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?

About E. Goodman

Ernest Goodman is a missiologist, writer, teacher, and communications strategist.