What would Jesus tattoo?

I have decided that I am going to write out my philosophy about tattoos here. This will include my purpose, my preferences, and my history for each tattoos individually and as a whole. 

There are two main reasons why I would get a tattoo today. That is not to say that these are the only two reasons why I have gotten a tattoo in the past. The first reason is a cultural one. Culturally I like the art and aesthetic of the tattooing medium. In a lot of ways I also naturally lean towards what tattoos stand for. I have a rebellious and bold personality and a lot of the tattoo culture is a reflection of this unconventional way of living or thinking. Whether it’s on bikers or punk rockers tattoos generally represent a slice of culture that is “out of the box”, for better or worse. The second reason is more of a theological or spiritual reason and it stems from some of the more recent themes in my life from the last 5 years. This reason can be capitulated in a phrase that used to be quite common at our church: “Jesus struggled so we could be free and now we are free to struggle.” I love this quote because it brings out a couple of things for me: The first is that we are free on Christ’s merit. For a Follower of Jesus we believe that all of our value and our self-worth comes, not from ourselves, but from the work of Christ. Now, this seems like on obvious and even cliche statement but I think the second part of the quote really unlocks the depth of the meaning. “Now we are free to struggle.” This is a very anti-intuitive reaction for all people but especially the Christian circles that I was raised in. Weakness or inability was something that was hidden for reasons of embarrassment and for the preservation of image. Because your worth was drawn from your own accomplishments and ability it would make sense why having a perfect current and past track record would be very important. In other words we were NOT “free to struggle.” So what does all of this have to do with tattoos? For someone who is a follower of Jesus I believe one of the most powerful things that they can do is to tell their story.

The most difficult part of this task though is to tell the parts that we do not want to tell. There are generally two reasons for this.

 

  • The first is that we have forgotten them. Humans have an uncanny habit of using their current position both geographically and relationally as their sole point of reference. 
  • The second is that when referencing our past there are quite a few things that if mentioned are not the most flattering to our own personal glorification.
Edward Norton in American History X

The obvious conflict here is that un-coincidently the parts of our story that are the least glorifying for us are usually the most glorifying for God. This is especially true when the story is redeemed or there is a happy ending. One of the ideas that has stuck with me over the years is Edward Norton’s Character in the movie  American History X. For those of you who have not seen the movie, the general story line is that at the beginning of the movie he is this hard-core nazi from so cal and has the tattoos to show it. His beliefs are mostly characterized in his treatment of black people. In the course of going to prison and doing some “soul searching” he changes his entire belief about white supremacy and returns back to his community to try and convince some of his followers of the narrow mindedness of his previous beliefs BUT through this entire process he still has all of the tattoos which are symbols of his previous belief system blazed across his skin. One question I have asked myself is who would I rather get into a conversation about black people with: Your average suburban white guy who is “ok” with black people but doesn’t really care…or Edward Norton’s reformed prison personality. Who’s story would I rather hear? Who’s story would you rather hear?  My personal preference would be to hear the ex-nazi’s. Now here’s the kicker. I think we all have a little ex-nazi in our past. It might not be an issue of racial supremacy but we all (hopefully) have things in our past that we no longer follow or subscribe to for very good reason. They could be as simple as a style of clothing or hairstyle to major beliefs or practices based upon spiritual or emotional immaturity.  

Another movie that I enjoy with a tattoo type theme is Eastern Promises. In this movie, Vigo Mortenson’s

Vigo Mortenson in Eastern Promises
Vigo Mortenson in Eastern Promises

 character, has the story of his life in Russian prisons all over his body. Someone can literally look at his skin and see where he has been for the past 40 years and what he has done. I think of this when I see the 80 year old guy with his sailor tattoo that looks like a sharpie broke and fell on his arm. When I first see this tattoo I am reminded that this guy has a past. And the closer this guy is to some pastor role at a church the more exciting his tattoo and story become. 

 

So let’s connect the dots. If my past is littered with beliefs that I no longer hold or am proud of BUT if I believe that God has been the transforming force in my life, delivering me from myself and my immature and faulty beliefs than by advertising the story of these changes it is God who will be glorified. After all, this is his story. So for me, this is where tattoos fit in perfectly. After all people’s primary question (including my own) is “aren’t you going to regret that?” or “how are you going to find something that you like forever?” Well, my usual answer is “of course I’ll regret it!” What are the chances that in 50 years I’m going to be believing the same thing (at least as a matter of emphasis) much less have the same viewpoint or appreciation about how to communicate it in a piece of art?! No healthy human should not regret decisions that they had made 50 years earlier. That’s what the whole process is maturing is about. This is not only not an exception with tattoos but it becomes the reason. The main difference in my belief is that I have decided to hold the power of the story above the value of regret, with a knowledge of both being present.  So some day I’m going to be sitting around the fire with my grandkids and they’re going to ask me about that gross smudge on my leg. And I’ll say something like: “Well that used to be a fish, I got that tattoo at a time that I believed you could put a fish on your car and save people…man I’m glad that God has taught me alot since then…”

So there you have it. These are my beliefs and reasons for why I currently get tattoos. My current criteria for getting a tattoo is to get something that “speaks to where I am at.” For that reason getting tattoos is more of a collective journey as opposed to a one time event. Of course, this is until I get sick of tattoos all together and end up getting a real job wearing long sleeves and pants to cover everything up. 

In my next post I will go through each of my tattoos and share why I got them and what they are. Good thing this story isn’t mine otherwise some of them would be quite embarrassing.

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29 thoughts

  1. Ben,
    This is an amazing perspective and I fully agree with you. I’m looking forward to hearing the stories behind each tattoo.

  2. interesting stuff, man…
    now if only everyone who got a tattoo thought it out this much, then there really wouldn’t be any regret 🙂

  3. Just got through watching American History X. Quite a transformation this man went through. His past was right there for all to see.

  4. You are truly an inspiration…you always have been. Unfortunately, when we were in school together, I wasn’t secure enough in myself or my faith to pursue a “real” relationship with you. You were (I’m guessing this aspect of you hasn’t changed much) always a unique person who wasn’t afraid to broadcast your faith, despite the thoughts and comments of others.
    I really enjoyed this post. I’ve got a few tattoos myself. When I had the first one done, I wasn’t walking with the Lord, and had a very “new-agey” explanation for my design. Ten years later, I’ve changed the meaning behind it a bit to reflect my rediscovered faith. As we grow in Him, and He in us, we are continually transformed…as do what my tattoos mean to me. I will have to be less subversive and explain both the historical and current symbolism of my tattoos next time I’m asked for the story behind them.
    Thanks for being honest, straightforward, and unwavering in your commitment to your growth in God. Many blessings and much love to you and yours!

  5. I’ll read your blog, it does look interesting, and thanks for the comment on mine, but my first thought to the image at the top there was…”Billy Ray Cyrus …Jesus?”

    You should read the Shack. Personally I’m squirmy at Caucasian-American depictions of Jesus, and that book kinda reflects why.

  6. Interesting viewpoint. But why do something you know you’ll regret?

    As a woman I suppose I value the smudge-less legs of my future self a bit too much to draw on my body like a dry erase board with a permanent marker.

  7. Christine, Great questions! As far as regret, my assumption is that a healthy growing Christian will always have regret in their past so for me, with tattoos, the question is merely a matter of if you want to be linked in a visual and permanent way to the past that you may regret. Now I use the word regret in one sense but it may not be the true sense of the word. I think we look back at our less mature “childish” state (which in one sense is anytime besides the present) and we should always recognize that it is God who is delivering us from ourselves. Regret to me, though, implies that we wish certain events never would have happened. Ironically, it is those very events that God redeems to teach us about who he is and who we are. That’s why I think Paul was very adamant about “boasting in his weakness” because he found that through his weakness he was made strong. His history was kind of strange and even how he discusses it. Of all people, he had quite the externally shocking history to regret but never seems to imply that he did, or at least doesn’t spend time dwelling on regretting it. I think this is because he believes very deeply that this is God’s story and not his (or ours) and cared more that God be was glorified though his story and weakness (or regret.)

    Now as far as the “smudge-less legs”…I suppose I have a little bit of less value of those as well, at least compared to the value that I have to remembering and telling my story. But, I also happen to live in an area that is pretty tolerant of smudgy legs. The interesting thing will be to see if I still have that value in 20 years? We’ll see.

    I have had a number of people discuss the shack with me and feel like I have a pretty good idea of what the book entails but may consider reading it. I really am looking for ways of experiencing God in a more emotional and intimate way and it sounded like that was your experience. Thanks for your comments.

  8. Dear Ben,

    I like your reasoning. Fascinating how we can use art to remind of us of how things were… and how things will be.

    That is what I think art was created for, to tell stories. An artist is a storyteller. I love how you commissioned that series of paintings in your home and the stories behind your tattoos.

    No reference to Bradbury’s Illustrated Man?

    Very inspiring. Keep it up!

  9. I received this email in response to this post and have posted an edited more succinct version of the issues it presented with my responses.

    Some observations I noticed in your blog-I would like to challenge just a bit.

    In your blog you mentioned you have a “rebellious and bold personality” you said “you take pride in being (I think you said) “outside the box” You mentioned your favorite quote “Jesus struggled so we could be free and now we are free to struggle”. You like tattoos for the message it sends, etc. Have you ever thought about the idea that these things are so very natural to you. In other words these are things you are naturally drawn to. I have come to understand that the Christian life is not what comes natural to me but what is not natural to me. In other words God calls me out of my comfort zone and into other places and other people’s comfort zone. If I only do and go and impact those who are like me I have limited my opportunities. I want to expand my opportunities and as Paul says “Be all things to all people”. Do you ever think that by tattooing your body, having a rebellious and bold personality can limit your opportunity to impact all the people that God brings into your life? I think true struggle comes when we struggle in areas that is not our natural preference. Is it struggle to become only like the ones we are naturally drawn to? True submission to Christ is not going our natural way but being open to understand other people’s point of view and their life. Is it possible that the question you must ask yourself is am I more drawn to what I like and am comfortable with than submitting myself to what God wants me to see and understand and become? I am not passing judgment I am just challenging some of your thinking. The more you go toward what you are comfortable with the less I feel you can impact people like me.

    It is so important that we try not to make points with one another but to keep the dialogue open and be challenged to really “thinking outside the box” and “not inside the box” of our own comfort.

    MY RESPONSE

    In regards to me saying that I have a “bold and rebellious personality” I think your point is well taken in that we should not just do what comes natural to us. This is a part of my personality that comes very natural to me and I must always be keeping it in check and making sure that I am not operating from my default. One way of thinking about it is that I do not want my personality to overshadow my identity in who Christ is. I think this could very easily happen. But at this same time God has made each of us unique and part of that is our personality. That same boldness that can be used to glorify myself and should also be used to glorify God. Now, of course, this is not limited to tattoos but it may not be at the exclusion of them either.

    As far as the other issue that you brought up about being “all things to all people” this is a little bit more tricky. I’m still trying to figure this one out quite a bit but I’ll share with you the thoughts that I have had thus far. Getting tattooed has limited my options with certain people groups but I think that there are a whole group of people that it has opened opportunities with as well. I’m sure you can imagine that there are probably a whole list of people who are offended my my “artwork” but I think that there are an equal number, if not more, that appreciate it. Keep in mind, I am speaking from my specific context. The majority of the people I hang out with are people between 20-40 who live in Seattle. If I was a senior citizen from Arkansas I think I would have a completely different evaluation process. One thing that I think is important is that I never want my identity as a tattooed person (or as an American, or father, or husband or whatever) to come before my identity as a child of God. So in terms of being “all things to all people”, on the outside I may intimidating to the suit and tie wearing crowd and they may be intimidating to the tattooed crowd. Beyond it all though, I would hope that the identity of either would be rooted in Christ not in their outward appearance.

    My only other thoughts on this are in regards to the role that the “christian community” has taken in our culture. I think historically we have been raised that the christian crowd is supposed to be the more moral, the more polite, the more well dressed, the more put together, the more affluent etc. There is a pretty deep part of me that wants to fight this because I don’t think it was not how Jesus was known or how he indicated Christians were to be known. It was by being more loving not by being more moral. I think in a lot of ways, my tattoos and many other areas of my life are a reaction to that. I guess if I had the choice between two options, being good and unloving and bad and loving, I wold chose the latter. I know it’s not as black and white as that but in a lot of ways I think our culture has viewed christians as too good to be loving. Hence most people’s interpretation of a christian is someone who is judgmental and smug. I’m completely in process about all of these thoughts and will probably believe something completely different in 5 years but these are some things that came to mind while thinking through the issues in your email.

    Anyways, I really appreciate your feedback and would love to hear your responses to these some issues or others as they come up. That’s the main reason I put the blog up, to challenge and be challenged.

    1. In response to how Christians should be and how they are viewed by outsiders… 1 tim 3:7 describing an overseer or leader… ‘He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.”

      This has really challenged me. Sinners should love the church leaders. This seems to not be the reality. The devil would try to make us out as fun spoilers and judgmental assholes and we do fall into this trap.

  10. I agree with Ben. I was young and foolish once and made mistakes that I would rather keep in the closet, but God brings us through our mistakes and we can bring glory to Him by sharing these with others. Many Christians like to put on a ‘perfect’ facade. I have tattoos, the first was when I was a young and quite rebelious Christian which I can proudly tell people I would have done differently because it does not glorify God in any way. But my second tells my testimony and makes me tell my testimony to others when I might not have. It is a Jesus Fish around a scar on my wrist where I tried to commit suicide before I knew Jesus. Now, even though I am shy by nature, I am forced to tell my story to others and tell them how Jesus has saved my life in more ways than one.

  11. You know I am considering getting a tattoo and I am not sure if I should not, but you present some excellent material for me to take into account while I make my decision.

  12. Hey I am a Christian teen and i am a little bit of a been there done that. I feel that if you get tattoos its a way to express yourself in an artsy way. I also feel like you should never regret your past and what you have done because there was a reason for it.

  13. I must begin by saying that if you haven’t read John Irving, his characters are kind of kooky and he pretty much tests moral boundaries on just about everything.

    The gist of the story is a little boy with a church organist for a father. This organist is very radical and is heavily into tattooing himself. The mother is a tattoo artist. The father “abandons” the little boy and his mother, although we find this to not be wholly true in the end. The mother is a character with a closet full of psychological problems of her own. The mother tattoo artist works her way tattooing through Europe, little boy in tow, looking for said wayward father. Do they meet in the end? Read the book to find out.

  14. we are in the process of creating a website which is a compilation of christian and religious tattoo art. the purpose is to provide a place where people can post and find pictures and the story behind religious tattoos. the url is religiousink.com

  15. Hi Ben,

    I stumbled upon your blog after Googling “traditional tattoo.” The image of your Kami tattoo came up, and I decided to backtrack to your first tattoo post before reading the others.

    I LOVE this post. I’m a seminary graduate and pastor-to-be with 7 tattoos–so far. I often have people question the compatibility between being a Christian and being tattooed. I agree with your response to that one commenter that in our society tells us Christians are supposed to be more clean cut, more put-together, etc. Honestly I find myself being able to open people up to considering God and Christ more because of my tattoos. Between them and my call, a conversation starts about what being a Christian really means.

    My last two tats were done by an artist named…Christian. And particularly during this last one, we had a great talk about theology and how because of his “non-traditional” appearance (Latino, longer hair, lots of tattoos) he felt unwelcome in the churches he’s visited. I never want anyone who’s looking for a relationship with God to feel like that.

    Anyway, sorry for the long-winded comment, but thanks for the great post, and I look forward to reading the stories behind your tats. This may even inspire me to do my own blog series on mine!

  16. My intent is not to be confrontational, just food for thought.

    In response to Jesus getting a tattoo, I would like to point out the following:

    Jesus was and is Jewish.

    Jewish Law Forbids tattoos.

    The bible forbids tattoos.

    Jesus never sinned by breaking the commands of the bible.

    Again, not trying to tell people what to do, tattoo or not to tattoo, just thought I’d throw that into the discussion.

    1. The prohibition in the OT is part of the Levitical Holiness Code that forbade “cutting for the dead” ie, a pagan ritual to appease the spirits of the dead—a Canaanite practice. The Holiness Code forebade all kinds of things including cutting your hair, beard, mixing two kinds of crops in the same field etc. Actually, Jesus had (to some) the rather annoying habit of breaking the holiness code for the sake of saving/healing sinners.He probably wouldn’t have wanted a tattoo anyway since his wrists, feet, side and back were all scarred from his flogging and crucifixion. Not trying to be rude, but you have to consider the context surrounding a Biblical passage.

  17. Jason,
    Just to clarify the title “What would Jesus Tattoo?” was actually just a play on words. Never meant to insinuate that Jesus would or would not actually get a tattoo. The majority of my post is to make a case as to why I personally got tattoos.
    thanks for the dialogue.
    bnc

  18. Felt the need to comment generally on all the comments collectively…I was totally impressed on how respectful each person was to each other. To be able to challenge one another with respect is not something you see allot of these days…..All of you certainly have my respect and my appreciation for all the great information and opinions …Jim

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