Tattoos are a matter of taste, not morality

Joanna Southgate was allowed into Ascot despite her inked arms (Photo: PA)

Tattoos are in the news again. It seems that not only does virtually everyone have one these days, but that you can go into the Royal Enclosure at Ascot and no one will bat an eyelid if you show off acres of inked flesh. Indeed, if you are tattooed you are in very good company, along with Edward VIII, George V and of course Samantha Cameron, all of whom were or are tattooed.

But no one really seems interested in the moral implications of tattoos. They are permanent, though they can fade with age, and therefore a tattoo is only to be chosen after careful thought, as you will have to live with the choice you make for the rest of your life. This is why most tattooing parlours will not tattoo people under a certain age. This should give us all pause. It seems to be a denial (quite rightly in my opinion) of a person’s right to choose, and the idea that a person has complete dominance over their own body.

Some religious believers are against all tattooing per se. This is because tattoos are condemned in the Bible at Leviticus 19:28. And so it is that Evangelicals still view tattooing as immoral (see here for an example) as do the Jews (see here for a Jewish view).

The Catholic view of tattoos is surely more nuanced, as no Catholic moralist argues, as far as I am aware, that tattoos are per se immoral. It might be right to have a tattoo for a good purpose. But what that good purpose might be, I wonder… It seems hard to argue that fashion, or the realisation that everyone else is doing it, is in itself a good or proportionate reason to cover yourself in tattoos. Or even, for that matter, to have a small, discreet tattoo. However, we do allow ear-piercing, even for quite young girls, and what on earth is the point behind that?

If asked (not that I have been yet) for advice by someone who was contemplating getting a tattoo, I would urge them not to go ahead. We are in the image and likeness of God: while we can adorn our bodies, we should not deface them. Tattooing strikes me not as adornment but as defacing the body. But it is a hard thing to be precise about. It may in the end come down to taste, which is not the same as morality. Personally, I loathe tattoos. That, in itself, is not a moral feeling. But I think there are good moral reasons not to have a tattoo; and few cogent moral reasons to justify them.

Incidentally, the admired Hollywood actor, Mark Wahlberg, is having all his tattoos removed. This may be part of his seriousness about his Catholic faith, and his turning away from a troubled past. Mr Wahlberg is a tough man, but it seems even he finds tattoo removal painful – which all goes to show that having one in the first place is a bad idea.