For many years tattoos and decorative piercings weren’t a real issue for members of the Mormon Church. Until the year 2000, there was only one reference to tattooing in all of Mormon teaching and that was in the 1965 unofficial personal publication Mormon Doctrine by Mormon Apostle, Bruce R. McConkie. It states; “Tattooing is a desecration of the human body and should not be permitted, unless all that is involved is the placing of a blood type or an identification number in an obscure place. Latter-day Saint servicemen in particular are counseled to avoid the pitfalls of tattooing. Persons who are tattooed are not, however, denied the ordinances and blessings of the temple.”
In the October 2000 General Conference the first of many “councils” against tattooing was announced.
“We–the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve–have taken the position, and I quote, that “the Church discourages tattoos. It also discourages the piercing of the body for other than medical purposes, although it takes no position on the minimal piercing of the ears by women for one pair of earrings.” President Gordon B. Hinckley
At the time my husband and I were very active, temple recommend holding members of the church and had been operating a tattoo studio without any prejudice for many years. We were never treated poorly or shunned by the members of our Ward or Stake. Our Stake President’s wife more than once brought her children to our studio to get tattoos. It was such a non issue that one of the ways I billed myself in advertising was Kita Kazoo the Mormon Girl Tattoo Artist.
Since then we both have been subjected to many discussions and debates on the right or wrong of getting and doing tattoos and piercings. At first I would defend my choice of profession using the scriptures, but eventually I got tired of it and began asking those who questioned me to explain to me, what horrible thing would happen in our society if everyone had a tattoo? After all, sins are those things that violate the golden rule and keep us from loving one another, not things such as, what clothing we wear or how we do our hair.
Now, 8 years later the whole subject of tattoos and piercings has in my opinion gotten out of hand. Now it is not so surprising to find that the local church authorities, such as bishops, stake presidents and temple presidents are taking it upon themselves to punish members who choose to get a tattoo. Not just in Utah, but all over the world. This has become such a big issue that people are leaving the church over it.
Some people who have tattoos are told not to take the sacrament and others are not allowed access to the temple. Some are being counseled to not marry those who have tattoos and piercings. As having been a 30+ year student of Mormonism and its history I feel that this behavior is not in line with the teachings of Mormonism or Christianity in any way.
Mormons aren’t the only religion that superstitiously believes that tattoos are an evil and to be avoided as they supposedly will lead to worse sins. Many Christian Churches and Jewish Rabbi’s do also. And there are good reasons for a religion to not want their flock to get tattoos or piercings.
Getting a tattoo not only changes the way you look but it also changes the way you think and feel about yourself. It is a clear message that you feel that you are the owner of your body and worse of all (to religious leaders), your mind!
Historically tattoos have been used as an expression of faith and commitment. One would think that getting a symbol of your beliefs tattooed on ones self would be encouraged. However, because of the recent history of American tattooing and the popularizations of tattooing, tattoos are being presented by the media and politicians as a dangerous amusement. It is not new for counter-culture decorations to be viewed as repulsive to many of the elders of our society.
When I heard at General Conference that President Gordon Hinckley (the current Mormon Church President) does not like tattoos and some piercings I was not surprised. The tattoos he has been exposed to in his youth were usually not very well done or artistic. Unlike today, tattooed people of his generation, especially in socially backwards Utah may have appeared attractive only to criminals or rough military men, not average everyday people with families and lives of good account.
To further the injury of one’s personal opinion of fashion being stated as if it is a law from God, President Hinckley allows for one sort of permanent decorative change to ones appearance and not another, which seems hypocritical to me. Mr. Hinckley allows within the church for women to have their faces tattooed with permanent cosmetics and wear pierced earrings, (but one pair only – one in each ear) as those are socially acceptable with in his peer group.
I feel that these religious leaders are ignorant of tattoo history as a spiritual practice and generally trivialize tattoos and piercings as immoral and frivolous behaviors of rebellion because they do not want their followers to look like everyone else. It is a power game and nothing more. If they can control the way you look they will control the way you think and feel.
I suspect that the shunning of persons with tattoos and piercings is really a part of the whole elitist thought pattern of Mormonism in Utah. Those who have not done their homework are sure to believe that if you look like a Gentile (any non-Mormon) you will act like a Gentile, which means to Mormons that you are without God and are basically led by the Devil.
However it has been my experience that tattoos do not lead to sin. Being uninformed and willing to blindly follow without question is what leads to sin and personal disgrace.
If you are LDS and still considering a tattoo you should first be asking yourself these questions. Does my tattoo choice reflect my beliefs or will they distract from my message of who I am. Am I getting tattooed because I want to immortalize an event in my life, a belief or to rebel against the mainstream culture? Will this tattoo or piercing prevent me from being a good person? The answers to these questions will let you know if you are doing the right thing or reacting poorly to your society. It is my opinion that if you feel having a tattoo would be a healthy positive thing for you, then by all means exercise your own good judgment and free agency and get one.
Keep in mind that in reality “Tattooings are not only ornaments…they are not only emblems of nobility and symbols of rank in the social hierarchy: they are also messages fraught with spiritual and moral significance…not only to imprint a drawing onto the flesh but also to stamp onto the mind all the traditions and philosophy of the group.”- Claude Lévi Strauss
Personally I believe that tattoos in and of themselves can not be evil and I don’t believe that God cares one way or another if you have one or not, unless you got that tattoo to alienate and hurt other people. Then the real problem is how you feel towards your fellow men and not the tattoo in itself.
People have a right to decorate themselves how they want to. Some people like to put pictures on their bodies and some people don’t. It is all a matter of personal taste. I feel it is wrong to subject my taste on others and I expect the same courteousness in return.
This attitude is healthy and normal. This is how it is in the big world where the Mormon lifestyle is not practiced by the majority. Wouldn’t the world be great place if we could all mind our own lives and appreciate the good things out there instead of picking on others for being different?
You can do good or evil with everything on this earth. As a heavily tattooed person I have had many more opportunities to love and serve others through tattooing and having tattoos than before I had them. I have had to become more patient and tolerant. Especially have I had to learn to be more patient and tolerant with those who claim to be “spiritual leaders” as they put words in God’s mouth rather than follow what they claim God has already spoken.
I have found that most people who have tattoos are more open and friendly towards others. I have found that for the most part people who wear tattoos are very nice people. There are a few people that I have met to whom their tattoos serve more as warning to stay away than an invitation to meet them. Which I feel is also a good thing as it has saved me a lot of time by helping me to avoid an unpleasant interaction with them.
Most people have their personal spiritual philosophy tattooed on them and it becomes a way of opening the opportunity to speak about spiritual things. In this world where we are taught to be afraid of our neighbors it is nice to have a way of really getting to know the people around you. It is nice to have a common bond despite all other social differences.
If you already have a tattoo and are experiencing social rejection issues it is wise remember that things in the church change quickly. I would not be surprised to find that in 20 years having a tattoo won’t be an issue at all. The evil music that was preached against in the 60’s and 70’s is now played regularly at church dances and the Coke and Pepsi drinkers that were denied temple recommends in the 1970’s can now go to the temple in spite of their soda habits. It is all a matter of generational perspective, which is bound to change as the old guys finally die off.