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Stories of Identity

Thanks to Ryan Bissell for the use of his tattoo for this postA few years ago my siblings and I decided to give our parents a portrait for Christmas. Along with our spouses, we all gathered at the photo studio looking pristine and proper.  Our hair was nicely combed, our shirts pressed and tucked in.  We sat or stood politely in our designated spaces and smiled as the flash went off.  It’s a nice and polite picture. We then took another one.  We sat or stood in the same place.  We wore the same clothes, and had the same smiles.  Although this time we all displayed our various tattoos!  The picture is great fun, and amazingly, it is this portrait that my parents have on the wall of their living room.  Personally, I think it is because this portrait seems to capture our identities and characters more than the other.

Although tattoos are fairly commonplace these days, people seemed shocked when they learn that I have one.  It appears that tattoos are still deemed ‘out of place’ for the the church.  Thus,  every once and a while people come to talk to me about the subject.  Either it is a question about the appropriateness of someone’s tattoo, or questions about my own.  Sometimes these conversations are friendly and inquisitive.  Other times not.  Inevitably, despite the flavor or purpose of the conversations, someone will point me to the passage in Leviticus. “You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead, or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord.” (19:28).  The conversation then usually dissolves into each of us trying to prove or disprove whether it is “ok” to have a tattoo. In the end we walk away, not having changed our position.

These types of conversations miss the point.  Discussing whether or not one should have a tattoo doesn’t change the fact that we live in a tattooed world.  No longer are they simply images of mis-spent youth or drunken impulses. What once was seen as fringe and risqué is now part of mainstream culture.  Thus, overly engaging in a tête-à-tête of ‘should you or should you not’ distracts us from the deeper questions to be asked:

What does the tattoo mean?

See, debates of ‘should I or shouldn’t I’ really have no depth to them for they never move beyond the surface image.  It is a conversation merely about the existence or non existence of an image.  We talk of color and ink, not of identity.  In the end, these conversations can only go so far before each individual gets frustrated and ends the discussion.  And if we happen to talk about the appropriateness of a tattoo with someone who already has a tattoo, then sadly they are left feeling rejected and discarded.  Instead, we should engage in conversations regarding the meaning behind a tattoo, and the reason why an individual chose their particular image.

Because the thing about tattoos is this: rarely are they randomly chosen.  People spend a lot of time choosing the particular image that will adorn their body.  Each individual tattoo takes a lot of time, and a lot of money.  Thus, the tattoo is not just a colorful picture on their arm or leg, it is a mode of self expression, an artistic story of their identity.  The image chosen to be permanent fixtures on their body signifies something important about the individual.

Take for example a tattoo I saw at a coffee shop.  As I stood in line, I noticed that the young woman ahead of me had a small tattoo on the inside of her ankle, just above the instep.  The tattoo was simply two small letters: ‘bz’.  Although I never spoke to her, I can gather that there is quite the story behind this tattoo.  Are they initials of a loved one?  Is it a reference to a location?  Does having the periodic symbol for Berzelium have some specific meaning for her?  Whatever it is, those two letters must be uniquely tied to her experiences, her personality and her individual formation.  That tattoo, and the meaning behind it, would speak profoundly about her identity.

The fact is, tattoos can provide wonderful opportunities to engage with people on a deeper level.   Instead of simply dealing with what is only skin deep, engaging in the stories behind the tattoos move us to deep relational community.  It communicates that the church is a place where one can feel accepted and valued in their own identity and self expression.  So the next time you see someone with a tattoo on their arm or leg, why not try saying  ” I notice you have a tattoo. Do you mind if I ask what is the story behind that particular image?”  You just may be amazed at the conversations you have, and the wonderful people you get to meet.

Do you have a tattoo?  What is the story behind your particular image?

Kyle Norman

About Kyle Norman

I am a Priest in the Diocese of Calgary, serving the wonderful people of Holy Cross, Calgary. I watch reality television, I drink Starbucks coffee, and I read celebrity gossip columns. I am also a magician and often use magic tricks to teach the children at church the lessons of the Bible. I believe that God is present in the intricacy of our lives, and thus I believe that Pop Culture can provide intriguing lessons, examples, and challenges for our lives of faith.

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0 Responses to Stories of Identity

  1. Perhaps you could start us off, @Kyle_Norman. What’s your story?

  2. Kyle Norman

    Well.  My tattoo isn’t huge by any means.  It is on the top of my arm and is an image of the ‘icthus’ (Christian fish), with a cross in the center.  The reason why I chose this is because this is generally considered the first of the Christian symbols. i like the association that it was the symbol which identified the followers of Jesus – and identification that could get you killed.  For me, then, it has an association with martyrdom – or at least the willingness to be martyred for the faith.

    My sister also is the one who designed the particular image – thus reflecting the closeness I have with my family.

  3. Kyle Norman

    Well.  My tattoo isn’t huge by any means.  It is on the top of my arm and is an image of the ‘icthus’ (Christian fish), with a cross in the center.  The reason why I chose this is because this is generally considered the first of the Christian symbols. i like the association that it was the symbol which identified the followers of Jesus – and identification that could get you killed.  For me, then, it has an association with martyrdom – or at least the willingness to be martyred for the faith.

    My sister also is the one who designed the particular image – thus reflecting the closeness I have with my family.

  4. Undoubtedly, the young lady with the “bz” tattoo was a long-time fan of the Burrows-Wheeler data compression algorithm, and had the tattoo applied before the second (bz2) version was released.

  5. bunzip2 -xzvf /home/tattoo/meaning

    (edit: tattoo interpreters are backwards compatible)


  6. Ah yes, Jesse understands!

  7. Definitely an interesting topic Kyle! I have spent more than a few hours in various different chairs in a few different cities (18 pieces). Tattoos, as mainstream as they have become, still seem to maintain as a signifier and mark of identity, whether that is positive and healthy or negative and unhealthy, and the perceptions that come in the form of generational, social, cultural, or religious perspective and whether one’s opinion about it is positive, negative, or indifferent.  As you said there are those for whom tattoos means you are or were a convict, a sailor or a prostitute. I have seen some amazing and beautiful works of art, and I have also seen pornography reproduced out of a magazine on someone’s back – at a convention in Vancouver I went to. I still ask the question why, because I still don’t get it. I am not sure of the specific meaning it had, if any. Or maybe it is that I am uncomfortable with the meaning and values I perceive?

    The same as you I have had the part from Leviticus quoted to me, and the same as you it would seem to me that tattoing is as much apart of pop-culture piety as anything else these days. And attempt at expression and identity and flying a flag, or having a banner, or a shield, or a crest, or coat of arms.

    Almost all of the work I have has deep rooted meaning for me. Symbols of faith – crosses, an icthus, a chi-rho, an icon (the Eleousa),  a quote from the gospel of Matthew about forgiveness, the Alpha & Omega to represent the beginning and the end, a stylized sacred heart that is about how I want to live in relation to the world, the rampant lion from the Scottish flag (some cultural location), a koi changing into a dragon (transformation), a spiral (journey of life to the centre of being), an armband representing a promise to myself to stay clean and sober, a piece that tries to remind me of my heart,  a piece to remind me of my humanity, a piece with a stylized tree of life, the roots are a celtic knot and a banner on the tree says “wife” in welsh – my wife has the other side of the tree where the banner says “husband” in Scots Gaelic. There is only one piece that I have decided to get changed / covered up, and that was a spur of the moment one that I got at a convention. It’s a musical joke (but with some meaning) that says Where’s One? It means where is the first beat in the bar, as in where are we / where am I? I want to get it changed because there is a mistake.

    I put a lot of thought and prayer in some cases into my ink. I know others have put a lot less so. Just like anything,tattoos can have great meaning and significance, or very little.

    I would push further and ask if tattoos have become a frivolous excess of first world wealth and pop-culture? Is it possible that tattoos can maintain some of the symbolism and deep meaning that they have had in other cultures and countries around the world, and can we claim that deep meaning and symbolism in the midst of the frivolity and excess?

  8. ummm… sorry for the second article.

  9. Kyle Norman


    Yes Jim… Undoubtedly. 

    Thanks Scott for your thoughts. You very much identify the need to ponder the deeper questions, and have the deeper conversation. Speaking personally, as someone who has seen your tattoos, I didn’t know what they all represented, or the intricacy of the various parts.  I can honestly say that I feel I know, understand, and value you on a deeper level than before. Thank you. 

    I think part of having the uncomfortable conversations (even in a case like the pornographic images)  is about making ourselves vulnerable. We make ourselves vulnerable to be impressed, shocked, challenged, convicted – even horrified.  Yet we need vulnerability in order for true connection and relationship to authentically occur. 

    You also raise an interesting question: if  it is true that Tattoos have become so part of the mainstream  culture that they just become the commodified accessories of the rich, what is that which emerges in its place?  As the need to communicate self identity seems so engrained in us, what is the avenue for authentic self-story if/when tattooing no longer becomes the means?

  10. The images I have chosen reflect positive experiences that started early in life and have continued to now. Therefore there are no images of tennis, ex-girlfriends, old cars, Lego, or postage stamps. Though these could be enduring images for another, they are things which don’t hold enough relevance to me to get inked.

    Instead, I have a kingfisher decending in a dive (yes, you could liken it to a dove), a trillium, brook trout (yes I considered the fish as Christ), and St. Michael. I grew up admiring shore birds, playing in the woods, fishing, and I wore a pendant of St. Michael for most of my youth and early adulthood (Michael is my given name). These can also losely represent the celtic elements of earth (trillium), air (kingfisher), water (trout), and I haven’t gotten around to fire yet. The remaining tattoo is of a family symbol created by my Dad 60 years ago which is found on many extended family member’s possessions. Happy memories, and continued interest in my life and surroundings.

    Most of these are above my elbows, the fish sneak a peak lower.  Nonetheless, I get asked about them a lot, and I’m happy enough to explain them.

    What’s missing? The aforementioned fire, music, love, peace, and I have a thing for trees.


  11. Each of my tats has at least 3-fold meaning – a reason behind the design itself, a reason for getting it done, and a reason for it’s location.  For example, I have a dragonfly on my left foot: I’ve always loved dragonflies and the good fortune/strength association they bear, also the concept of emerging from water (a constant theme in my life); I got this tat done to commemorate having accomplished my childhood dream (climbing Mount Kilimanjaro); and I had it put on my left foot partially because I had a dragonfly land there when discerning a call to ordained ministry and partially as I suffered some nerve damage there during my climb.

    Each piece tells a unique story of a significant part of my life, one which I’m not ashamed to tell to anyone who asks; I’ve included the stories behind each of them in my funeral planning booklet.  That being said, they’re all tasteful and discreet – if I don’t want you to see my ink, you won’t!  I have put a lot of thought and prayer into each of them, and will still be as happy to have them when I am in the nursing home.  None of them was a rush decision; I make sure to wait at least 6 months after deciding what and where I want ink before I’ll get it done – it’s a very permanent decision!  My tattoos are all in places that won’t sag or stretch.  And they’re all done in consultation with my tattoo artist – a friend who is honest about the potential and meticulous about his work.

    I don’t consider my tattoos to be harmful to my faith; they actually all connect with it.

    I’ve not had any serious challenges from folks about the whole inked priest thing – even those who don’t know I’m a (former) sailor.  Difference of opinions, of course, but respectfully shared.  Have others faced serious criticism?

  12. I figure we should get Nadia Bolz-Weber to weigh in here.

    One of her latest tweets:

    Nadia Bolz-Weber @Sarcasticluther  Listening to all the tough dudes at the tattoo shop talk about playing Legos with their kids is cracking me up. #bookjudgecoverstuff

  13. many people who ask are surprised that, as a priest, I married a tattoo artist…

    one of the things that I’ve learned from him and his profession is that in a culture where traditional institutional religiosity is being challenged and multi cultural, multi faith spirituality is on the rise …. tattoos are often created as an outward expression of an deeply intimate theology.

    People may not express their theology in traditional words, but through art … especially body art.. people can express their beliefs around life after death, self identity and purpose in a way that is unique to them.

    For my first tattoo, my husband tattooed a phoenix across my whole back and down my spine…it symbolizes both Christian resurrection and the eastern concept of the feminine divine….and that can start quite a conversation 😉

    but that being said…like a cross in popular jewelery … tattoos can also be just a pretty picture.  It’s the conversation that takes place around the tattoo that matters…building relationships and speaking faith aloud.

    As to being a priest and tattooed I find that there has been a lot of curiosity, no criticism and a LOT of business for my husband in the local clergy community! LOL

  14. I guess it’s my turn. Across my back, from shoulder blade to shoulder blade, is a sine wave:


    As a musician, I am fascinated by the physics of sound. In some of my earlier experimentation with electro-acoustic music, I came across a concept that grew out of eastern philosophy/theology: the notion that God may be represented by a sine wave. Vibration is everywhere: heat, light, sound, radio, microwaves. The very molecules that compose us and all that surrounds us are vibrating. Because the sine wave represents the purest vibration, as demonstrated in the (theoretical by not-yet-realized) purest musical tone, it has been suggested not only that the sine wave might be used to represent God, but that it might stand before us as a reminder of who we, as those created in God’s image, are called to be.


    I haven’t yet gotten around to the next one, having planned it for a number of years. ?, for me, represents God in a very different way: infinite, transcendental, irrational, and yet constant. All represented by a simple Greek letter. What better way to capture our struggle to understand something and someone so ineffable?

  15. I believe Scott, you are right that Identity is deeply connected to tattooing. This has been enforced in tv shows like miami ink, etc that has brought tattooing into the mainstream of our first world.

    My tattoo is a simple design: my Scottish family crest over top a stone cross with celtic knots engraved in it. It is on my upper left arm, and is most often covered by my t-shirt.

    The Christian faith is one that I have adopted as an adult; as well as my family name. I chose the last name Forbes, when I turned 18, and legally able to do so. It is my step father’s last name,  and his cultural heritage. The moto of the clan, “Grace me Guide”, reminds me to stay focused on God’s ways in the world. I had the tattoo done as I entered seminary, so I could be one of the cool kids, but also as a connection to the things which had supported my calling, my family and my church.

    I love the expression of faith in ink. Beauty, Culture, and Artistic flair all play a part of who we shall become. As we live into it, we understand more deeply who we are. The obvious ability to share stories, is at the heart of our missional calling, Tattoos are just one more way to share the Gospel Message.



  16. I don’t have any visible tattoos, and I’m not interested in getting any done, but I do have an invisible marking that could be considered an identity mark.  That is the cross that was marked on my forehead in my baptism so many years ago (at least that’s what my parents told me happened – I was a baby!), and which I “wear” with joy and gratitude as a sign of God’s love.

  17. Well said, John. You bring us full circle to the conversation about branding Kyle led earlier in this forum.

  18. Hmmm…food for thought.  I’ve seen both very beautiful and very awful tattoos.  The awful ones (or awfully placed ones) have made me hesitate to actually get a tattoo.  That and the fact that I think, perhaps, I might be too old to have one or perceived to be undergoing a ‘mid life crisis’.  I’ve often thought of which symbol best represents my Christianity…haven’t fully decided, so am not going to make a ‘permanent’ tattoo until I do.  Thank heaven for Henna!

  19. You know, the last three posts bring another question to mind: do we take decision the mark/brand with baptism as seriously as we do the decision to get a tattoo?

  20. Kyle Norman

    The issue of the ‘mark’ of Baptism is certainly and interesting point in a discussion of tattoos.  Whenever Martin Luther felt overly depressed or under spiritual attack, he would lick his thumb and retrace the sign of the cross on his forehead and scream into the night “I’m Baptized!” – thus reclaiming and reasserting his identity.

    I don’t know if people do have that same attitude towards the rite these days.  I think some do, but those people seem to be a little the exception rather than the norm.  Now-a-days, more and more seem to come to appease a parent or grandparent.

    But the description of the mark of the cross as a spiritual tatoo on their life is a wonderful description to how deep the baptism is to be linked with their identity.  Next time I do baptismal prep, I will use this phrase and see how it goes over.

  21. Kyle – as a member of the ELCIC I enjoyed your reference to Martin Luther.  Jesse’s comment about this leading back to the branding question led me to consider further the question of since people can’t see my spiritual tatoo on my forehead (hopefully they might see some glimpse of it in the way that I lead my life!), what am I doing to tell others that I come into contact with about my identity as a Christian.  What am I doing to make my Christian “brand” tangible and apparent to people?  To share the good news?

  22. I have several tattoos, and for me, they their timing and meaning always coincides with a major life event.  A sense of “marking” time and place on my body.

    My most recent tattoo is a jellyfish which covers almost my entire inner forearm.  The jellyfish is my favorite creature.

    – my connection with the ocean – I LOVE LOVE LOVE the ocean and always want to be near it or – preferably – in it.  I love all sea life ….


    – …and the jellyfish has always been my favorite creature


    – I remember grade 10 biology class – sitting on those awful stools hunched over counters that were always just a bit too high or low to comfortably hunch over – learning about how jellyfish move and live and process their food.  I had a moment.  It was an amazing moment in which I was so utterly amazed and awe-filled and all I could think that because of the jellyfish and how amazing it was, I would always believe in god.  So sometimes when I lose faith, I think of the moment I learned about the wonderfully complex and yet simple system of the jellyfish and I remember why I believe there is a god.


    – in some mythologies, jellyfish are symbols of acceptance and faith


    – jellyfish float – they do not try to force things


    – they rely on movement to survive – they do not remain in the same place – I always want to move in my life – not literally, but in terms of learning and growing and not remaining stagnant


    – jellyfish are one of the few creatures on earth that only consume as much as they need.  When they have what they need, they stop.  This is something I want to embody more of.


    – jellyfish can withstand pressure that would crush a train.  The water pressure at the depths at which they are found is unbelievable, but they are not affected by it.


    – when I was growing up, I spent summers in Nova Scotia with my dad, step-mom and brothers.  We were often there during the jellyfish “bloom” and they would be everywhere.  My brothers and I used to play with them and even throw them at each other – they remind me of the times when I was able and allowed to be a child.


  23. Mark Perrin

    I have found reading these comments fascinating. I had no idea!

    I have no tatoos. I don’t know how I’d even choose an image. I kind of like my body the way it is but maybe something subtle and geekly like “ls -lt” somewhere discrete could be my image. But then again I like Jesse’s math symbols. I’d go for Euler’s number “e” because it’s used a lot in the quantitative financial stuff I do. Or maybe after my recent comments, the geological section of Alberta…

  24. A future tattoo I plan is a setting of Venite from the Canadian Psalter. I’ve rewritten it using Finale so that the lines are more distinct for the artist to trace/copy. I don’t imagine music manuscript is the easiest thing to tattoo.

    Again, this one will reflect personal history and faith…and perhaps my not very current taste in church music.

  25. Hell yes! I was waiting for a thread like this! I have four tattoos and all of them were chosen for religious reasons. My first one is a Celtic trinity knot – I got before I came back to the church and thankfully it was one of those symbols that translated easily from Wicca/my cultural heritage to Christianity. The second one is a big Celtic butterfly on my lower back, which represents both a personal relationship and the sign of the resurrection. My third is a Celtic style fish and a stalk of wheat with seven pods – for the seven “I AM” statements in the Gospel of John. Above the fish it says “Christ be with me” and below, “Christ within me.” The fish and wheat are paired because of a beautiful song I love – “To Christ the Seed/To Christ the Fish.” My last – the biggest one, is on my right arm but spreads onto the right side of my chest. It’s a young sleeping deer, dreaming of a stream of water falling onto a tree with apples, a snake, and a dove.

    I have definitely had people judge me for my tattoos and quote the Leviticus thing at me. The worst thing was probably my stepgrandfather asking me why I had desecrated my body. It’s ironic, of course, because I got all of them, in my mind, for God’s greater glory. I etched images onto my body that I wanted to remember. In a way, they hold me accountable. I can see them every day and remember that they are the truth of my body now, just like the colour of my eyes or my freckles. Some people still assume that tattoos are something that you only get if you’re drunk or trying to appear tough. It’s hard to convince them of the thought you put into body art. I’m glad to see there are others who have gone through the same problems!

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