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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. Connect with Kyle on
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