Desiring a Tattoo: A Case StudyCulture, Featured, Music, Religion — By J.F. Arnold on May 23, 2012 at 7:00 am
This post may seem a little strange, so allow me to say a few things to start. First, this post is something that’s been brewing in my head for a few years, but I hadn’t formalized it. As such, I’m not quite as set on my thoughts here as I am for other posts. I request a bit extra grace should my thoughts be less rigorous or ill-explained.
Second, I’m offering my reasons for desiring a tattoo for a particular purpose, aside from the desire to externalize them for personal scrutiny. Over at Mere Orthodoxy, Matt Anderson has written a bit about tattoos, arguing essentially that we should concern ourselves with the morality of the practice. His central point, expressed directly over at Relevant Magazine, is that we should carefully consider our actions, particularly when they pertain to our bodies. I think he’s right, and he’s got one further point that was particularly interesting:
Tattoos are helpful to think about because, well, we can think about them without people throwing us over for being heretics. It’s a somewhat safer question to ask than those questions about, say, bioethics even though the way in which the Bible intersects with both topics is roughly the same.
And so, in the interest of exploring this topic, I thought it would be wise to speak out and offer some reasons that I personally have for wanting to get a tattoo at some point in my life. Consider what follows a sample, something we can analyze. Perhaps my reasons are wrong, or perhaps I would be justified in making the decision at some point. Circumstances certainly play a large role, and so of course this can only offer a small picture to mentally play with, so to speak. Well, here we go.
For starters, and I think this may end up as the central question of any discussion here, Matt once asked me what it was about permanently marking the skin that attracts me so? I think it will help to sketch out how I came to the desire.
Growing up, I had no desire for this permanent mark. It wasn’t something that I saw expressed in anyone close to me, so it wasn’t something I felt the need to emulate. It didn’t really occur to me to consider one until sometime early in college. I suspect this was partially because I saw other people getting them, particularly people I thought well of, but this wasn’t enough to shift me. I became more open to the idea, generally speaking, but wasn’t convinced I’d want one. After all, this was a permanent decision, and I wouldn’t want to make it to be trendy.
I considered the biblical issues, but was never terribly convinced by any cases against tattooing; the infamous passage in Leviticus surely speaks against tattoos, but people have rightly pointed to the dangers of taking Old Testament Law and applying it to modern day believers. Some Old Testament laws are certainly currently applicable, but we live under a New Covenant. In light of that thought, coupled with an understanding of the context of the law (a post for another day), it didn’t seem terribly difficult to dismiss the tattoo argument from Leviticus; I’m still convinced, at this point of this venture, that this is the case.
I thought it was important to consider why someone wanted a tattoo, but I never really went further than that. I stopped at “personal decision,” and that was about it.
Since then, I was introduced by a good friend to the world of Christian hip-hop (turns out, that particular culture stuck with me). I was initially drawn in by the theology of the genre, but it quickly became something that took over much more of my life. I’ve become a critic of the musical genre, and even spent time seeking to understand the larger culture surrounding it. I’ve been to shows, spent time with people who produce the music and those who consume it on a regular basis, and I have no doubts that this shifted my perspective. I began to notice that nearly every rapper I listened to had at least one tattoo. Some of them seemed to even get them flippantly (I remember one artist commenting: “Well, we were hanging out and he was getting a tattoo, so I got another one while we were there,” referring to another artist), which took some getting used to. I think this broke down any stigmas I had about them: these were solid believers who were inking their skin permanently, and men who I respected not only as masters of their craft but as thinkers.
And, so, I began to seriously consider getting a tattoo.
I decided relatively quickly on what I wanted. I would like to get a cross tattooed on the inside of my left wrist. There are a variety of reasons for this location and image, but let me name a few. The image of the cross would be a daily reminder of the sacrifice Christ made for me; I choose the left hand as a subtle reminder that Christ uses us in ways we never imagine (this because I’m right handed); the wrist is a location that is public most of the time, but could be hidden were it necessary for a job or some such reason; I’ve had it told to me that the wrist is a painful location for a tattoo, but somehow pain in the place where Christ was pierced seems appropriate for a permanent marking; and, finally, it seems to me that in a day when many people want to push against external expressions of their inward realities (for instance, consider how many of my generation run away from organized religion, for any number of reasons), I find myself wanting to find an appropriate way to let my Christian beliefs manifest themselves externally.
Those desires are still largely the case, though my thoughts have expanded in the last six months or so. First, I’d like to second Matt’s assertion that the decision should be informed by our community: if our bodies are community-focused, it makes sense to me that these sorts of decisions should be influenced by those around us. This might look like meetings with my elders or mentors, or it might just be a cultural sensitivity to the sorts of hesitations that some in my circle will have; I do not want to be a stumbling block. Further on this point, however, is the sort of call I believe God has placed on my life: because tattoos are permanent, I should do my best to consider the sorts of environments I will find myself in at some point in the future. That last bit is harder to substantiate, and should perhaps hold the least weight, but is still worth considering.
Second, I’ve decided to wait to get a tattoo until I am either married or feel that God has called me to life-long celibacy. If marriage includes my wife owning my body, as I believe it does, then it seems irresponsible to get a tattoo before conferring with her, at least to me. Since I’m not married, that rules out the decision, at least immediately. If, however, it becomes clear that God has called me to live a chaste, unmarried life, then the decision falls back to the other considerations I’ve stated.
Finally, there comes the central question of “why on your skin?” For me there are a few considerations, but part of it is the unique ability of a tattoo to express my above desires externally and permanently. Beyond those, however, it seems that if our bodies matter in our worship, then even the form of our bodies should matter. There are good arguments to be made that we should be physically fit, or at least strive to be healthy, for similar reasons, and I don’t think it is much of a stretch to expand this to our tattoos. Some have said that if our bodies are temples, why shouldn’t we adorn them with tattoos? While the phrase may be too quickly spoken, there is some truth to it, within reason. If a tattoo encourages us, simply by the changed shape of our bodies, to worship more fully or glorify God in some more full way, it doesn’t strike me as intrinsically problematic.
I hope this has been clear. Have any thoughts on tattoos? Would you get one? Sound off in the comments, and join the conversation.