Tattooing My Religion

February 26, 2018
Six months ago, I found myself deeply invested in rediscovering my faith. Every Sunday, I’d gladly drive the 25 minutes from Coral Gables to Wynwood, Miami’s art district, to listen to a guy in his early 30s, clad in skintight, ripped jeans, Chelsea boots, and a sports jacket, preach to a middle school auditorium full of Miami’s non-denominational hipster millennials.

One Sunday in November, another church leader shared a message spotlighting life’s different seasons. Most of his examples pertained to parenting, something that I, then a 21-year-old college senior, could not relate to on any level. Then he switched gears. I had been drifting in and out, hearing only bits and pieces of his monologue, laughing and applauding when appropriate, until I heard the word tattoo.

He explained that getting a tattoo is signing a contract, in a way— this contract requires that you always have an answer prepared for the inevitable “What’s your tattoo?” or “What does your tattoo mean?” Anyone can ask you, anywhere, at any time, so you need to have rehearsed what you’re going to say. Maybe I’m naïve, but I was not aware of this unspoken rule; in fact, I thought the opposite was true: don’t ask, don’t tell.

With the exception of a persistent and, frankly, frustrating friend, only one person has asked me outright what the piece on my inner right arm represents, and I awkwardly, but politely, thanked her for her interest and said simply that I wasn't going to talk about it. My church speaker is apparently more forthcoming than I am.

The inscription on his arm reads memento mori, or to die in Latin, and he’s accustomed to getting odd looks when he translates it for the guy on the adjacent barstool or the barista behind the counter at the coffee shop.

At some point in his life, this young man had a reminder of death tattooed on his arm. He will carry those sobering two words, etched in a dead language, with him forever, that he might look down and see that this thing we call life is fleeting and that we all die. This clarification stood out to me, but not as much as the inherent duality of the tattoo.

Before elucidating, he said something incredibly simple that palpably resonated with those around me: Christians can have tattoos— that they aren’t allowed is a cultural assumption. I knew this, but to have it said, to have it hang there in the air, the air I shared with other young, tattooed Christians, was affirmative and empowering. Still, words only carry weight for those willing to hear them.

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Christians get an unfair rap today. Radical offshoots expound a false message of hate and condemnation; you’ll be punished for mutilating your body with needles and ink, they say, and racism and sexism are continually, and falsely, justified with religious doctrines. The central, binding philosophy of Christianity? Love. Christians are to love as Jesus loved. Jesus showed compassion to rich and poor, all colors, all beliefs, all walks of life. A tattoo does not make you a “bad” Christian in the same way that different hair colors and names do not.

There is also a modern disconnect between faith and religion. The latter tends to have more negative connotations; Merriam-Webster defines religion in the archaic form as “scrupulous conformity,” and it is often regarded as an institution, a rigorous set of rules to be followed. You must go to church. You must do XYZ. Synonyms of religion include words like creed and cult, in addition to faith. But faith, in contrast, is defined as “allegiance to duty or a person;” the first synonym listed is devotion.

I’m no biblical scholar, but I do know this: you can be religious without having faith and vice versa. Adherence to rules does not translate into how “good” of a Christian you are. You can follow protocol for reasons unknown, and you can believe in salvation through Christ, whether you attend church or not. Christianity is grounded in the teachings of the New Testament, and much of the “don’t do this” and “don’t do that” can be found in the Old Testament. People look to the past because they don’t trust what they don’t know, and they don’t want to know what they don’t trust.

For those who have asked, I’ve likened the experience of getting a tattoo to anesthesia— but instead of a quick pinch, the needle goes in and stays in, cutting the surface of your skin in three- to five-second bursts. And, of course, you never lose consciousness. Before stepping foot into the shop, I’d determined how painful getting my first tattoo would be based on articles I’d read, experiences of others, my own pain tolerance, and even color-coded diagrams depicting pain levels for different areas of the body. Then I was in the chair and the first stroke was made. A pause. “Wait, is that it?” Roughly 180 minutes of slight discomfort and some sporadic grimacing, and it was over.

But it was also the beginning. Having a tattoo comes with a new awareness. I am now very cognizant of tattoos in general: on strangers, on people I know, even online and in shows and movies. A friend of mine likened this awareness to buying a particular car and then seeing the same car all over the city.

I find myself wanting to know what assumptions, if any, are being made about us— the tattooed— because of our ink. Who is questioning our intelligence, our beliefs, our professionalism, or our characters, simply because we decided we wanted permanent body art? Are people truly capable of not judging books by their covers, or is that something we say to make ourselves feel better?

I think most of us would agree with the latter; if this wasn’t the reality, wouldn’t racism, sexism, and stereotyping be non-existent? As more people get tattoos, the stigma is fading with social acceptability, but whether society can ever put aside its isms and assumptions... I think I thought I saw you try. 

I did lose some things when I got a tattoo. I lost fear. I lost doubt in my ability to withstand pain. I probably lost the option to wear short sleeves in certain work environments. I may have lost the respect of people I don’t know. But I didn’t lose my religion— I tattooed it.

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