Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Ain’t Tat Something

TBM Topic 12: Tattoos

"Ain't Tat Something" by Julie Robison
"In Memory Of" by Trista at Not a Minx, Moron, or a Parasite
"Needle and the damage done" by Elizabeth at Startling the Day

We three are from the oft-mentioned, widely-speculated upon demographic of young, twenty-something Catholic women. We're here to dispel the myths and misconceptions- please join us for the discussion!

Last Tuesday, I drove my brother north to his interview with the Navy. I was struck by the number of times the Lieutenant asked him if he had any tattoos. I found out later that the Navy allows tattoos if they are covered by conventional clothing (i.e. chest, back), but not otherwise. I am not sure why this is, but it made me think of Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Parker’s Back.”

O.E. Parker, the protagonist, had been in the Navy. Nearly his entire body is covered with tattoos, with the notable exception of his back. Parker was “as ordinary as a loaf of bread” and began getting tattoos put on his body after he saw a man at a fair who was tattooed from head to foot. “Until he saw this man at the fair,” wrote O’Connor, “it did not enter his head that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that he existed.”

Parker later falls in love with Sarah Ruth, who was “forever sniffing up sin.” She was the daughter of a “Straight Gospel preacher,” and was the first woman he met who did not approve of his tattoos, calling them “a heap of vanity.” He is not religious or interested in it, but still wants to make an effort to please his wife, who constantly threatens his lax language with references to Judgment Day.

The Christ
And so, Parker decides to get a tattoo of the Byzantine Christ on his back for her. It takes the artist two days and Parker pays $20. The tattooist (and later, men at the pool hall) asks if Parker has gone and “got religion” and if he is “ saved” now. “Naw,” Parker replied; “I ain’t got no use for none of that. A man can’t save his self from whatever it is he don’t deserve any of my sympathy. …I married a woman that’s saved, ” is his defense. Parker believes she’ll like it because “She can’t help herself… She can’t say she don’t like the looks of God.”

Sarah Ruth, in  fact, doesn’t like it. She takes a broom and whacks him on the back again and again, screaming “idolatry!” at her husband; “I can put up with lies and vanity but I don’t want no idolater in this house!” When she sees the face of the Christ, she says she doesn't know him. When Parker says it's God, she asserts that God "don't look. He's a spirit. No man shall see his face."

I love this short story. Mainly for its mockery of the assertion that God is merely a spirit, which is practically a denial that Jesus is the Word made flesh and lived on this earth, but also for its social commentary. Parker's mother, for instance, "wept over what was becoming of him" after he got his first tattoo (and then began to drink beer and get in fights). She will not pay for his tattoos (except for the one with her name on it) and attempts to drag her son to a revival, before he runs away from home and joins the Navy. His wife barely tolerates the tattoos, and prefers him his sleeves rolled down and fully covered. Before her, he found that women were attracted to his tattoos and men liked to gawk at his new tattoos. He never felt satisfied for long, and always yearned for another tattoo, filling the space, searching for his next one. It's a beautiful and physical image of a man looking for personal fulfillment.

I do not think tattoos are an issue of morals or faith. The argument that one should respect one's body can easily be countered by examples of people who disrespect their body by overeating and/ or drinking, indulging in sexual appetites, and violence. In terms of my Catholicism and tattoos, there is nothing in my beliefs which sway me here or there on tattoos.

There is no right or wrong answer on tattoos. My own opinion, of course, generally thumbs its nose down at tattoos. There are, of course, exceptions and double-standards. I don't mind them on males nearly as much as I despise them on girls. There are also industries where outside appearance matters-- in banking, law, and medicine, for instance-- visibly noticeable tattoos would not be tolerated.

For me, the bigger question is why: Why are you getting that tattoo? Why are you putting it there? Why are you inking something permanently to your largest organ?

a depiction of Parker's back
Apparently tats are big chick and/ or hipster magnets. I'm sorry, I meant "tattoos." I was trying to sound hip, which I am not. In all seriousness, tattoos do hold a fascination for many people. I cannot suppose why, but O'Connor gave me an inkling into such a sentiment.

Near the end of "Parker's Back," O'Connor wrote, "Parker sat for a long time on the ground in the alley behind the pool hall, examining his soul. He saw it as a spider web of facts and lies that was not at all important to him but which appeared to be necessary in spite of his opinion. The eyes that were not forever on his back [of Jesus Chris] were eyes to be obeyed. He was as certain of it as he had ever been of anything."

In the end, in the Resurrection of the body, God-in-Three will not be concerned with the marks on our body, but the state of our souls, our pursuit of truth and our love of God and each other. A tattoo is not going to disrupt our journey towards God, and it should not be a distraction to believers or non-believers alike. One day, when we see the face of God, that will be something to stare at; but for now, tat's tat!

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In addendum: If you want to know why this post is late, read here. If you want to read Will's guest post, click here.


  1. HIL-arious. And once again, true. There's no official teaching on the simple act of getting a tattoo or having one on your skin. Intention is key, just like everything else.

  2. Parker's Back is my fav short story by Flannery O'Connor... although I haven't read them all yet! But good connections! I agree that it's all about the intentions... unfortunately, I think that a lot of times when people get piercings and tattoos and liposuction etc, it's because they are searching for fulfillment in all the wrong places... when really they need God tattooed to their hearts!

  3. Entertaining as always! I completely agree that some people who fill their bodies with tattoos are searching for some physical source of meaning or memory.

  4. I love Flannery O' Connor. Personally, I know someone who is in the Navy who has been passed over several times for promotion, because he has a small tattoo of a Navy anchor on his earlobe.

  5. Wow. This is awesome! I really need to read more Flannery O. I also have felt like people who get tattoo after tattoo are "searching" for something they can't find.