My wife got her first tattoo this weekend. It's a lovely piece, one that she's been contemplating for most of our 14-year partnership. The wait was worth it! I myself have a number of tattoos, but the ones I'm really proud of came from a little tattoo parlor in Copenhagen, Denmark named Kunsten på Kroppen, which means, "the art on the body." Recently, a friend who shares my theological commitments, and who bore witness to my wife's tattoo experience, asked me about the spiritual significance of getting a tattoo. The question prompted me to reflect more deeply on the spirituality of art on the body.
Photographer Chris Ranier has contributed more than any to our understanding of tattoos as art in the truest sense -- as a medium of cultural communication. In the documentary culminating his two-decades of photographing tattoos in indigenous cultures, "Tattoo Odyssey," Ranier contends that tattoos in all cultures arise from "that basic human desire to belong, to be appreciated, and to go through some initiation process that gains an altered state of mind that says, 'I am who I am.'" In other words, tattoos often signify one's relationships, one's movement beyond her daily existence to another plane of reality, and a new awareness of a person's being-in-the-world. Tattooing, as art on the body, presents the bearer with several experiences that are rarely matched in the world, particularly the Western world.
My wife's tattoo is a beautifully intricate floral piece by Belgian artist Dan DiMattia. When I asked what she thought about herself on the other side of the needle, she explained that her tattoo did not change her, but was an indelible expression of her journey toward her authentic self. She sees her tattoo as an outward mark of an inward journey, accessing a part of her self that had always been there. I asked her how this step along her journey made her feel and she replied, to my surprise, "Fierce!"
What then might we infer about the power of tattoos to impact one's spirituality? The following observations are not intended to be normative; nevertheless, these musings are consistent with my own experiences and might resonate with others' journeys as well.
Tattooing Alters More Than Just The Surface
When someone is tattooed, she finds herself in a different classification of persons. She is no longer a part of the non-tattooed genus. Rather, she may discover that the intentional act of bodily enhancement has altered her very identity. Upon reflection, she may find that she relates to herself and others in different ways. If her tattoos are exposed, others will notice them. The gaze of her friends and coworkers will shift from her face to her art, sometimes rapidly, as if they are undergoing cognitive system failure before the indelible transformation their friend has undergone. If she conceals her tattoo, as a kind of secret, this will not change the fact that she knows she is tattooed. Her relation to the world in mind and spirit may be different.
Tattoos Are Road Signs Along One's Spiritual Journey
When a tattoo is affixed to a significant spiritual, relational or existential moment, the indelible ink is even more profound and can be powerful enough to return one to that state of spirituality. Like most significant experiences in one's life, the event of tattooing retains a place in our memory. We remember where we were and when the event occurred. Unlike these other experiences, however, tattoos retain their significance as visible reminders of an important, spiritual experience in our lives -- like footprints unaffected by the tides of time. Tattoos are fixed in living memory and thus they can serve as monuments, allowing one to retrace one's spiritual and existential pilgrimage.
Tattooing Inaugurates One Into A Community
Every tattoo has a story. A major facet of tattoo cultures is the unveiling of stories through one's tattoos. For some cultures, like the Maori in Aotearoa New Zealand, tattoos serve to signify one's place within society. For the Tofi people of New Guinea, a swirl on a woman's face indicates her family lineage. In indigenous cultures, tattoos mark one's role in a larger societal narrative.
In America, tattoos do not typically serve such societal functions, but they nevertheless inaugurate one into a community of persons who have likewise undergone this act of transformation. Through the manifestation of who you are, you communicate silently with those who are a part of this culture.
I have large, intricate tattoos on each of my arms that symbolize elements of my ethnic and spiritual identities. My parents never emphasized my cultural heritage, so as an adult I did more exploration to learn about this part of my identity. I worked with the tattoo artists to develop images that fused these two important aspects of myself.
It is in vogue to be "spiritual, not religious." Spirituality tends toward the immanent, the inward-focused experience of seeking enlightenment or communing with the Spirit. Religion tends toward the transcendent, the outward extension of oneself to God and neighbor. The irony of tattooing is that ink can erase this distinction. Just as art has always conjoined the spiritual and the religious, tattoos can combine the inward and outward expressions of a spiritual or significant experience, literally, as art on the body.