Sunstone Symposium: Tale of Mormons and tattoos

The Salt Lake City Tribune/August 10, 2006
By Peggy Fletcher Stack

In 2004, a Brigham Young University media guide used the wizardry of computers to scrub tattoos off photos of their Brazilian basketball star, Rafael Araujo.

BYU allows students to enter with a tattoo, but getting one while there violates the school's honor code.

Though some church members bear such body art, especially non-Americans, it is clear church leaders do not approve.

LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley called such permanent art "graffiti on the temple of the body." Some members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, though, have a hard time following that edict and logic.

Manuel Nielsen, a political science and humanities major at Utah Valley State College, was raised in a strict Mormon home in Australia. After coming to the United States and exploring other faiths, he felt like an outsider in his LDS ward. Nielsen is planning to cover his back, neck and arms with passages from the Bhagavad-Gita, a Hindu scripture. "It reflects my spirituality now," Nielsen said during a panel discussion at the 2006 Sunstone Symposium, which started Wednesday at the Sheraton City Center in Salt Lake City.

Sunstone is an independent forum to discuss issues related to the LDS Church; symposium participants do not have to be members of the church.

Nielsen was joined on the panel by three other UVSC students, who all have tattoos. They had different kinds of body art and for different reasons. To some it was clearcut rebellion against parents and church; to others it was more a matter of aesthetic expression.

Some love their tattoos and plan to get more; others regret doing something so permanent.

When Michael Negale, a Navajo Mormon from Gallup, N.M., got to BYU in 2000, he began to feel constricted. After one year, he dropped out and headed to a nearby emporium to have his ears pierced and an inverted pentagram emblazened on his arm.

Now his feelings have changed. The computer science student took out his earrings and does everything he can to cover up the tattoo.

"It expressed how I was feeling then, frustrated and angry," Negale said. "Now I'm trying to get more active in the church." Rebellion also drove Michelle Miller to the tattoo artist.

Over her parents' objections, she got her first tattoo at 16, a dragon painted on her back to symbolize strength. Now she has nine tattoos and expects to have more before she's done.

"You can't explain how it feels to get tattooed," said Miller, a nursing student. "Seven hours in a chair, you go into another world.

It puts you in another state of mind - without chemicals. It's a pain that brings you inside yourself like meditating." She knows she's kind of addicted to the pain, the healing process and the attention, but doesn't think that's all bad. Her body has become a kind of visual diary of all the different stages in her development. Miller attacks the misperceptions people, especially Mormons, have about tattoos.

"I'm not going to become a heroin addict or join a biker gang," she said. "I am a good person, an intelligent person." She would like to get tattoos on her knuckles or "sleeved," but worries that that might harm her professional life.

"Tattoos reflect where I am now," Miller said. "I know I'm going to regret them in the future. I will have money to get them removed." But she does resent the stares she gets at church, when those who have had cosmetic surgery are ignored.

"My mom's had everything done," Miller said. "She's the poster child for cosmetic surgery. Why is it more acceptable to get boobs and faces done, but not tattoos?" Sherry Murdock, who studies writing, watercolor and psychology, sees no difference between the two. Murdock is older than some of the other UVSC students and aware of her looks. So she had her eyebrows tattoed on. "I am going to go a little futher with it," she said. "I am going to get my eyes done . . . And maybe my lips tinted." It saves time in the morning. It also helps with her self-image.

Murdock has no problem with the various surgeries women do to enhance their beauty "It's cosmetic but it's also self-healing," she said. "It helps you go out and do your job. If you have money, why not?" LDS leaders have spoken out against cosmetic surgeries, but no one is monitoring it. "I don't think that church authorities have the right to dictate what we do with our bodies," said Murdock, who no longer considers herself Mormon.

Though more devout, Negale doesn't agree with the LDS Church's position on tattoos. "We have our free agency. Piercings and tattoos can mean something to you. You have to think for yourself," he said. "In the end, it's God's choice to condemn or support what you did."

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