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Tattoos

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2005-09-23

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

I hate tattoos with such a passion its almost illogical. Nowadays you can hardly open your eyes without seeing them—the ugly black, dirty red, dark blue and mud green, on arms, ankles, butts, necks and, most revoltingly, whole arms or legs or torsos. It’s not my idea of art.

There’s nothing beautiful or aesthetic in them ( I guess ‘pop art’ might disprove that opinion), just ritualised self-desecration and self-mutilation. Yet every sports icon, Hollywood actor or model seems to need one.

All over the New York subway you find adverts offering to remove tattoos. I guess if ‘Lola Forever’ has turned into ‘Lola the Slut’ you’ll not want to advertise the fact. Of if Joe no longer loves you, you might not attract new custom if his name stares up at a suitor whenever you undress! Crosses become a problem if you convert to Islam, just as I’m reliably informed that California plastic surgeons are swamped with requests to undo circumcisions! (I suppose there was a time when circumcisions were less visible than most tattoos. Clearly this no longer the case in San Francisco!)

Why do I hate tattoos so? Well, frankly, it started as a class thing back in post-war Britain. Then the only people who had tattoos were lower ranks in the Armed Services and, in particular, sailors who had the reputation of either having a man or a woman in every port! Tattoo parlours were seedy tobacco-shrouded cells you would pass in the red light district of Soho (I was only passing through MiLud) or the back streets of cold, wet and seedy British holiday resorts, surrounded by cheap stores selling rock, candy floss and ‘Kiss Me Quick’ t-shirts.

Then they graduated to Rockers and brutish motorbike riders who travelled in gangs and associated with the criminal classes and were always the murderers in Sam Peckinpah films. And there were stories about needles spreading diseases and drugs and abortions.

So in my youth respectable youngsters would no more have entertained the idea of getting a tattoo than they would have considered castration!

Then there was my Jewish upbringing. The Torah describes how Jewish men removed their jewellery after the Golden Calf episode, so I knew that good Jewish boys wouldn’t wear jewellery. And only Hebrew Slaves who couldn’t face freedom had their ears pierced, so I certainly wasn’t going to have an earring and be identified as a slave. Similarly, tattoos were against the law, as stated in Leviticus 20.28, ‘You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you; I am the Lord.’ So leaving aside the residual class snobbery of my English upbringing, my Jewish side was heavily antithetic to tattoos.

But then, before my eyes, society began to change. The pop culture of the sixties, the films ‘Clockwork Orange’ and ‘If’, ‘angry young men’ like the playwright John Osborne, and working class actors like Terence Stamp and Tom Courtenay all helped elevate cockney and working class culture so that upper-class snobs started trying to speak like Michael Caine and cockney photographer David Bailey became an honorary aristocrat. Slowly the values and standards and hypocrisies of Victorian England were turned upon their heads. This process took time and slowly gathered pace as British society opened up and sucked in millions of others.

In one way I welcomed the collapse of the old, class-ridden, racist, hypocritical standards. As a Jew I no longer felt the need to hide, to be a Jew at home and a Brit in public.  But a lot of the change was for the worse. Fashion came to dictate morality and superficiality, and dumbing down slowly swept away the good standards with the bad.

Yet together with the deterioration (others might prefer to use the word evolution) of certain respects of Western secular standards, scientific and medical expertise continued to advance.  One result of this was the ability to change our appearances through plastic surgery. Now it is possible to totally transform the way people look. Sadly, the boob-dominated Barbie Doll look became the ideal that millions of Western females began to aspire to. In many groups, even in very Orthodox wealthy communities, you can see lots of these clones. Inner qualities gave way almost exclusively to outer appearance, and outer is dictated entirely by the entertainment and fashion industry. I guess Torah values still leave plenty of room for individuals to pursue their own Holy Grails!

Nevertheless, you might even think illogically,  the one thing you will not find in Orthodox communities are tattoos. Actually that claim is not quite correct because new halachic literature does discuss the issue of tattoos and where you can put your tefillin on them or not, so there must be quite a lot of new arrivals with tattoos in place.  But to intentionally have one when one is aware of the religious prohibition, makes a  nonsense of say modern pseudo Kabbalah tattoos.

Now that Entertainment and Fashion have become, for millions, the gods of the twenty-first century, if they decide tattoos are good then everyone has to think that tattoos are good. But I find them ugly. Tatt as in tattoo! IObjectively, aesthetically, tattoos are limited both in colour and form, far more restricted than other forms of art. I’m not going to say it has no value at all, but rather as Pop is to Classical, it is ephemeral and transient.

Sure there are some intelligent, cultured and indeed good people who wear pony tails, earrings and tattoos. But I’m glad to say it is a minority interest. Real value lies in something far deeper than tattooing or piercing one’s body. Their current omnipresence is a sign of our times, and not everything in our times is for the best.  When Angelina Jolie’s or Madonna’s or David Beckham’s body decoration becomes the touchstone of society we are in real trouble!

Shabbat Shalom

Jeremy

Visit Rabbi Jeremy Rosen on the web at: www.JeremyRosen.com