I have been fascinated by tattoos since I sat next to a woman with tattoos (more than one) on an airplane trip (one of my first) to Seattle in 1969 or 1970, when my mom took me with her so she could visit her mother in a nursing home. Tattoo acceptance, especially for women at that time was not where it is today. What I remember was this lady was really nice and enjoyed talking with her (I was 6 or 7 years old at the time) she was very accommodating to my questions about her tattoos. Now of course my mother was horrified. I was one of those kids who would talk to anyone and everybody about anything. Social propriety and looking good in the eyes of others was something that never crossed my mind. People were interesting and they still are to me. I was fascinated by this lady with tattoos and wondered why some people thought less of this lady because of her tats
One of the most interesting conversations about tats came when I was in a now defunct coffee shop with my knitting group. A young man of 18-20 came in and he had this big tat on his arm and several spaces were empty on it. He told us his story of how he wanted to do certain things in his life and when he achieved those things, the particular empty area of the tat would be filled in as a symbol of accomplishment.
As I grew in my life and my faith, the stigma of tattoos was still part of my growing up years. People with tattoos were considered ‘rough’, ‘wild’, and not proper. Of course I wanted to be proper and fit into the right place in society. Over the years I have talked with many people who have body art. I have asked them what their body art has meant to them, and I have learned some real interesting stories and experiences. Recently I spoke with a CNA at a nursing facility that I visit in my hospice work. She had a tat on the back of her neck. She told me she regretted getting it. We talked a bit and then she said to me, when I told her I was thinking of getting a tat, “you are too nice to get a get a tat.” Am I? Isn’t that the same reverse stereotyping of labeling people with tats bad? I have over the years met people who regret their tats, and have grown beyond their tats, yet their tats are part of them, bearing witness to that life event or stage in their life cycle.
I’ve discussed tats with a lot of people, including my husband. I appreciate that he is accepting of my tat, even as he wonders why people scribble their bodies. He has lovingly told me that we are self-differentiated enough that he is OK with my tat and he joking says he has his own natural tats on his legs from a health condition.
Then there was that sticky wicket of the verse from Leviticus 19:28 "'Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.” I was able to work this one through theologically for myself…even as I continually joke about the tattoo shop on Lake Street in Minneapolis called Leviticus Tattoo. The CONTEXT of the passage from Leviticus is important. It was an admonishment to the Hebrew people as they differentiated themselves from the foreign tribes around them. Many of those foreign tribes would shave their eyebrows and get tattoos as a sign of mourning. And many of these foreign tribes worshiped multiple gods, unlike the Hebrew people who worshiped the One G*d. The Hebrew people differentiated themselves from those around them by not getting tats.
So as a 21st Century Christian, I realize that I don’t live under that Levitical law. I live under a covenant with Jesus Christ. In Christ there is a lot of freedom.
In my own journey of faith I have been pondering what it means to be embodied and to be a temple of the Holy Spirit. I will be writing more on this in coming weeks. I have also wondered what the big deal was about tats. My fascination continued to grow, so I pondered what it would mean for me to get a tat. What kind of tat would I get? What is so important to me that I would want to scribble it on my body? My faith has always been important to me. It has got me through some interesting times in my life. It has allowed me to experience some of the richest human experiences. My faith as saved my life many times over and I would want to symbolize that in a tat.
As a Presbyterian minister and hospice chaplain, I wanted a cross…not a crucifix…because my God suffered that death and the cross is now empty. I am also of Scots-Irish and Northern European (Norwegian and German-Swiss) descent and drawn to everything Celtic. I wanted a cross with Celtic elements.
So I got a tattoo. I went to the Illustrated Man, one of the oldest and most established tattoo establishments in Kansas City. The owner Jack and his staff are Christians. We talked about God and Jesus and the importance they played in our lives. As I got my tat, I got to hear the life story of a tattoo artist who has been doing tats for 40 years. I felt safe as I got my tat. I would do it again. Did it hurt? Not as much as I thought it would. I have had dental work that hurt more than my tat and experienced other pain in my life that hurt a lot worse than getting a tat.
So judge me if you want. I have exercised my freedom in Christ to express my faith in a new embodied way through my tat. I now know what it is like to get a tat and can share that experience with others. I have to live with my tat. It is now a permanent part of me and who I am.