Day 2 in KC: Modified Ways

“Can you recommend any other artists or shops that I should visit in the Kansas City area?” This was the last question I would ask when I was setting up my shop visits. And the name and shop that came up several times was Kimo Russell at Modified Ways in Blue Springs, MO. One of the artists even told me that when they wanted some work done, they would set up an appointment with Kimo.

Modified Ways is just about the opposite of Weirdo’s, where I had visited the day before. I wrote about that experience in my last post. Both shops are unique and inviting, but while Weirdo’s is sort of loud and in your face, Modified Ways has a clean, suburban feel to it. It feels like the sort of place that Coach-bag carrying professionals might go to get inked. While there was some art on the walls, it was more subdued and the tattoo samples were provided in 3-ring portfolios for Kimo and his fellow artist, Logan. The music was laid-back jazz

I met Kimo, who was very cordial and pleased that I had chosen to stop by his shop. Behind his workstation was a large self-portrait of Kimo working at his craft. He asked about my trip to Weirdo’s, and let me know that he was probably going to be a man of fewer words than the artists I had met there.

I also met Logan, who was working on tattoo on a young man’s chest, which already bore the address of some Bible verses from Ephesians 6 on the other side. If I remember right, it was verses 10-13. The man was pleased when I asked him if the verses referred to the “Armor of God”, saying “Ah–very good!” He then explained that he was reading his way through the New Testament and was enjoying the letters written by the Apostle Paul.

This was a young man who was reading the Bible, and yet his dialogue with Logan was seasoned pretty heavily with profanity. With his language and his tattoos, it would be easy for some to dismiss him as a lost soul. I’ve talked elsewhere in this blog about how easy it is for us to lead with judgment rather than curiosity. Curiosity leads me to believe that this young man was not much different from Jesus’ first disciples, a ragtag group of blue-collar fishermen. The Gospel of Mark tells us that one of those fishermen, Peter, “began to call down curses” when he was under severe pressure–and this after he had spent three years with Jesus himself! This same foul-mouthed fisherman became one of the key leaders of the early church.

Here’s Kimo on the left.

Kimo had a young first-timer too (see the post about Weirdo’s). She had him artistically inscribe a relative’s birthday and Psalm 23:1 onto the side of her waist. I asked her about the Bible verse, and she explained that she herself was not a religious person, but her relative was.

“I’m not a religious person” is sort of an interesting statement. I’ve learned to ask the speaker what they mean when they say that–again, in a manner of curiosity, not judgment. Sometimes the response is “all religions are the same”, or “religious institutions suck” or even, “I don’t believe in God”. This last one can sometimes lead to an interesting conversation, especially if you follow their statement with this request: “Can you describe the god you don’t believe in?” After hearing their description, I often find that I don’t believe in that god either.

And now it’s his turn…

Her experience was a little less traumatic than that of the young lady at Weirdo’s, and afterwards she was very proud of her new tattoo. As I mentioned in my last post, new tattoos are often a source of excitement and a desire to share the story with others. Her mother’s boyfriend was also in the shop, first to encourage, and then to have Kimo continue some of the work he had already begun. His entire arm was covered with intense colors, and today Kimo would add even more.

While all this was taking place, another young lady entered the shop and sat down on the couch across from the ink stations. I thought I might have recognized her from Kimo’s portfolio (she’s featured on the homepage of Modified Ways). I was surprised to discover that Amber’s visit was not a tattoo appointment, but instead she was there because Kimo had told her that I, “the guy from Ink and Skin”, was going to be stopping by.

1978682_10152888557431953_994889131_nWe talked about her tattoos, the most prominent of which makes her right arm looks as though it has morphed into a bionic, steam-punk combination of fully functioning motorcycle parts. Out of this I learned that she loves to ride motorcycles and that she and a friend were creating some videos of the tricks they were doing.

Amber asked if I had any tattoos, and I told her I did not, and that part of the Ink and Skin project is an attempt to reach across prejudices that can separate people who are different on the surface, but share human commonalities underneath. She confirmed what Kimo had shared with me earlier in the day, that prejudices run both ways: it’s not only people without tat’s who can be judgmental of those who have them, but those who have them can also be judgmental of those who do not. I asked Amber if she’s heard, “You’re such an attractive young lady, why would you want to spoil that with all these tattoos?” She said “all the time”, and said that she is also judged because she is a single mom. A single mom with tat’s.

Then she shared that she also gets comments about the scars on her knees, which were covered by her jeans. The comments are rude, unkind, and of a sexual nature. But her scars come from a horrible car accident from which she has not only the scars, but also a significant amount of memory loss. She doesn’t remember the relationship she had with her boyfriend, who was also severely injured in the accident.

Amber asked me what I do for a living.

I’m sometimes hesitant to share that I’m a pastor, because that revelation can significantly change the vibe in the room–especially in a tattoo parlor! My father, who was also a pastor, told me that when he would visit the barber in the small town where he served, the owner would always greet him with a loud “Hello Reverend!” My dad’s not much into titles, and after a few of these greetings, he told the barber, who responded, “Oh it’s not for your benefit that I say that–it’s for the other guys in the shop.” Exactly. It changes the vibe.

So I told Amber what I do, adding that I know that the Church is often seen as a judgmental place, and that we do struggle with it. But I also shared some stories of how my present church has worked through some difficult issues while holding onto the grace needed to stay together. She seemed to understand, and later that afternoon, she asked if I would pray for her when I got back home. She was going to see a doctor soon, and she was nervous about it. I gladly said that I would.

Ink and Skin: Word Made Flesh is an intentional wordplay. On the surface, the title refers to the stories that tattoos can engrave onto the skin of the bearer. As you can see on my home page, Nadia Bolz-Weber has said that “Tattoos take what’s on the inside and put it on the outside.” But the idea of “Word Made Flesh” is also an ancient concept that comes to us from the first century, AD. One of Gospel writers used it to describe Jesus as God’s Word, who “…became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” In other words, God ceased to be a remote, abstract concept and became Jesus, a human being living among us. God left heaven and came to earth as Creator among his creatures.

While Jesus was among us, he crossed the boundaries between rich and poor, slave and free, insider and outsider. He told stories that changed people’s perspectives. He suggested that there was another kingdom–a kingdom of justice, reconciliation, beauty and wholeness–that was available now, and available to all.

And so that is also part of the Ink and Skin: Word Made Flesh project. In a way, it’s as though the barber has announced to the world that there’s someone different in the room. The vibe has changed, not to one of rules and judgments, but to the potential for human connection with the divine, for second chances, and for love. That’s what happened when the Word was Made Flesh, and it can still happen today. My hope is that it happened, even if in a small way, in conversations at Modified Ways.

Stained Glass

Tattoos used to be reserved for rebels, bikers, prisoners, gang members, and so on. It was an easy marker that this person didn’t belong to the mainstream of society. And it was easy to judge those persons, especially since their tattoos marked them as members of an alternate society. The one socially acceptable group that regularly sported tattoos was the military, and when you asked them about it, the story usually went something like this: “We all got them. We’d get out on leave, get drunk, and wake up with a tattoo.”

By the way – I’ve found that, with an additional question or two, even this kind of story leads to a great conversation. “Where did you serve? Which branch? Do you stay in touch with some of those guys/gals?”

Religious folks–okay, conservative Christians like the ones I grew up around–used to have a response to those who sported tattoos. Quoting 1st Corinthians 6:19-20, they’d say: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” I didn’t get this quoted to me for sporting a tattoo, but I did get it for smoking cigarettes (I’ve been a non-smoker now for 25 years). Smoking and tattoos were seen to be “desecrating God’s temple”. And tattoos had a Levitical prohibition as well: “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:28)

I’m not one to easily dismiss Scripture as archaic and therefore irrelevant. Nor am I one to say that we should throw out the book of Leviticus, or even one of its chapters, just because there are some practices in Leviticus 28 that are no longer commonly observed or enforced. After all, there is plenty of good material remaining for us in that chapter. So instead of discarding the text, I would ask the question: “What might this have meant to the original hearers of this prohibition?” One possible answer may be in 1 Kings 18, where Elijah is found holding a reality-show competition with the priests of Baal. When those priests became frustrated that their god was failing to make an appearance, “they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed.” (1 Kings 18:28) One might assume that the prohibition in Leviticus is condemning a practice that served as an attempt to bring power to the bearer of the cuts and tattoos. Since this is not a common practice today, a literal application of its prohibition might be a misappropriation of this passage. Tattoos, in general, are not intended to force the hand of an invisible, impotent god.

In more snarky moments, I’ve thought that it might be fun to get “Leviticus 19:28” tattooed to my arm. But others have already taken that angle.

Going back to the 1st Corinthians passage, one can also re-frame what is happening there in light of its original intent. In 1 Corinthians 6, the Apostle Paul is making the case that one should “flee from sexual immorality.” He’s not talking about smoking or getting a tattoo. He’s saying that what we do with our bodies and with others’ bodies is important, and that there are consequences for the misuse of our bodies.

OLGH-Holy-Spirit-Stained-Glass-001-cropLet’s take this from another angle. If you’ve been in a church or two, or especially a great cathedral, you’ll notice something about the stained glass: it usually tells a story. With pictures instead of words, with art instead of intellect, the colored glass transforms sunlight into narratives of how God creates and then interacts with God’s creation; from the Garden of Eden to the Garden of Gethsemane to the Garden Tomb, outside of which Mary found a Gardener who revealed himself as the risen Jesus Christ. Although breathtakingly beautiful, stained glass is more than pretty colors. Its task is to present the gospel in a way that words alone cannot.

if the body is a temple, one might say that a tattoo is stained glass.

So then, if the body is a temple, one might say that a tattoo is stained glass. Sometimes breathtakingly beautiful, and other times faded and nearly indecipherable, each application of ink to the body becomes word made flesh: story on skin. Tattoos share stories. Sometimes the stories are poignant and beautiful; other times they’re simpler stories of comrades and the consumption of alcohol. But each one is unique, and like their tattoo is on the surface to be seen, their story is just beneath it, yearning to be heard.

Every person is a living biography: a story that may be told, but that is still unfolding. I believe this is also the case with the gospel: its good news can be told, but it may also be witnessed in the lives of others. What I’m trying to do with Ink and Skin: Word Made Flesh is to harness the stories that are portrayed on skin to help their bearers discover the incarnate story of how God is active in the lives of each person God has uniquely created to bear God’s image–an image designed to tell the story of that same unique God.

So I encourage you to continue to view the body as a temple, and to consider that by saying “I like your ink–is there a story”, you may also be asking, “What’s the story to be seen in your stained glass?”

Santa Cruz 3: Incarnational

There are a lot of coffee shops in downtown Santa Cruz. I think by the end of the week, my friend Chris and I had stopped into most of them. It’s important to me to maintain fully optimized blood-caffeine levels throughout the day, and I like good coffee–so much that I even roast my own at home. That led to an interesting conversation at one of the shops that was experimenting with roasting a small batch of coffee on site. An employee was teaching herself how to “cup” coffee, which is the art of identifying, analyzing, and ranking the many flavor notes that can vary greatly from one coffee to the next. We chatted for awhile, and then I noticed that the barista was sporting a tattoo on the inside of her bicep. It featured a forest at the bottom and a canopy of stars at the top.

I told her that I liked the tattoo, and asked if there was a story to go with it. She was pretty shy about answering, and then when I encouraged her to share more, she kept speaking in monosyllables.

“It’s a constellation,” she finally answered.

“Is it a particular constellation?” I asked.

“Yeah, it’s one that I like.” Okay…

It was time for lunch, and I was tired of the high-priced, less-than-spectacular fare of the downtown strip restaurants. Through Yelp, I was able to locate a hot dog stand within walking distance that looked promising. It was getting late in the week, and the research wasn’t going so well. I had thought Santa Cruz, with its California surf culture, would be optimal for Ink and Skin research, but it wasn’t turning out to be the case. I had never had to work this hard to draw out people’s stories. It seemed like everywhere we went in Santa Cruz, people were on a different page than we were. From the concert to the surf shop to the coffee shops, we ran into one dead end after another.

On the way to the hot dog stand, we encountered a young man sitting on the sidewalk with his dog. He look up at us and disinterestedly remarked, “Repent.”

“What?” we asked.

“You need to repent,” he said again, without looking at us.

“What does that mean?” While I wasn’t expecting a theological treatise, as a pastor I wondered what angle he was taking on the idea of repentance. As he sat on the sidewalk, he was preparing to paint something onto a long wooden board that he had beside him.

“If you have two shirts, give one to the one who has none. The rich are taking from the poor.” I didn’t disagree at all with his ages-old prophetic message.

I asked, “What’s your dog’s name?”

“Dog”, he replied offhandedly.

“Is he friendly?”

“Yeah sure, whatever.” I proceeded to befriend the dog while the street preacher began working on his sign. Without planning it beforehand, Chris and I began to try to get this man to go off of his cold, impersonal message, but he pretty much stuck to his script. We moved on, remarking that the man didn’t seem to care who his audience was, nor was he interested in getting to know who he was trying to save.

A few blocks away, Happy Hot Dogs delivered the goods I was looking for. It was a street vendor with a cart that produced boiled, “skin-on” Chicago-style hot dogs and steamed buns. It was just right.

On the way back to the strip, we encountered our street preacher again. He now had the outline of several letters, a few of which he had filled in with a permanent marker. The single word REPENT served to reinforce his earlier message. I asked him where he was from. “I’m not from this world.” Chris asked where he grew up. “I choose not to grow up.” Chris asked where he lived when he was ten years old. “I’d rather not remember.” Perhaps this was the only clue he was going to give us as to who he was or what he was about.

After reflecting on our encounters with this man, as well as the week of strange encounters in Santa Cruz, I came to a realization about the Ink and Skin project. In order to have a legitimate opportunity to ask someone about their ink, I need to establish at least some minimal form of relationship with that person. It doesn’t need to be much, but there has to be some contact other than a cold approach, even if the goal is to get to know the other person. A couple of examples might help to explain what I’m getting at.

If I’m at a restaurant, and I notice that my waiter has an ink sleeve, I will have already established a client-customer relationship with that person before breaking out a question about their ink. The same is true if I’m talking to a barista or an airline ticket agent or a person sitting next to me at a ball game. There’s a reason other than my question that has brought us together.

I realized that what I was trying to do in Santa Cruz was to either (A) come on completely cold with the question, which was uncomfortable for the other and for me; or (B) create an artificial situation such as the coffee shop where the question could be asked. Neither worked very well. What has worked in the past is what I would call “incarnational” asking. It means that I’m already there, in the flesh, and the beginning of a relationship has already taken place. It’s not cold, it’s not artificial. Instead of a scripted situation into which I might insert someone (i.e. the street preacher’s method), I need to really be there.

This is true of Christian evangelism as well. Working in cold or artificial conditions doesn’t lend itself well to reaching out with the good news. There has to be a relationship that has already sprouted before we have earned the opportunity to speak. But even greater than this is the fact that Jesus came in the flesh to share this message with his disciples. Not cold, not artificial, not distant or off somewhere else, Jesus made his home on earth with real people in real places with a real message to share into the real relationships he made. Incarnational: real, and in the flesh – like a tattoo with a real story to share.