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What Tattoos Really Say

May 1, 2012

I am in a shrinking minority.  I don’t have a tattoo, and I am wondering if I am about the only person in the world who doesn’t.  The tattoo craze in our society has spread at a meteoric rate.  Some estimate that as many as 45 million Americans are tatted up.  Tattoo artists and their work are the subjects of reality TV shows.  It’s hard to find a celebrity or an athlete who doesn’t have a tattoo.  Tattoos are everywhere.

If you think that this article is going to be another blast by a conservative Christian against tattoos, then you are wrong.  I’m not actually condemning of the practice.  That said, I don’t want one.  But if you are going to get one, then at least listen to my rules and follow them:

(1)  When you pick out your tattoo, remember that if everything works out you will be old one day.  You will more than likely be someone’s grandma or grandpa.  No one wants to identity his or her grandma as the one with the “skull and barbed wire tattoo.” 

(2)  Remember that, as you age, your body will change and with it your body shape will change.  Your tattoo will morph along with it.  Be careful, because as you expand, your butterfly tattoo could turn into a pterodactyl or your rose could end up looking like the planet Saturn. 

(3)  By all means, do not tattoo the name of the person you are romantically involved with anywhere.  You should be married to someone for decades with a litter of grandchildren before you even think about doing this; by that time, you will not be willing to spend the money on a tattoo unless a “senior discount” is given. 

In other words, remember that it is permanent.  As my brother says, “You can always take off your bell bottoms, but you can’t take off your tattoo.”

Nonetheless, the mega tattoo industry has led columnist Simon Doonan to ask the question: “Why do we really get tattoos?”   (  He is looking  for answers as to why tattoos have captured the imagination of our society. 

I wonder the same thing.  Tattoos have to be more than a style or a trend.  They say something about us as a culture.  I simply want to know what tattoos say about us.  What fundamental human need are we trying to meet through them?  What is the psychology of tattoos?  Even more, wha tis the spirituality of tattoos?

I can only come up with one conclusion: People get tattoos because they desperately desire belonging and self-expression.  We desire to have lives that say something.  We desire to be publically identified with something and marking ourselves allows us to express ourselves and be identified with the image of our choice.  Right or wrong, it is an attempt to meet a human need.   Once you have a tattoo, you have made a long-term commitment to an image that will forever mark (give identification) and express something about you to others.   You have labelled yourselves – literally. 

Where does this need come from?  It comes from the fact that we are made in the image of a God who also loves belonging and self-expression.  Even before Creation, God identified and belonged within the trinitarian family (Father, Son, and Spirit).  Creation itself is a self-expression of God.  You might remember that God created the world by speaking it into existence.  Essentially, Creation is a result of God’s creative self-expression in which the universe is created to belong to God and express His glory.

God has made us in the same way.   We are incomplete unless we belong to something or someone — our development demands it.  Human beings also long for a life that expresses something significant.  The problem is that sin has messed the entire process up.  Because of sin, our search for identification has become toxic and compulsive.  Because of sin, our need for self-expression is not motivated by love but by grandiosity and self-centeredness.  Our culture loves self-expression, not because we long to love others through that expression, but because we love attention. 

Could it be that tattoos say all of that?  It’s hard to say, but it is at least one person’s theory.  If I am right then, whether you are inked or un-inked, you were made to belong and made to express.  That is, you were made to belong to God and He has sought you through Christ and provided through His death all you need to belong to Him, your creator.  You were made to express His glory, goodness, and beauty in as many ways as possible.  You were made to express the greatness of Christ.  If you follow Christ then He has marked you as His own and you bear the marks that express His wonder.

In the end, this deep human need of belonging and expression will not be met through any earthly marker.  It can only happen when love takes residence within you.  Not any kind of love, but the love of Christ.  This love invites you to belong to an eternal God and to express His love as His eternal purposes. 

So, tatted or not, love is the marker that identifies you with Christ.  Love expressed through good deeds for the sake of others leaves a mark that will not fade.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Greg Rednour permalink
    May 1, 2012 9:54 pm

    Totally agree. There are people that go thru fads (golfing, motorcycles, 4-wheelers, horses, etc. etc. ) looking for fulfillment and are unaware that that longing was placed there beautfully when they were made, It can only be filled with a relationship with the creator. It is our journey to reveal just what this relationship looks like, feels like, and like tattoos are with us always (even for eternity).

  2. lisamillernp permalink
    May 2, 2012 11:22 am

    Love this Blog. So True

  3. Chad "Junebug" Conder permalink
    May 2, 2012 4:31 pm

    Nathan, I agree with everything that you said in your above statement. I do have some tattoos, all of which either mark my devotion to something, someone, or a memory of a time in my life. I have an “STL” Cardinals emblem on my inner arm, to show my devotion and loyalty to my favorite team, a few different tribal tattoos that mark times in my military career, and then I have DaVinci’s model of human anatomy on my back, with the face replaced by my father’s, with the double helix spiraling down my spine, that one represents my father who died in 1980, and how he instilled so many things in me both anatomically and genetically.

    I realize that as I age, these tattoos will wrinkle and fade, but so will the memories of the times that I got them, but as long as that tattoo exists (no matter it’s condition), it will remind me of the times that I got them, and why.

    I may one day regret having wrinkled Ink, but for now, I am glad that I have them all! Just as a scar reminds us of a painful injury, a tattoo can remind us of a happy or sad time that left no scar, at least externally.

    Maybe my next one will be of a Junebug sitting on a spade, that would rewind me of a wonderful time in my childhood when I was a part of a group that thought highly enough of me to give me a nickname! I can actually remember very clearly sitting in your parent’s living room out North Avenue, watching that movie, when you guys decided to tattoo that name to my person! Those were some great times! I wish we could have a reunion of our youth group, and maybe we could put on the musical “Friends Forever”, or sing “Awesome God”!

    • May 2, 2012 6:46 pm

      Junebug, you bring some great memories to mind. You are a special guy to me and you always will be.

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