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.
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
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.