“Is there anything wrong with getting a tattoo or body piercing?” Ensign, Feb. 1999, 52–53
Response by David A. Burton, M.D., president of the Salt Lake Eagle Gate Stake.
Although tattooing and body piercing1 have both been around for centuries, they are experiencing an unprecedented surge of popularity today. The fad is no longer limited to “wild” or “rebellious” individuals. A 1996 study of more than 2,000 high school students from eight states found that 1 in 10 adolescents had a tattoo, and 55 percent of those who did not already have one were considering getting one. Over half the students surveyed reported academic grades of A’s and B’s.2
In connection with the prevalence of tattooing and body piercing, there are medical, social-emotional, and spiritual implications that should be considered.
Both tattooing and piercing involve puncturing the skin to introduce foreign material (ink or jewelry), which carries the risk of introducing infectious agents into the body. Some agents such as hepatitis, HIV, tetanus, and tuberculosis cause infection in organ systems. Keloidal or thickened scars can result. Admittedly, these complications are rare, especially when the procedures are done in sanitary commercial piercing or tattoo studios that follow sound infection-prevention practices. However, other complications are more common, such as tooth damage from tongue jewelry or allergic reactions to ink or jewelry.
Notwithstanding the fact that many governmental bodies are passing legislation to regulate these industries, many studios are still unregulated, resources for enforcement of existing regulations are limited, and many tattoos are administered by untrained amateurs. The number of “do-it-yourself” tattoo kits sold far exceeds the number of tattoos applied in tattoo studios. Amateurs are often much less informed about proper techniques to prevent infection and may use unorthodox ink such as mascara, India ink, charcoal, or even dirt.3
Many people engage in body modification without considering the long-term consequences of their actions. Some see tattoos and elaborate jewelry as body art, in contrast with others who view the behavior as deviant.4
Often individuals who receive tattoos and piercings later come to regret their decisions, and those with tattoos may seek to have them removed. A study of patients seeking tattoo removal found that most had obtained their tattoos impulsively at an early age to establish or improve their self-identity. Their motivation to have the tattoo removed was to dissociate from the past.5 Most tattoo removals involve several mildly painful laser treatments at a current U.S. cost of $800–$1,600. If the tattoos were applied by a professional, there is usually little or no residual scarring, whereas those applied by amateurs are more likely to result in scarring.
The impact of tattoos and body piercing on future employment represents an important consideration. A telephone survey of 242 employers disclosed that 40 percent would be influenced negatively by a visible tattoo on a prospective employee.6
Although medical and social-emotional reasons presented thus far deserve careful consideration, the spiritual consequences of body modification may be far weightier.
The greatest gift in mortality is the gift of the Holy Ghost, which is “the right to have, whenever one is worthy, the companionship of the Holy Ghost” (LDS Bible Dictionary, “Holy Ghost”). The Holy Ghost is the custodian of all the gifts of the Spirit, chief among which is the gift of the knowledge of God (see D&C 46:13–14; John 17:3). The gift of the Holy Ghost is the key to obtaining the gift of eternal life, the greatest of all the gifts of God.
Reverence and respect for our bodies begets spiritual sensitivity to the gifts of the Holy Ghost. When we revere our bodies as temples of God, it is an outward manifestation of an inward commitment and is a testimony of our understanding that we are children of God.
Paul taught: “Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?
“For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Cor. 6:19–20).
We can defile our body by that which we take into it as well as by that which we do to its external surface. For example, the Lord has given us in the Word of Wisdom His law concerning foods and substances which should and should not be taken into our bodies. As with all His commandments, the more important dimension of this law is spiritual, not temporal. Over the years I have been challenged by some skeptics to justify from a medical perspective how a cup of coffee, a drink of alcohol, or a cigarette could possibly harm them. My response has been that the opportunity cost of their “minor” transgression is measured not in medical but in spiritual terms. By their disobedience they deprive themselves of spiritual sensitivity to the whisperings of the Holy Ghost, through which God deigns to reveal to them “wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures” (D&C 89:19). As they defile their bodies through willful disobedience to the Word of Wisdom, they resonate with the spiritually untutored to whom the knowledge of God remains a mystery, thus hindering their progress toward the goal of eternal life.
Similarly, when individuals follow the body-defiling practices of multiple piercing and tattooing, they dull their spiritual sensitivity. Tattooing the body seems analogous to spraying graffiti on one of our beautiful temples.
So often individuals are motivated to participate in these activities because they want to feel valued and accepted by their peers; they may even have feelings of low self-worth. In truth, the real basis of self-worth is the knowledge that we are sons and daughters of God, who loves us. The Holy Ghost is the custodian of that knowledge.
The greatest antidote to the current spread of body modification is gospel-centered living, which can help us know who we are and what our relationship to God is. Armed with that knowledge, we can respect the sacred nature of our bodies and thus be prepared to resist unwise fads such as tattooing and body piercing.