Tattoos and Modern Art


In a climactic anecdote Francis Peters in Ours: The Making and Unmaking of a Jesuit describes a scene at summer villa playing cards with another Jesuit scholastic whom he thought he knew well. The friend had removed his shirt during the game and there, on his left breast, was a tattooed prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Peters was shocked, and began to reconsider his vocation. If his best Jesuit friend felt free to wear a tattoo, albeit a religious one, does he himself fit in the Order?

For most of my life I shared with Peters a prejudice against tattoos, even those made with the best of intentions. My youngest brother has one of the baby hands of his grandson located on the upper back of his shoulder where the baby would have been held in his arms. Although I did not comment when he showed me this, I was not impressed.

However, since coming to live at Quixote House in Winnipeg with recently paroled prisoners from Stony Mountain Penitentiary, I have revised my opinion. I now see some tattoos as a form of very personal body art.

Most ex-prisoners have tattoos. Some are easy to see; others are more discrete. But all are meaningful to the man who wears them. I hear no discussion of ways and means of having them removed if and when their sitz-im-leben has changed.

One man is Scottish in background and has had an emblem associated with his clan added to an already existing tattoo on his arm. Another has an elaborate one on his upper body and has plans to extend it. The artist who did it is well known and does quality work. No one whom I know has a frivolous tattoo that holds no meaning for him.

What I learned from this experience of changing my mind on tattoos is that while I myself, like Francis Peters, cannot find God in this form of art, others can and do find that it expresses meaning and value in their lives which they choose to make permanent through the tattoo process.

John Perry, Sj, is doing pastoral ministry at St. Ignatius Parish, Winnipeg and is researching and writing at St. Paul's College..

  • Peter Bisson
    Posted at 08:49h, 28 August Reply

    Thank you John!

  • Janice Ann Paul csja
    Posted at 10:45h, 29 August Reply

    I have a tatoo of Jesus setting upright on the cross trying to pull the nails pit of his feet In my home church I am a lector & sacristan & as my tatoo is on my right anterior forearm I always managed to keep it covered as some dislike it even perhaps the clergy, however lately I know longer keep it covered when I am @ the ambu reading & have to raise my arms to entone the Alleluia
    This is very special to me I am always reminded of Our Precious Lord sacrifice to save all of us Jesus is forever carved in my heart & for the word he carved in my flesh As Gal 2:20 I have been crucified with Christ & I know longer live in my flesh I live in Faith

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