In my field of medicine, I often see people in various states of undress depending on why they are there. I may see someone’s leg or shoulder or arm or back. And a lot of people have tattoos (even here in Utah). Over the years, I’ve come to truly appreciate tattoos. I almost always ask about someone’s tattoo, particularly if it’s interesting or really well done. And in the vast majority of cases, there is a very specific reason WHY the person chose that tattoo. People love talking about their tattoos because their tattoos have meaning to them.
Sometimes a tattoo is tied to a memory of a trip. Sometimes it reminds them of something of spiritual significance. Sometimes the tattoo is to remember and honor a family member or friend who has died. I often see children’s names and/or birthdays – especially among people who might be divorced and don’t see their kids as much as they like. Sometimes the tattoo is from a favorite band or an image from childhood, although that’s pretty rare. The stories differ, but there’s ALWAYS a story behind a tattoo. (Granted, it’s occasionally a story that the person would just as soon forget, but it’s still a story).
(DISCLAIMER: I actually do NOT have any tattoos, though I think it would be cool to get one. I just don’t know what I’d get)
- Age: Tattoos are very generational. Around 40% of people in the US between ages 18-40 have one or more tattoos. In people over 65, this is less than 9%. This bears out in what I see. A lot of younger people in my office have a tattoo. It is extremely uncommon in older people.
- Regrets: Most people (84%) with a tattoo do NOT regret getting it. As mentioned above, most tattoos really meant something to the person when they got it, and they still do. Very occasionally, I see someone who doesn’t like their tattoo any more, like the lady with a big picture of Robert Smith from The Cure on her calf. She said she doesn’t like the band as much as she did in college.
- Impression: Nearly 1/3 of people without a tattoo feel that someone with a tattoo is more likely to do something “deviant”. Of people who actually have a tattoo, this number is around 10%. I’ve seen this in my own children who somehow picked up that someone with a tattoo is “bad” from church. I’ve worked on correcting this.
So, what does this have to do with religion? Not anything, really.
However, in the LDS Church, not having a tattoo has been added to the list of things that make you a “good” Mormon. In October 2000, President Hinckely gave a talk entitled “Great Shall Be The Peace of Thy Children“. In it, he stated:
I cannot understand why any young man—or young woman, for that matter—would wish to undergo the painful process of disfiguring the skin with various multicolored representations of people, animals, and various symbols. With tattoos, the process is permanent, unless there is another painful and costly undertaking to remove it.
Like in the previous post about earrings, this wasn’t stated as a commandment from God. It wasn’t added to our canon as a revelation. It was President Hinckley’s opinion. And, to be honest, it was probably the opinion of 95+% of the people his age. But it has been made into a policy in the Church. Some even see it as a “pseudo-doctrine”, where if someone is non-compliant, they are seen as in apostasy. But it’s not apostasy – it’s generational.
And given the recent concern about inactivity rates among the younger generation of the Church, having a non-doctrinal policy like this can be quite counterproductive. So, if I were in charge, I would Ignore Tattoos.
As far as discussion on this, I thought it was fun how Jeff Lindsay addressed it. On his site, he had a post about tattoos, and encouraged people to write about them using haiku. In case your memory of high school English is a little rusty, it is a 3-line poem with unrhymed syllables following a 5-7-5 count. (That’s not technically correct given differences between Japanese and English, and there are other aspects of haiku, but it’s good enough for this post.) Most of the posts there ironically used the art form of haiku to denigrate the art form of tattoos, but in his defense, that does mirror the “official Church policy”.
I came up with a few different “tattoo haiku” that explore WHY people actually get tattoos as well as their generational nature. Here they are:
Brother back to God
Too soon. Forever mem’ry:
The ink on my arm.
Old traditions fade –
But culture lives in my heart
And in my designs.
As your child I say:
Thank you for my skin and life
And trusting my choice
Don’t like my tattoo
Don’t like your white shirt and tie
Still – brothers in Christ
Given all of the things we have to worry about in life and in the Church, I would consider tattoos a non-issue if I were in charge. I wouldn’t care if someone had one. I wouldn’t care if someone didn’t have one. The issue has nothing to do with the essence of the Church. And as per the whole point of this post, if our non-doctrinal policy on tattoos causes even one person not to consider the beautiful truths of the gospel, it is counter-productive.
For some people, tattoos are a “Sacred Molehill”. I would ignore them.
- Do you have a tattoo? If so, do you regret it? If not, have you ever thought of getting one?
- How do you feel about tattoos personally? How about other people with tattoos?
- Do you think worrying about tattoos should or shouldn’t be a Church policy?
- Can you support President Hinckley as a prophet, yet still disagree with his opinion on tattoos?
NOTE: Comments do NOT have to be in haiku, but if you’re feeling adventurous and want “bonus points” towards great prizes from our Wheat & Tares catalog, give “tattoo haiku” a try. It’s kind of fun and no one will judge your efforts if you don’t get it perfect.