Review: Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle

Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle

Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion
Gregory Boyle
Free Press
Published March 9, 2009

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About Tattoos on the Heart

How do you fight despair and learn to meet the world with a loving heart? How do you overcome shame? Stay faithful in spite of failure? No matter where people live or what their circumstances may be, everyone needs boundless, restorative love. Gorgeous and uplifting, TATTOOS ON THE HEART amply demonstrates the impact unconditional love can have on your life.

As a pastor working in a neighborhood with the highest concentration of murderous gang activity in Los Angeles, Gregory Boyle created an organization to provide jobs, job training, and encouragement so that young people could work together and learn the mutual respect that comes from collaboration. TATTOOS ON THE HEART is a breathtaking series of parables distilled from his twenty years in the barrio.

Erudite, down-to-earth, and utterly heartening, these essays about universal kinship and redemption are moving examples of the power of unconditional love in difficult times and the importance of fighting despair. With Gregory Boyle’s guidance, we can recognize our own wounds in the broken lives and daunting struggles of the men and women in these parables and learn to find joy in all of the people around us. TATTOOS ON THE HEART reminds us that no life is less valuable than another.

Father Gregory Boyle’s sparkling parables about kinship and the sacredness of life are drawn from twenty years working with gangs in LA.

My Review

I feel like I’ve seen tons of examples lately of what I do not believe or agree with in my faith. I didn’t realize the level to which I was exhausted by and deeply upset about the ugliness of people preaching hate in the name of Christianity. It has kind of made me nervous or hesitant to read faith life books because I’m sometimes afraid I’ll find more of the same “righteous” hate in those pages, too?

My mom told me about this book years ago, but I had never read it. I had an audiobook version, though, so when I needed a new evening read recently, I decided to try out TATTOOS ON THE HEART.

So I began reading this book, and it’s cover to cover a message of compassion. It’s about seeing other people as loved and valuable, even the people that most of us overlook or are afraid of. I couldn’t stop reading. This book put words– and far more than words, because this man and his organization have been living these words for decades– to things that I believe but hadn’t been able to frame into sentences.

I read chapter after chapter, feeling like, here is a person I want to pull up a chair and learn from. This is a person whose life and values I want to emulate. He’s also an incredible reader and storyteller, so sometimes I’d get lost in the book for its personal stories about the people Fr. Boyle has met and experiences he’s had.

I cried and laughed as he related stories about gang members’ and former gang members’ lives. My heart felt full when he told about the way a community emerged to love people that so often get left behind or treated as unlovable or less valuable.

He connects the stories to greater ideas really well, too. Each chapter kind of focuses on one idea and tells stories that show those things in different ways. He talks about God as not only being loving and gentle, but also as One who delights in people.


Reading this book felt like having a full glass of water for the first time after a long, hot day. I didn’t know how much I needed to hear his message, and to hear someone with much more learning in scripture than I have to be preaching that message.

I don’t know. Probably I’m doing a terrible job with this review. I feel like it’s hard to put things into words. After I listened to this book as an audiobook, I bought the ebook. I’ve already gone back to highlight some parts, and I suspect this book will be one I reread periodically, too.

If you want to find out more about the gang intervention program, it’s called Homeboy Industries. They have some cool merchandise and great information about what they do on their website.

Fr. Boyle’s second book, BARKING TO THE CHOIR, is now on my reading list, too. I’ve started the audiobook version already, and it’s just as good so far.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 14 up.

Contains many stories of gang members.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
Extreme profanity used somewhat frequently.

Romance/Sexual Content

Spiritual Content
The author is a Jesuit minister and founder of Homeboy Industries. The book references sources from several different faiths but relates Christian values and beliefs throughout.

Violent Content
Multiple references to gang-related shootings and violence. Some descriptions of domestic violence and child abuse.

Drug Content
References to drug and alcohol abuse.

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About Kasey

Reads things. Writes things. Fluent in sarcasm. Willful optimist. Cat companion, chocolate connoisseur, coffee drinker. There are some who call me Mom.

2 thoughts on “Review: Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle

  1. Best book I’ve read in ages. I checked it out of the digital library, didn’t get to it right away (HUGE mistake), and it expired before I could finish. I have it on hold, but it’s going to be a while. Thank you for reviewing this wonderful book.

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