A Marked Man: Should Catholics Get Tattoos?

June 5, 2014

From small ankle tattoos to tattooed sleeves, I am seeing tattoos on men and women more and more frequently. In fact, an estimated 40 million Americans have at least one tattoo, and tattoo parlors are one of the fastest growing businesses in the U.S.

With the increased popularity of tattoos comes the question of their morality. After all, a tattoo is a permanent marking of the body—a serious issue to be sure. So are they wrong? Should a good Catholic get one?

I am well aware that the answers to this question vary widely. Some feel strongly that marking your body is always immoral. Others see tattoos as a perfectly legitimate form of self expression. But personal feelings aside, is there an objective answer? Let’s take a look.

Right or Wrong?

The primary argument opponents of tattoos cite is the Levitical law prohibiting them. Leviticus 19:28 says, “Do not lacerate your bodies for the dead, and do not tattoo yourselves. I am the LORD.”

While this sounds like a fairly clear condemnation of tattoos, we have to keep in mind the context of the Old Testament law. It’s fairly obvious to me that the prohibition against tattoos was directly related to pagan worship, just as the prohibition against graven images was.

But regardless of the original intent, it is Catholic teaching that the old covenant ceremonial law no longer applies to us as new covenant faithful, and to say otherwise is contrary to the whole message of the New Testament. For example, immediately preceding and following that verse are prohibitions against trimming one’s beard and eating red meat. Now, I recently ate a medium rare steak, and I’m pretty confident I didn’t sin. I also regularly trim my beard, which also isn’t a sin (though some might think it is!).

There are literally hundreds of old covenant laws that no longer apply to us as Christians. We can’t cherry pick laws from the Old Testament to use as ammunition for our personal preferences. Either we follow them all, or we don’t—and St. Paul makes it perfectly clear that the ceremonial law is no longer binding.

I’ll cut to the chase: There is nothing immoral about tattoos. Mother Church has never condemned them, and neither can I. It is one of those areas where a Catholic must follow his or her conscience.

Personally, I wouldn’t get a tattoo. I don’t find them attractive, and they are far too permanent for my taste. That said, those of us who dislike tattoos should be careful never to judge a brother or sister in Christ who chooses to get one.

Danger, Will Robinson, Danger

While tattoos may not be immoral, I strongly believe they need to be approached with an extra degree of caution and prudence due to their permanence. Yes, they can sometimes be removed, but this is a painful and expensive process. Accordingly, you should never get one lightly or flippantly, nor should you cover your body in things that are displeasing to God (a naked or scantily clad lady on your arm is a not acceptable).

Here are two things you should keep in mind if you are considering a tattoo.

1. Type – One of the most important decisions regarding tattoos is what kind you choose to get. This may seem rather obvious, but I know far too many individuals who have gotten a tattoo they later regretted. Whether it’s the name of an ex-girlfriend, an obscene image, or a curse word, there are some things you don’t want marking your body forever. And while tattoos themselves may be amoral, your choice of tattoo can be indeed be immoral depending on what it is.

If you decide to get a tattoo, think of it as putting on a piece of clothing that you will be wearing forever. If you can’t imagine yourself wearing it when you’re 50 or 70 years old, you shouldn’t get it. Take extra time to examine your motives. Is this a rash decision motivated by peer pressure or an attempt to be cool? Or is something deeply meaningful to you?

I have seen beautiful tattoos of Our Lady of Guadalupe or the Sacred Heart that were chosen out of devotion and love. But I have also seen “Murder” tattooed on someone’s neck and Betty Boop on someone’s arm. Some choices are clearly better than others, and some are indeed immoral.

When choosing a tattoo, the best rule is that of St. Paul: Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable.

2. Degree – Another consideration that warrants prudence is the amount and placement of tattoos. Your face, neck, or other highly visible areas are probably not wise places to mark your body. In other words, don’t express your grief by getting tattoo tears!

As with anything, moderation is also important. While a tattoo is not wrong, it is excessive and probably immoral to cover your entire body in ink. It is certainly not in accord with the virtue of temperance and the scriptural command to exercise “moderation in all things.” I admit it is difficult to choose a point when tattoos become excessive, but it is always best to exercise a high degree of caution.


Opinions are strong on both sides of this issue, and I’m sure there will be some readers who disagree with my assessment. Still, love them or hate them, I can find nothing that prohibits a Catholic from getting a tattoo, and we must be careful not to make this a moral issue when there is no clear magisterial teaching on it. Still, as with anything in the Christian life, the virtues of temperance, charity, and prudence apply.

Sam Guzman

Liked this post? Take a second to support us on Patreon!

Don’t Miss a Thing

Subscribe to get email notifications of new posts and special offers PLUS a St. Joseph digital poster.



Reader Interactions


  1. kmo says

    Getting a tattoo constitutes bodily mutilation and it is also immodest since it unnecessarily draws attention to your body.

    Leviticus 19:28 applies to still applies today just as it is still sinful to worship graven images. Even if the image is not “pagan” it would be extremely inappropriate to tattoo a picture of our lady on your body.

    The only type of situation where it would be acceptable to get tattoo’ed is if you were serving in the military and it serves as an identification of sorts.

    I also remain unconvinced at your appeal to “thou shalt not judge,” since it is rash judgment that is condemned not judgment on real moral issues. And I’m I’ve heard excellent talks by priests that explain why tattoo’s are immoral very eloquently and convincingly.

    • The Catholic Gentleman says

      KMO, I’m curious, do you consider a woman piercing her ears bodily mutilation? Also, do you mind sharing some of the points these priests made in their talks? I am always open to correction on this or any issue.


      • kmo says

        A woman piercing her ears is not immodest, it is a common practice and doesn’t draw unnecessary attention to the body. Where as if a man got an piercing it would be effeminate and immodest, and so would getting a tattoo. Neither is a ear piercing a lasting modification like a tattoo is.

        Further, when I think of some guy with a tattoo of Our Lady of Guadalupe, devotion to our lady is not what comes to mind, devotion to whatever gang uses that symbol is what I think of.

        I am at work right now and can’t pull up the sermons, although I will be giving them another listen.

        • Devout says

          Girls getting their ears pierced is just as common and draws just as much, if not more, attention as someone getting an appropriate tattoo on an appropriate body part. Welcome to 2014.

          • Nellie says

            right Devout, tattoos, ear piercings, clothing, even eye make-up is used to draw attention to a woman/girl.

          • kmo says

            A girl getting her ears pierced is not as common as people getting tattoo’s on other parts of the body. And girl’s don’t use tattoo’s as forms of makeup, your comparison is a big stretch.

            Getting a tattoo is vain, immodest, effeminate, a sin against jusice, and imprudent. Not only this, but it is a form of bodily mutilation. The Church doesn’t speak on the issue because there are some minor instances where it might be acceptable. You are simply justifying it by confusing degrees of acceptance. Your body is a temple not a canvas.

            Welcome to 2014, you prideful modern, you can justify tattoo’s all you want but that doesn’t mean you are in the right in the eyes of God.

        • Andrew says

          So if getting tattoos was common practice, would it be acceptable? That is moral relativism, or basing something morally on whether it’s done often in this day and age. You said because it’s normally practiced it’s not immoral, this is not good. Either it is or it isn’t morally right. It’s common practice to abort babies in this day and age, that doesn’t make it right. Also you claim it feminizes men, there was a time when men wore tights and had long hair, shakespearian times. Yet these men were not sinning because of the times, but if they did it now they would be sinning because it feminizes them? You can’t say something is or isn’t a sin based on what’s common. Moral relativism is not the church’s teachings.

          • James says

            “So if getting tattoos was common practice, would it be acceptable? That is moral relativism, or basing something morally on whether it’s done often in this day and age.”

            No it’s not moral relativism, it’s not virtuous for you to do things that make you stand out in society. It’s not temperament to do things that make you stand out. Getting covered in tattoos make you stand out in society, it is in-temperament. It goes against virtue to get your body covered in tattoos, it’s vain, self absorbing, selfish and a complete waste of time and money.

      • Romans says

        There are two articles I can find written by Traditional Catholic priests on this subject. One by the Traditional Catholic Priest blog (may he rest in peace) written in 2013, and there is a Latin Mass Magazine article written by Father Peter Joseph. Both would not agree with your conclusion that there isn’t anything wrong with Tattoos, in particular, they both condemn religious art as being used for tattoos. In one article he compares it to wearing vestments while grocery shopping, it’s just not the time or the place for those holy things. Fr. Ripperger makes similar comments in his talks on modesty, that getting tattoo’s goes against proper decorum. You should be able to find these through google.

  2. nemo says

    mortification is also self mutilation and a common practice of our holy saints so your argument is invalid

    • TC says

      I think you may not understand what mortification means, in the sense you are using.
      Mortification is self discipline to learn to master the body. We see it most commonly done at Lent. It loosens the hold of the world on us, eg habits, whether neutral, good or bad, so we can be freer to handle our individual calling. Stronger self mortification is done especially when they are facing bigger battles–spiritual or inner.
      Conversely, tattoos in western culture are a vanity, regardless of the reason. Elsewhere, not you, people have claimed some other civilization or religion to which we do not belong as a justification, which is not reasonable.

  3. Michael Yoder says

    Thank you for your many good articles on your website; however, I will be one that will vociferously disagree with your assessment of tattoos. I am not sure that if you accept self-mutilation, which tattoos and piercings are, can really make a distinction between a “good” tattoo and a “bad” tattoo. They are what they are and they are symbolic of the barbarism that is our society.

    Who used to have tattoos exclusively? Criminals, motorcycle gangs, sailors and barbarians. Did tattoos suddenly become acceptable because Western society has accepted them? I doubt that. Additionally, I find your last paragraph gratitious. I can say that fornication or sodomy or some other sin wrong without necessarily judging the person that committed the act. The same applies to tattoos. I know a lot of people with tattoos and I will tell them to their face that they are barbarians but without losing my liking of them.

    • mrviceroy says

      Tribal communities like the Kalinga in the Northern Philippines had tattoos since it was a part of life and an important practice for the people. They wore tattoos as an indication of their social status and achievements. Women had them primarily for aesthetic purposes. In this case, tattoos are expressions of culture and art which is good. And we have to thank God for everything that is good.

    • Marissa says

      Oh mylanta, “barbarians?” Are you from the 1800s? Your comments suggest you have an extremely ethnocentric way of looking at things. Just because someone’s way of life is different than yours does not mean they are “barbarians.” And it isn’t very Christ-like to view any of God’s creation as being “barbaric.”

  4. sylvain says

    I believe a tattoo is a medium of communicating what we cherish the most or what we strongly believe in and also what we highly value. No one makes a tattoo of something he hates. In this context i’m not against tattoos, i myself have a crucifix on my back for me it’s the same as wearing one around my neck. So the issue is not whether we have a tattoo or no rather than what message it conveys.

    Thank you for a very nice article, i think it’s about time we go beyond the traditional stereotype image of a catholic. A catholic first and last is a follower Jesus Christ and worships him in Spirit and Truth and quite honestly i don’t think that if somebody came to Jesus with a tattoo we would have spurned him.

    • James says

      Having a tattoo of a crucifix on your back is not the same thing as wearing one around your neck. One is a sacramental, one is not.

    • George says

      Having a tattoo of a crucifix on your back is not the same as wearing one around your neck. One is a sacramental and one is not.

  5. Leslie says

    Food for thought….though I will add the following: Beyond the popular quip “What Would Jesus Do?”, we as Catholics need to go beyond that and ask ourselves “What Is Jesus Doing?” This is because Christ is not just beside us, but inside us! What is Jesus doing, through us? Tattoo-ing Himself? Why? We MUST think deeply!

  6. annecatholicelizabeth says

    The saddest patient I have ever cared for was a 17 year old soldier (his parents gave permission to permit him to join early) who got a small tatoo near his boot camp. Within 2 months he was dying – and died – of fulminant hepatitis B. He was bright orange and there was nothing on earth that anyone could do to save his life. Gruesome way to end a life with great promise. It can and does happen. We can now prevent Hep B with vaccines, but Hepatitis C is forever til death, and can result from tatoos.