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Tattoos &
Body Piercing:
Marks Worth Making?

by Susan Hines-Brigger

It seems as if everywhere you look these days someone has something pierced or a tattoo displayed on his or her body. Tattoos and body piercings, also known as body modification, are showing up not only on celebrities and sports stars, but also on classmates, friends and perhaps even on you.

The reasons why people pierce some part of their body or get tattoos are endless. Some do it for self-expression, some just because they can. Still others do it simply for shock value.

Lynn, a former co-worker, gave herself a small tattoo on her ankle when she was a freshman in high school —just to see if I could do it.— It was an expression of the creative and curious side of her personality, she says. But she admits that she—s glad it's small and unnoticeable.

Whatever your thoughts on body modification, some issues deserve your attention. In this Youth Update, we—ll look at some issues and motives involved in determining whether or not getting a tattoo or body piercing is a good decision for you.

While body modifications are not forbidden by the Catholic Church, defiance, deceit and rebellion toward authority are not in the spirit of Jesus and the teaching of the Church. This means why is as important a question as what and when and where. We—ll address all these issues here.

Forever Is a Long, Long Time

Think of all the different styles or fads that have already come and gone in your life. Would you go back to some of them?

One of the big things when I was in high school was to dye one—s hair different colors. It seemed really cool then, but when I look back it doesn—t impress me much. I can—t imagine how I would feel now if I could have permanently dyed my hair rainbow colors. Had I decided at the time to get a tattoo or have my nose pierced, I would still be living with the effects of that decision.

Jerry, a guy with whom I went to high school, had his ear pierced during his senior year. He liked the look, but didn—t like the fact that people made fun of him for it and told him he looked like a girl. Although I didn—t like seeing my friend get made fun of, I told him that if he was adult enough to get the earring, then he should be adult enough to accept the negative consequences.

My sister—s friend Jill got a tattoo on her ankle last year and says she doesn—t regret it, but won—t get any more. Her advice to anyone considering a tattoo is to —make sure it—s what you really want, because it—s with you forever.—

She also pointed out that where you get the tattoo is an important part of the decision. Jill noted that having a tattoo on your arm, where it can be easily seen, is more likely to influence other people—s reactions to you than if it is located someplace less noticeable. She says, —It is not a decision to be made lightly, and you have to be mature enough to make that decision.—

Messages and Misunderstandings

Permanence is not the only issue around body modification. You will want to consider what the changes you choose communicate. Whether it—s right or wrong, some people hold the stereotype that people with tattoos and body piercings are troublemakers or punks.

This fact was made evident in a news report I read about a man who was beginning treatments to remove the tattoos from his head, hands and arms. He said that people often would cross to the other side of the street when they saw him coming, or if he would hold a door open for an older woman she would often use another door, simply because of the way he looked.

Perhaps one reason people develop this stereotype is the prevalence of tattoos in gangs. Gang members often have their gang name tattooed on their body and can earn other tattoos signifying things such as jail time. Those who decide to leave the gang or want to put that part of life behind them will have a constant reminder of that period of their life, as will everyone else with whom they come in contact. If you have wisely chosen to avoid gangs and gang activities, your tattoos may still be read by others as gang symbols.

Beauty and Health

Most professionals who perform tattoos and body piercings will not work on anyone under the age of 18 without the consent of a parent or guardian. If you find someplace that will give a tattoo or piercing to someone under that age without parental consent, you may want to stop and think of what that says about the place.

If a business is willing to ignore the law by performing these procedures on underage persons, perhaps its employees may not be very concerned with the strict sanitary procedures that most tattoo shops or stores that do body piercings follow. If you are willing to deceive them or to do business with them despite your parents— wishes, your dishonesty and disobedience are issues as significant as your actions.

One of the biggest health concerns with tattooing and body piercing is AIDS. Both procedures require that a needle be inserted into your skin. If the needles were not properly cleaned and sterilized after being used on someone else, your chance of contracting a disease is much greater. Much attention is given to the hazards of drug addicts sharing needles. This is a similar concern.

The average time it takes a tattoo to heal completely is four to six weeks. Body piercings, depending on the placement, can take anywhere from four weeks to six months to heal. That is, of course, if there are no complications or infections. Everyone heals differently.

Infections can occur even when proper sanitation procedures are followed. For instance, after I got my ears pierced, I kept playing with the earrings. Both my ears got infected, not because of the store where I had my ears pierced, but because of the germs on my own hands that I was putting in contact with the holes in my ears.

You may also know people who must wear certain types of jewelry (hypoallergenic) to prevent an allergic reaction. The same applies to body piercings. Sharing jewelry for your piercings is never a good idea. What may work well with one person—s body may cause an infection or reaction in yours.

Did you know that some people—s bodies won—t even accept some piercings? I know of a young girl who after much thought got her navel pierced, only to have to take the ring out because her body rejected the piercing and the infections wouldn—t heal. She told me that it was frustrating that, after all the research she had done and finally making her decision, she had to take the jewelry out. She never thought that there could be a problem with her own body rejecting the piercing.

Taking care of your body is a basic responsibility you have. Putting yourself in an unnecessarily dangerous situation is not having respect for yourself. You must respect yourself enough to look at all your options, ask questions and choose the healthiest decision for yourself. Achieving a certain look is certainly not worth a risk to your health or even your life.

Think Again

Did you know that some religious denominations do not allow tattooing or body piercing? For instance, among Jewish believers, a traditional Jewish burial is denied to persons with tattoos or body piercings. Some Christian churches also have restrictions on these body modifications.

The basis for many religious objections to tattoos and body piercings is an Old Testament passage which states, —Do not lacerate your bodies for the dead, and do not tattoo yourselves. I am the Lord— (Leviticus 19:28). In this passage, the lacerations and tattoos described were part of non-Jewish mourning rituals, intended to disguise the living from the spirits of the dead. Such religious motives seem to have little influence on those who choose body modification today.

Perhaps they should. The Second Vatican Council declared that the human person is obliged to regard the body —as good and honorable since God created it and will raise it up on the last day— (Gaudium et Spes, #14). Some tattoo motifs, at least, seem less than good and honorable and, thus, inappropriate decoration for the human person created by God.

Even if you judge body modification to be appropriate, you need to acknowledge that others may not share your view and this can affect your future. Will a potential employer look at you differently because of the hole you have in your nose, or the tattoo on your calf? Some may. I—m not just talking about your future career. How you look may also affect your ability to get a part-time job now. Or, if you have a job already, you may want to check to see how your employers feel about tattoos and body piercings.

My friend Matt, who got his ear pierced for his 18th birthday, presents a good example. His parents were O.K. with it, but his employer was not. His employer told him that he could not wear the earring when he was at work. Since he had just had the piercing done, Matt couldn—t take the earring out for a couple of weeks or else the hole would close up. The employer said that he would have to cover the earring up then.

After walking around at work with a Band-Aid on his earlobe for a couple of weeks, Matt said he certainly wished he would have checked out all the possible roadblocks to his getting an earring. That—s not to say that he regretted his decision, but he says he may have reconsidered the timing.

Another scenario you may want to consider is what if you have your boyfriend or girlfriend—s name tattooed on your body and then the two of you break up? Do you think other people you date in the future will appreciate someone else—s name on your body?

And how is that tattoo going to look years from now when your skin starts to sag or you gain weight, causing your skin—and tattoo—to stretch? I recently heard a story about a girl who had the rays of the sun tattooed around her navel. She was quite pleased until her first pregnancy when the tattoo stretched along with her expanding stomach. I—m sure you can imagine how the tattoo looked after the pregnancy.

Temporary Try-outs

If you want the look that a tattoo or piercing will give you, but not the permanence, you have some alternatives. Many stores at the malls sell removable tattoos and fake nose rings, earrings, etc. And I—m not talking about the fake tattoos you get in bubble gum machines or as prizes in cereal boxes. Some of these imitations look just like the real thing. Using these alternatives is a healthy but temporary way to achieve the look that you want and still decide whether or not it—s a look you want to keep.

Tattoos can be removed, but the procedure can be very costly and painful. Removal of one square inch of tattoo can cost from $500 to $1,000. Laser removal of a tattoo usually leaves some type of scarring. The scar may be just as noticeable, if not more so, than the original tattoo.

Also, sometimes the procedure to remove a tattoo simply removes the pigment and color from the ink used for the tattoo. The result is a flesh-colored scar in the shape of the tattoo. That—s not to mention that the ink remains in your body and can cause health problems, such as ink poisoning. Instances of that are rare, but still a possibility.

Permanence is also an issue with body piercings. Just because you no longer put jewelry in a pierced part of your body doesn—t mean the hole will close up and return to the way it was before. It may, but could leave a telltale scar.

If it—s simply a new look you—re striving for, perhaps you should first try a new hairstyle or way of dressing. Sometimes you can say just as much in those ways without putting yourself at risk or ending up with something permanent you don—t want.

You should also ask yourself why you want to achieve a new look. Is it something inside you that you—re trying to change by altering your outward appearance? Maybe you should work on the inside then before you start marking up your body. You can change your attitude without changing the way you look. As a matter of fact, changing your outward appearance may have the opposite effect that you want it to have.

Choosing Well

In the end, the decision of whether or not to get a tattoo or have your body pierced is not yours alone if you—re under 18. It involves your parents or legal guardians. Given the long-term implications and permanence of your decision, it is not a decision to be taken lightly, even if your parents agree to it.

Before you make any decision, do some research. Check with your local health department to see what requirements, if any, there are for getting a tattoo or body piercing in your state. Tattooing is illegal in some U.S. states. If it is legal, there are regulations for this industry in your area. You need to know those regulations.

Talk to some people, both older and younger, who have already been through the process and lived with the results for a while to see what they think. Would they recommend doing it? Do they have any regrets? If so, what are they? What are the health concerns?

Check out some places where they perform these procedures. Most places will be more than happy to talk to you without pressuring you to make a decision.

Your body deserves respect and the best of care. Reckless, rebellious or thoughtless choices do not express that respect.

The question you ultimately must ask yourself when considering a tattoo or body piercing is: Are they marks worth making?

Susan Hines-Brigger is an assistant editor of St. Anthony Messenger. She has also written on friendship for Youth Update.

Cameron Czarniecki (16), J.T. Rusch (16), Hillary Stetten (14) and Julie Tobe (17), members of St. Luke Parish in Beavercreek, Ohio, critiqued this edition of Youth Update and had a good time, while posing challenging questions. All four are enrolled in the Parish School of Religion, which Sister Christine Bartsch, S.N.D., directs.


Q.

Adult responses toward men's tattoos and women's tattoos seem to be different. That's a double standard which probably encourages girls to go for it, don't you think?

A.

That may be true, but I would hope that anyone—male or female—would put more consideration into this decision rather than trying to go against a perceived double standard. Perhaps that perception comes not just from adults, though. The girls with whom I've spoken say they purposely placed their tattoos where they could not be seen. Guys, however, seemed pleased to show off their piercings and tattoos.

Q.

Some tattoos seem to have religious significance or artistic beauty. Shouldn't we appreciate these rather than criticize them?

A.

No one is saying that tattoos or body piercings are inherently bad or that people who have them should be criticized or avoided. Artistic expression or religious significance are both valid reasons for body modification. But there are still risks and weighty issues to consider. You should know that some gangs choose tattoos with a religious theme, so such a tattoo could be misinterpreted. You could also demonstrate your faith by choosing to wear a medal or a cross.

Q.

When parents have tattoos, I don't see how they can keep us from doing the same. Isn't that hypocritical?

A.

Not necessarily. Have you ever heard the saying, "Do as I say, not as I do?" Your parent is simply trying to prevent you from doing something the parent may now regret and can't easily change. They've learned from their experience. Your parents are always going to try to protect you from harm. In the end, when you reach 18, they can't keep you from getting a tattoo or piercing some part of your body. The issue is, I hope, not about power and independence, but about wisdom, health and self-respect.

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