Indelible Spirituality

It used to be that there was a certain type of person who got a tattoo. Sailors, bikers, convicts. Tough guys in sleeveless shirts sported tattoos that depicted manly, outlaw rebel stuff like mermaids, warships, and skulls.

But the type has changed. These days, everyone– from pastors to soccer moms– seems to be inked. Tribal swirls, Celtic knots, and (“The guy at the tattoo place said it meant love”) Chinese characters have become common sights in almost any social circle.

Tattoos are a personal thing. Even those that are publicly displayed carry deep meaning. They commemorate the passing of the old and mark the beginning of the new. Symbols are used to mark identification with someone or something (fraternity Greek, armed forces, “I love ______ forever.”). The ink can be a celebration of the survival of an ordeal (cancer, war, rape, natural disaster), a declaration of resolve. Tattoos help people mourn, remember, and mark milestones. Something about the unique, artistic, painful (not to mention permanent) act of getting a tattoo, makes getting one unlike any other human ritual.

And that’s what it is. A deeply personal, often spiritual ritual. The process of getting a tattoo, painful and private, is a powerful experience. The tattoo artist makes herself vulnerable by suggesting a design and by assuming the risk of permanently marking the client’s body. The client, on the other hand, exposes his body to a stranger wielding electric needles filled with permanent ink. The artist is a medium– opening up a channel of memory, emotion, and expression.

Move over pastors, tattoo artists are the new priests.

If you ever get the chance to watch someone get a tattoo, do it (if you don’t have any of those kind of friends, one of the tattoo parlor reality show on TV will do.) Watch the timid resolution of the client as he enters the shop. Nobody (sober) walks into a tattoo parlor by accident. Listen to the explanation of why he wants a tattoo and where he wants it placed on his body. Often people have thought through it enough to apply symbolism to ever aspect of the experience. “I came in today because it’s my birthday.” “I ship out next week.” “She died four years ago today.”

People come out of the tattoo parlor with an emotional high. The endorphins (from the pain) mix with the rush (from the magnitude of the permanence) and the power of the memory to create the euphoria of having connected with an artist who understood well enough to depict the emotion graphically. For the rest of his natural life, the wearer has something to illustrate something that defines his life.

This is powerful religion. It requires great commitment, financial cost, artistic expression, physical suffering (or at least discomfort), and it publicly marks a person for life. How does that compare with what your church promotes?

7 thoughts on “Indelible Spirituality

  1. for an uninked guy you understand remarkably well why some of us do get inked. i wrote a post about this very topic not too long ago. i know to link getting a tattoo with worship would be akin to heresy for some but that is really what it was for me. it has set me to thinking about how limited and shallow our expressions of worship often are and i think the church may be partly to blame for that….

    here’s the link if you are interested…

  2. Pingback: Belief is not enough to be saved

  3. I sat in a tattoo parlor watch my friend get his, still trying to decide what I should tattoo on my body. Then I asked myself the question, why?
    In and of itself, getting a tattoo is no more or less spiritual than eating a burger. Everything is in fact spiritual. The spirit we do things out of, defines the level and nature of that spirituality. Some people lust after food, and therefore it is incredibly spiritual, that spirit is called gluttony. Some people are simply thankful for the food and the joy it can bring. That’s thanksgiving. In our modern cultural Christianity, fellowship with others and the Holy Spirit and conforming to the image of Christ has been replaced by cultural expressions under the guise of Christianity. We hype up church services, we write cool books, and have great graphics and videos, but we never really connect in unity and true fellowship. Out of insecurity and lack of identity, we try and find something to connect with or people to connect to, because we lack true fellowship with others and the Holy Spirit. “Christianity” becomes boring or loses meaning in that it has become liturgical and religious, so we look for spiritual experiences and expressions on all roads of life. Even the trendy up and coming “churches” are religious. They often revolve around a man led, tithe/money driven, business minded models. Far different that the “church” of Acts. Real life together, daily, walking it out.
    Tattoos can remind us of past experiences and help us “go back” into those feelings. We can “reconnect” with people, places, or experiences, and try and find meaning in that. It’s like the person obsessed with their nationality or skin color. He or she will dive into that “culture” to find meaning, because inside the heart, they don’t have a sense of belonging, or their feeling of destiny has faded into the mundane of life, so they seek something of excitement and “spirituality” they can belong to. They connect with the history of a people, rather than finding God’s chosen path for their own future. An insecure, disconnected, bored, disenfranchised “Christian” people has no compass left to direct their future, so we have been left with a faded hope, that is glossed over with cultural fads that give temporary meaning and connection. A pseudo spiritual high.
    Paul told us in Phil 3, “12…but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
    15All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. 16Only let us live up to what we have already attained.”
    So why get tattoo’d? Maybe you are doing it out of true worship, but I suggest you look to God’s word for direction, and “that too God will make clear to you.”

  4. I have no desire to get a tattoo. Someday I’ll be an old lady you know! But I loved this post. I loved what you said about how everyone has a story and symbol for why they are getting a tattoo. I agree with Mentanna in that it can totally be a form of worship. Most than likely, those that are more analytically wired have trouble seeing how various forms of art cause people to worship our Creator. Thanks for sharing a really great take on the tattoo idea.

  5. Darn it . . . my first comment didn’t post. I just wanted to say I loved this post despite the fact that I’ll never get a tattoo. I’m too vain. I think that it can also be hard for more analytical type people to see the various types of ways to worship God. I loved Mentenna’s input on that. Thanks for writing this post!

  6. Here in Oregon people love to cover themselves with tattoos. It’s sort of hobby with us. So I am always interested in seeing what others are doing and learning new things. Thanks for the post.

  7. “…and (“The guy at the tattoo place said it meant love”) Chinese characters…”

    Funny story. In college, one of my friends got a Chinese symbol tatted on her arm. My Calc 2 professor, who was also Chinese, asked her what it meant. She said “strength.” He laughed, and said “oh noooo…no it doesn’t.” To this day (4 years later), we still don’t know what it actually says lol.

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