What does the Church Teach about Tattoos?

June 18, 2013 | 5 comments

I was recently asked:

Could you please explain to me rationally without using [complex] words, and yet using theology, and convince me why I shouldn’t get a tattoo? There’s too much mumbo jumbo on the Internet, and I would truly appreciate finding something concrete and understandable.

I’m afraid that I cannot explain—either with simple, or complex words—why you shouldn’t get a tattoo.

The reason being that, in principle, the Church does not oppose tattoos.

Ceremonial Law vs. Moral Law

Sometimes people point to the passage in Leviticus that says, ”Do not . . . put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord” (19:28).

But this verse is not binding upon Christians for the same reason that the verse “nor shall there come upon you a garment of cloth made of two kinds of stuff” (Lev. 19:19) is not binding upon Christians. Namely, it is a part of the ceremonial law that was binding upon the Jewish people but not binding upon Christians (except for when it coincides with the moral law).

The author of Hebrews writes:

Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levit’ical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchiz’edek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well (11-12).

Similarly, St. Irenaeus of Lyon wrote, “The laws of bondage, however, were one by one promulgated to the people by Moses, suited for their instruction or for their punishment, as Moses himself declared: 'And the Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and judgments' (Deut. 4:14). These things, therefore, which were given for bondage, and for a sign to them, He cancelled by the new covenant of liberty (Against Heresies IV.16.5).

To Tattoo or Not to Tattoo

So is the prohibition against tattoos in Leviticus a part of the moral law?

My colleague, Jimmy Akin writes says no:

There is no reason why one cannot color one’s skin, which is what tattooing amounts to.

One can apply color to one’s skin by make-up (as is common among women), magic markers (as is common among children), press-on tattoos (as are common in Crackerjack boxes), or with real tattoos.

The mere fact that the ink goes into the skin in the latter case does not create a fundamental moral difference.

But if you do decide to get a tattoo, consider the following:

1. The images should not be immoral, such as sexually explicit, Satanic, or in anyway opposed to the truths and teachings of Christianity.

2. Be prudent. While “Mom” is probably a safe bet, tattooing your current girlfriend’s name on your arm probably isn’t.

3. Consider the arguments against tattooing (there’s bound to be a good website out there devoted to that). Just because the Church doesn’t prohibit getting one doesn’t mean that you should. Consider the following question: Would you put a bumper sticker on a ferrai?

The advice I gave to my sister when she was considering a tattoo was to give it several months. If you still feel strongly about the tattoo you had in mind after that time, then maybe get it. If, during that time, you change your mind about the type of tattoo you wanted, or where it should be located, perhaps wait another several months before getting it.

Matt Fradd is Australian by birth and Catholic by choice. After experiencing a profound conversion at World Youth Day in Rome in 2000, Matt committed himself to inviting others to know Jesus Christ and the Church He founded. As a missionary in Canada and Ireland, Matt proclaimed the Gospel to over ten...

Comments by Catholic.com Members

#1  Kristy Lien - Yuma, Arizona

I wasn't sure if tattoos were against the teachings of the Church but the above blogs have helped me to understand better.
Question: My son has been wanting to get a Rosary tattoo. I am not sure what the teachings of the Church are on wearing Rosaries, I have heard mixed messages. I have great love for the Rosary and I was hoping to get your opinion on this matter.

October 12, 2013 at 10:35 am PST
#2  Kacey Brown - Audubon,

I got a tattoo for several reasons at 18 - one the pain of the needles felt 1k times better than the abuses I'd endured up to that point. 2. In some ways it was a complete rebellion. I walked with it for my Catholic HS graduation and my tattoo was showing, because it is on my ankle. There was anger I'd been abused so often and tried to kill myself so often (most attempts unknown with miraculous recoveries) and the ones unfortunate enought to make the gossip circle were met with relies by classmates that said, do us all a favor and do something right for once. If you want to do it use this method so you can't be revived. In light of that, in some ways I got my tattoo as a fighter, # 3. I was saying this is my body not the body taken by family and other men to do with what they wanted. I felt horribly guilty about it when I ran in Evangelical circles and some decided to condemn tattoos. Sometimes there was even an air if you came in with the tattoo before you knew Christ that is okay but if you did it after you know Him that's just unforgivable. You've destroyed your temple forever..... yeah tell that to a rape victim it really makes them feel like nothing can be rebuilt.... but seriously? It was years later through experiences, walking in others shoes, and some amazing Catholic friends that I learned to deal with it, but that wasn't all God had for me. One day when I was speaking with a wise counselor about some fatherly issues, he discovered I had this specific ankle tattoo, because it represented to me one of the most precious beautiful touching times in my life with my Dad. It was an innocent, pure, joyful reprieve, when all heck had broken lose with what felt like every other man. This wise man said to me, if his own daughter had been moved to get a tattoo for similar reasons he would be honored at the beautiful homage of love she was attempting. This isn't a quack we're talking about, either, but an esteemed expert in the field who is close to death from his own illness. Perhaps that was the freedom God knew I needed to hear, to finally grasp that He wasn't concerned about my tattooo, or if my Mom dyed her hair to cover the grey, or if my daughter pierces her ears , or, or , or. He cares about the condition of our hearts, knowing Him, trusting Him, dubmitting to Him, and being conformed to His image. Trust me I've done way worse sins as a practicing Catholic, who goes to confession at least monthly, and I've been forgiven those. I've been forgiven and I continue to strive to be more honoring of Him, who are all good and deserving of all my love! Also, I pray my kids don't do it, and I tell them as much and why, but at the same time, mine holds a special place in my heart. It's been on a journey with me. It's helped me reclaim me, and though I have no expectation I'll be resurrected with it (nor should I be), I know that when God looks me over, He will be looking me over for the scars, and for those places where I have allowed His healing grace to transform me into a saint, and he'll also be looking me over for how I welcomed and loved others with tattoos, nose rings, huge wholes in their ears, mowhawks, etc. Jesus didn't come to abolish the law. He came to fulfill it, and He taught us if we love Him we'll obey His commandments, and yet He told us to obey out of love, to speak truth out of love, to give out of love, and to forgive not only out of love but as we ask Him to forgive us. BTW I pray my kids don't get one so much, I don't even like the temporary ones..... but I think it's good to remember those hurting who are often turned away by those who are called to be His light!

November 17, 2013 at 9:30 pm PST
#3  Jenny Torres - Houston, Texas

@Kacey Brown
I have read your story and something in the way that you have expressed it have hit something inside me. I have never been that child to be abused but I have been betrayed and continue to be by my own parents. My father had found my mother in the act about four years ago with another man. I have lost faith in the idea of marriage and trust. I actually forgot what trust is. Now, I have forgiven them for the sadness, manipulation, and those paranoid feelings I have experience over those years and believe now to finally have a happy family. Now, I am a freshman in college and they have worked their difference and are together again. I am back home for vacation and though two days ago I have learned that my mother continues to have hidden affairs and my father is leaving the house at 3 A.M and returning home so late at night. I never get to really see any of them or see them even together. I am hurt and I am starting to again feel paranoid that i'm going to be broken again and I hated those years when I was. When my father was suffering inside as well he had turned to the church. I didn't know who to turn to and I have thought that "God Hated Me!" but maybe he just wanted me to find my way back to him. And I did. I now go to church more then I go anywhere else. I have made religion a part of college life and now I can't see my life without god in it. The way I see this new betrayal act that my parents are on again is a test...in what I deducted to see If I can forgive them and I hope and pray with my love that they would be alright when this is all over. I will always thank my father who have turned me on this path to God's light and let me see that there i more in life then just hate. Now,
I am 19 years old and have just gotten my first tattoo. It is a cross on my right wrist. My parents have told me their views on tattoos and I have felt like now I am the one who have betray them. But somethings different about this one. I am scared for them to find out about it and I am not ready to tell then but this isn't just a tattoo that I got on the spot. i have been thinking about for it about a year and a half now and i felt that on my right wrist, for that is the hand that we do the sign of the cross. I also am right handed and because I use my hand in almost everything I will always see god presence because in my sadness about my parents or if I am every frustrated I have forgotten that God is always watching me and now he is always with me. I feel like god will always be now and forever a part of my life and of me.

December 16, 2013 at 12:49 am PST
#4  Daniel Leytham - AurorA, Colorado

I am interested in getting a rosary tattoo on my arm. I often see and hear about priests wearing their rosary beads on their left wrist. My question is is there a symbolic difference between the right and left arm?

March 30, 2014 at 12:32 am PST
#5  Mary Anne Cortez - Montgomeryville, Pennsylvania

My first tattoo was of the Sacred Heart. I asked Jesus to give me strength to get through a painful divorce and to be a good example to my children. This tattoo is a tribute to the faith that healed me. I believe a Catholic themed tattoo can be a sign of worship and a tribute to our loving God.

Over the years, I added two more Christian symbol tattoos. The Jerusalem cross I wear on my wrist allows me to have conversations about my Catholic faith. I wear it to honor God and to bear witness.

September 21, 2014 at 11:24 am PST

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