I’m writing this in Starbucks, I just finished a book on tattoos, and I’m fighting back tears.
Something about this topic fills me with regret and sadness mixed with inspiration. This is not about my lack of tattoos. I’m good with that. This is about a cultural shift about which I have given little thought. I suspect I am not alone. “More than 40% of Americans are writing on themselves,” my new friend Al Dayhoff wrote in his book on tattoos. Forty percent! And I’ve not been paying attention. It’s not that I haven’t seen it. Tattoos are everywhere. But I’ve missed the importance of it. That’s the regret. Now I am hearing the stories. Oh, the stories. Some are heart-wrenching. Some are agonizing. Death stories are memorialized in tattoo. Broken childhoods, addictions, inner demons…all in tattoos. That is the sadness. I hurt hearing these stories. And then there are the stories of the indomitable human spirit. Resiliency, recovery, and redemption. Hope, healing, and happiness. Tragedy followed by triumph. Violence followed by victory. All inked on skin. These stories are incredible and inspiring.
Why tattoos are so prevalent
It used to be that tattoos were for gangsters, thugs, and sailors. Now they are everywhere. It used to be just having a tattoo was extreme, but the rise in number of full body tattoos and body alterations like bone implants — the scary stuff — is a sign of the mainstreaming of tattoos since it takes more to be extreme.
There is no single reason explaining the rise in the number of tattoos just like there is no single type of tattoo. Some tattoos are meaningless or silly. Some are failures and sadly hilarious (just Google tattoo fails). Some tattoos are acquired during a night of heavy drinking. Some are declarations of identity. Some are fashion statements. Some, as Inked magazine has written, are done “to express creativity and to spread a message.” Some are about rising above a struggle. And some are about the struggle itself.
Pain written on skin
My friend Mike was part of a small group that travelled to the international motorcycle show in Sturgis, South Dakota this summer to talk to people about tattoos. My good looking, tall, white, middle-aged, buttoned down, Ford Taurus driving, and most definitely non-tattooed friend went to talk to half a million biker enthusiasts about tattoos. You would think he would be the one judged and no one would talk. It was quite the opposite. He learned a lot and, as he told me, he heard about so much pain.
“This one is for my grandson who committed suicide,” said one woman explaining a tattoo. “These tattoos are after becoming a Christian, and these,” said one man pointing to dark and angry tattoos, “are before.” Al Dayhoff writes story after story of broken hearts after the death of a child or parent and the tattoos to commemorate them. Other tattoo stories are told by survivors of physical or sexual abuse and the innocence lost and fears endured. They are stories of stolen childhoods. One man covered with motorcycle and skull tattoos with explosions and body parts flying around said when asked what his tattoos mean, “This is the most f**ked up place: babies die, families can’t earn money to be together, disease killed my old man, and my mom is a crazy lady with dementia.” That is pain.
Regarding hearing the stories of tattoos, Mike said it well, “For a few minutes, we were privileged to enter into their wounds.” In the silence of listening, with tears in the eyes, he was given the privilege to enter the deepest and darkest moments of another life.
Inspiration written on skin
Not all tattoos originate in pain. Some are a public declaration of some good reality. As young adults, my daughters all decided to get an identical tattoo as a show of sister solidarity.
Many men and women have the names or images of their children inked on their skin. Some tattoo the passion of their life such as hobbies, sports, or organizations. Some get crosses, angels, or clouds to symbolize their strong faith in God. One woman had a tattoo for her brother who was in the military and it was her ink-on-skin prayer for his safe return. On her left arm was a full sleeve tattoos of flowers you find in Italy. “I want these to be part of my wedding one day.” In almost any way any human has been inspired, a tattoo can be found.
Sin and tattoos
With the rising interest in tattoos, Christians rightfully ask what the Bible teaches about tattoos. There is, after all, a passage in the Old Testament (Leviticus 19:28) that seems to forbid tattoos. Yet even conservative scholar Dr. R. Laird Harris wrote of that passage: “There was nothing morally wrong with cutting the hair or the beard or with tattooing. But these practices then, and also now in some places, were parts of heathen ritual.” Regarding what the Bible says about tattoos, Liberty University’s Dr. Will Honeycutt wrote, “The short answer is…nothing. At least nothing definitive. The Bible makes no specific reference to tattoos as we understand them in modern times.” No specific reference. Nothing morally wrong. Caution to the believer about associating with non-Christian practices. That is hardly the resounding, “Don’t ever get a tattoo” of generations of mothers. Those who do condemn tattoos do so with New Testament silence on the subject. They connect tattoos indirectly with other passages to derive the condemnation. I do not share that with them. I do not see a biblical mandate against them.
The practical reality
Even if every Christian did believe tattoos were sinful, to dwell on that and ignore both the reality of and reasons for tattoos is to disconnect from the world as it is. The practical reality is tattoos are pervasive. How we respond matters, especially if we are troubled by it. When a person shows a tattoo memorializing a stillborn child and the first instinct is to judge that person for even having a tattoo, something is wrong. We miss the chance to enter their life in a deep place. Condemn or judge them and you will not be allowed into that story. We miss not only the opportunity to listen and care, but also a chance to express our shared humanity since each of us in our own way is scarred.
The image of God desperate to talk
Tattoos really aren’t about tattoos. There is another, deeper impulse driving the trend for more tattoos. As Al Dayhoff asks, “Could it be the image of God has gotten so desperate to talk, it is writing on its wrapper? Has the western church missed this?” Yes it has and yes the church has largely missed this. Image bearers of God want to tell their stores. They want to be heard, listened to, and valued.
The reality of tattoos presents a choice to us of how to respond. Shall we be like people who picket strip clubs with signs declaring sinfulness of all who enter or, as some women at our church do, shall we enter into the clubs, talk with the staff and meet the girls with a friendly smile, generous gifts, and no judgement? Some prefer the former approach with tattoos. I prefer the latter. The relational approach feels more like Jesus. It feels more like love.
Will I ever get a tattoo? Probably not. Skin is not the canvas for the stories of my soul. But what I have already begun doing is asking about tattoos and listening to others’ stories. In doing so I too have been welcomed into the deepest and sometimes darkest moments of another person’s life.
Join me. Start listening to the stories of the soul written on the skin of people all around you. Ask about them. And then listen well.
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