoo is actually a part of the grieving process (say the death of a spouse or child). I am talking about designer tats that are the result of a desire to be unique, or to celebrate something you think is important now, but may not always be. I can't quantify those tattoos; could it be as high as 70% of them? 80%? 90%?....
.... No longer are we content to live quiet lives of service. No longer will we cede authority to God; we hardly concede authority to our parents or bosses. No longer do we see ourselves as filling an important, but relatively anonymous and obscure role in the world. No, we want to be important, we want to be noticed, we want to be big fish in small ponds. And because most of us cannot or will not achieve notoriety that through our sheer brilliance, our notable work output, or our impact on the arts or film, we turn to other ways to differentiate ourselves. We find it hard to accept that we will simply be anonymous and relatively obscure worker bees in a world that is hard to comprehend.
That's when tattoos come in handy. They do for us what few of us can accomplish through sheer talent or effort: they distinguish us. They make us unique. They celebrate the fact that there is no one else exactly like us. They feed our desire to be different and significant.
But they're a quick fix to the wrong problem. This is where the Church has something important to say to those who feel the need to distinguish. God has already made all people unique and different. Everyone is gifted with gifts that only they have, gifts that the world needs. And everyone already looks different. We don't need to go out of our way to be different. We already are. We just need to exploit the gifts we've already been given. We just need to be willing to explore how we are already made wholly unique and in demand. So long as we rebel against the authority of God, putting tattoos aside, there is no reason to expect that our natural uniqueness will quench our thirst for notoriety.
Again, without shaming those who have tattoos, at some point the church can and should talk about the tattoo phenomenon. It won't be popular among our generation, but the next generation that is not yet inked may appreciate that someone spoke against them before the pressure got to them. And not just to be negative, but encourage their desire to be unique and to be, dare I say, special. Their unique gifts can be put to service. That's a much more fulfilling, and perhaps even more permanent, way to distinguish oneself.
Source: Architecture and Morality blog