Rick Genest’s body is mostly covered in permanent ink drawings, embedded in the lower layers of his dermis, a phenomenon we call ‘tattoos’, derived from its Polynesian origins. Mr. Genest has parlayed his tattoo-ness, mysteriously, into some kind of successful renown; his fifteen minutes of fame derive largely from his appearance in a 2011 Lady Gaga video.
Although on the extreme end of the spectrum, Genest signifies the recent and growing popularity of tattoos, in previous ages relegated largely to sailors, who derived them from pagan cultures with whom they came into contact (particularly in the South Pacific). Now, everyone seems to be getting tattoos, and with the current cachet that such body-art-work offers, students every year ask me in class whether they are good or evil, prudent or dumb. What is wrong with a small cross on one’s arm, depicting one’s adherence to the Faith? Or the name of one’s wife? Or a picture of Our Lady? Debates swirl into the wee hours of the morning, emotions are engaged, and the stakes are drawn…
The question of tattoos is not easy to answer, but answer it one must. My own response is that tattoos are a form of mutilation of the body. Ponder: Would you be angry if someone tattooed you while you were asleep? (presuming such is possible…perhaps while anesthetized). How many people regret their tattoos? On tattoo parlours, one often sees a sign also for ‘tattoo removal‘ (difficult, expensive and more painful than getting the tattoo). I wonder whether the parlours make more money putting them on, or taking them off (I doubt they would want this statistic publicized). At the very least, the number of advertisements for tattoo removal signifies some level of popular and widespread regret. How many brides want a tattoo showing against their wedding dress?
People answer my characterization of tattoos as mutilation with the response that mutilation has to result in the loss or diminution of the proper function of some part of the body. Tattoos, they argue, do not diminish the skin’s physiological capacity (e.g., as a barrier to infection, as a transfer membrane for heat and moisture and so on).
I might dispute that, for tattoos can lead to infection and long-term problems. The ink may be the same as that in your pen or office printer, and the water used to dilute the ink for ‘shading’ improperly sterilized and filled with germs such as myobacterium. But, let us presume professional tattoos are by and large medically benign. Our skin, however, is not just for physiological purposes. Rather, our flesh signifies in large part who and what we are. It is what people ‘see’ of us, that aspect of our being that is presented to the world, at least our faces, our hands and limbs, and other parts in more intimate settings. It is the most visible part of the imago Dei that is our bodies.
Of course, our bodies are always changing, either with our own efforts, or by nature. Tattoos differ from haircuts and developing our bodies through exercise and such. In the latter, we are actualizing an inherent potency in the body, perfecting it according to its natural capacity. There is no such ‘potency’ in the skin for an ink drawing. It has to be embedded in the deep layers of the dermis via needles, cutting and blood (hence, back to infections).
There is a limit to how much we can modify our bodies (see my previous post on ‘Caitlin’ Jenner). In fact, our ‘flesh’ is sacred, with a deep spiritual and human significance. Should we try to ‘improve’ upon this beautiful exterior, given to us by God? Is our skin a canvas upon which we (or more properly others) can etch and carve permanent drawings?
I would argue a most definite ‘no’. My own reaction to tattoos is some degree of revulsion, or at least pity for the person so scarred (and, at least medically, scars they are). Regardless of the ‘beauty’ of a tattoo, the tattoo, permanent and unalterable, does not belong on (or in) human skin. We should ponder that most are not beautiful…I once saw a man at a beach with Jack Nicholson’s face on his shoulder in its ‘Heeer’es Johnny‘ grimace from that awful movie The Shining…. When I tried to find a copy on line, wondering whether I could (would anyone else be so dumb?), I found with amazement this this tattoo is actually popular. Are people as insane as Jack in the movie?
Even if it is not Jack, but a copy of a Da Vinci, art belongs on non-human, and generally non-living, material.
The human body is God’s work of art. Let us leave it as it is, beautiful and pristine, and prepared for the resurrection, where, regardless of the natural blemishes we may develop in this vale of tears, we will then appear ‘without spot or wrinkle’.
July 22, 2015
Saint Mary Magdalene