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.

Day 1 in KC: Weirdo’s

You’ll find it just behind Honolulu, and just ahead of Los Angeles when you search the internet for the “most tattooed cities“. Right here in the conservative heartland of the Midwest, Kansas City is #9 on the list. Yes, you read it correctly: K.C. is more tattooed than L.A.! The ranking is based on the number of tattoo shops per capita, and Kansas City’s number is six per 100,000 people.

So when I began to do my research on the Ink and Skin: Word Made Flesh project, one of the first places I put on the list (after Daytona Beach) was Kansas City. This part of the research journey would focus on the shops themselves: the artists and their clients. KC is just a three-hour drive, so that made it even better.

Let me back up for a moment. Several years ago, I crossed the river to attend the Best of the Midwest Tattoo and Arts Convention in Council Bluffs, Iowa. I had a few interesting conversations at the event, and I retained a large stack of business cards from tattoo parlors that I thought were mainly in the Midwest. However, as I planned my trip to KC, I looked through the stack and only found two in the KC metro area. Undaunted, I called these two shops and was received warmly and encouraged to stop on by. The last question I asked them was if they had the names of other reputable artists and shops in the area. They were happy to supply those, too. I booked a hotel on Trivago and drove south on I-29.

My first stop, which turned out to be an all-day affair, was at Weirdo’s Tattoo in Belton, Missouri. I opened the door to the sound of heavy metal music and waiting room full of customers. Weirdo’s is the workplace of several artists, including “Weird Harold” Simmons. Harold was the one I had spoken to on the phone, so the receptionist retrieved him and introduced us. He took me in and sat me down in his workstation. We began talking about body art, and how tattooing is an intimate, and yet invasive relationship between the artist and their client. Harold lamented that younger artists sometimes fail to make that connection.

He also mentioned that Kansas City is unique in its camaraderie between the artists and shops around the metro area. One would think that there would be some acrimony due to competition between so many shops, but there is plenty of work, and the successful artists book months–sometimes up to a year–ahead.

In addition to being an artist for the past 17 years, Harold is the bearer of multiple tattoos, including several on his face and neck. A woman gave Harold his first tattoo in a motel, surrounded by a group of bikers. Ironically, he would later own this woman’s tattooing equipment.

I have to admit that if we had encountered one another prior to the Ink and Skin project, it’s doubtful that I would have taken the opportunity to get to know someone like him. And that’s precisely the reason why this is so important! When someone is different from us, our first response is often to turn away, and in doing so, we replace an encounter with an assumption or, even worse, a judgment. That, right there, is the essence of what turns out to be prejudice: judging someone before we have a chance to get to know them and hear their story.

Harold’s first client for the day was accompanied by her mother and sister. Because Aimee had recently turned sixteen, she needed her parents’ consent to have her body artistically modified. It helped that the tattoo was the same one that her mother and sister already bore. It wasn’t long after Harold started in before she became queasy. No problem forIMG_2278 the guys in the shop–they’d seen this before and knew just how to care for the lightheaded young lady. They brought out a cot and some cold washcloths and Harold joked with the family as he patiently waited for Aimee to recover. A bucket was also on hand, but fortunately, was not needed.

Ryan Dugger, another artist at Weirdo’s, was helping a woman make a connection with her nephew, who liked Star Wars and Legos. If you look closely, you cIMG_2280an see that it’s not just any Yoda he’s drawing on her calf–it’s Lego Yoda! When we saw this woman’s car, we saw quite a number of Lego Star Wars figures on her dashboard. What I really like about the picture is the face on Ryan’s shirt–maybe she’s curious to see what the picture is, or perhaps providing a bit of quality control at Weirdo’s.

After spending a day with these artists, I wished I had chosen to visit artists and shops earlier in the project! It was great to be around them and their clients, who were enthusiastic about their tattoos and ready to share the stories connected to them. At Weirdo’s, I discovered that tattoo artists are some of the most welcoming–and some of the most hygienically conscious–people on the planet. It would be easy to be intimidated by the music and the macabre art that filled the walls of the shop. But once you get beyond that, these artists do their best, not only with their art, but also with their care of other human beings.

Guest Post: Daytona

“I like your ink. Is there a story behind that?” Who would have thought that a simple question inquiring about the body art of a stranger could result in a meaningful conversation during motorcycle week in Daytona Beach, FL? I have known about the spiritual significance of body art for some time. I have admired the intricacy of tattoos of friends, but I’ve never actually asked a complete stranger about their tattoo expecting they would be willing to describe in great detail when, where, and why they chose a particular design. While recently in Daytona during motorcycle week I observed and participated in a number of conversations around the meaning and significance of a tattoo.

While tattoos are billboards that speak to lost love, pain, and promise on the bodies of those who wear them, one cannot automatically assume just because their “ink” is visible for everyone to see, they are willing to talk about the meaning. When I used the above lineIMG_2134 on our busy waitress, and pointed to a specific tattoo circling her exposed upper arm, I was surprised when she smiled and said, “my tattoos have personal meaning for me.” She took my order and left the table. I wasn’t expecting her polite yet resolute decline.

What my encounter with these two different responses to our innocuous question, “I like you ink. Is there a story behind that?” tells me is that not all people are cut out of the same cloth. Some are only too happy that anyone notices they have body art and are subsequently willing to talk about it. Others view their tattoos as a private expression that means something to them and perhaps their closest confidants. Whatever side of the tattoo conversation we encountered during our brief stay in Daytona during motorcycle week, I am more convinced than ever that tattoos may be the new entry into meaningful spiritual conversations. To that end, I look forward to approaching the next heavily tattooed stranger with this simple phrase, “I like your ink. Is there a story behind that?” The only caution is if one asks this question, be prepared for a lengthy story and conversation at least half the time.

Bradley Bergfalk
Litchfield, CT

Brad Bergfalk is a Covenant Pastor and presently serves as the pastor of First Congregational Church of Litchfield in Litchfield, CT.

Santa Cruz 2: Different Languages

Chris and I stopped by the Coffee Cat again on Tuesday morning. This time, the barista was able to concoct the vacuum pot coffee I had tried to get the day before. Half the fun of this kind of coffee is the brewing experience, which involves one glass container with coffee atop another that is filled with water. Heat forces the water into the upper chamber, where the coffee brews. When the heat is removed, the liquid returns to the bottom chamber as some of the smoothest coffee that is to be had on earth. I asked the barista if he enjoyed this sort of coffee at home, and he confessed that he only brought out his vacuum pot when guests were over. It did look like a lot of set-up and clean-up work for a cup or two of coffee, so I chose not to purchase the equipment. I was pleased with the coffee, but I was disappointed that the process was more work than it was worth.

Our next task was to rent some boogie boards and wetsuits. Our plan was to spend some time on the beach looking for tattoo stories, and this equipment would give us an excuse to be there and something to do between conversations. We got a suggestion for a surf shop from the barista, and off we went to another interesting experience.

A salesman met us as we entered the shop. We explained, in what I believed to be clear, unaccented English, that we wanted to rent two boogie boards and two wetsuits. The salesman took us to the middle of the store, where he pointed out that they had quite a selection of surfboards for sale. Then he disappeared into the back room of the store. We never saw or heard from him again.

Eventually another salesman asked if we needed some help. Again I explained that we were looking to rent two boogie boards and two wetsuits. He responded that he would be available to take us out and teach us how to surf, and we might want to pick out a couple of the boards we had seen moments before. He also let us know that he could film the entire experience for us. While this was all helpful information, especially if we had wanted to be filmed while learning to surf on brand new surfboards, we began to wonder if some sort of recreational drug was taking its toll on this young man’s ability to discern what we were really after.

We decided to try again: “We’d like to rent a couple boogie boards and a couple of wetsuits.”

“OH! You want to RENT stuff? Yeah, okay, follow me.” We followed to room where they had one boogie board (“Oh the other one must be out.”) and a ragtag assortment of wetsuits. We asked if there might be another surf shop nearby, and he directed us to a spot closer to the beach. After some similar bidirectional conversation about pricing at this new shop, we were ready to hit the waves.

Which were awesome, by the way. But another revelation that I probably should have foreseen: It’s impossible to see tattoos on someone who’s clad in a wetsuit.


The following day, we found a busy coffee shop in downtown Santa Cruz that has a lot of wide-open space, indoor and outdoor seating, and large tables that could be shared by multiple groups of customers. We spent the morning drinking coffee and playing several small card games that Chris designed. His new line of games is called Pack O Game, and each game is about the size of a pack of gum (hence the name). The idea was that the games we played at our table would draw the attention of other customers, and perhaps some might be sporting tattoos with stories to go with them. While our practice may sound a bit strange, Chris and I have found that people’s curiosity is naturally drawn to see what game is being played. We had a small amount of success: one fellow with a BAYER tattoo said that it reminded him of his home in Germany. Not much more than that, though.

When we broke for lunch, we walked down Pacific Avenue to a sandwich shop. We both ordered sandwiches, realizing afterwards that we probably could’ve done just as well sharing one of the humongous meals. As we were eating, we spotted the couple I mentioned in the previous post, once again looking forlorn and disoriented. I could see them outside the window, huddled together on a cement curb that separated the sidewalk from the landscaping. I ate half of my sandwich and then suggested to Chris that I was going to give the other half to the couple, who were half-heartedly panhandling the people who passed them on the sidewalk. I asked the woman behind the counter if she could wrap my leftover sandwich, and she happily obliged. Just as she handed it back to me, in walked the young man. He walked up to the counter and asked if he could buy a sandwich for four dollars, which was less than half the price of their cheapest sandwich. Without waiting for the employees to respond, I walked over and asked if he would like half of my sandwich. He thanked me and took the sandwich back outside and sat back down next to the girl on the curb.

I returned to our table inside the restaurant and continued to watch the couple outside the window. I guess one might think it was sort of a creeper or voyeur thing, but truthfully I was feeling more like someone who had given a wrapped gift to someone, and I wanted to see their reaction to receiving the gift. To be honest, I admit was feeling pretty good about myself and what I had done. I wasn’t expecting what was about to happen. First of all, it seemed like he wanted to conceal his gift from the girl he was with. Next, he unwrapped the roast beef sandwich and took a bite. Then he got up, walked over to the nearest trash can, and tossed it in.

He didn’t even offer it to his friend.

Some might react to what happened by disparaging the whole practice of giving to the poor: “See! It’s a waste of my hard-earned money. They just threw it away anyway.” True. That is what happened. Others might conclude that the couple wasn’t really hungry to begin with; that they were just panhandling for drug money. Not sure if that was the case, but admittedly,  it wouldn’t have been much of a stretch to reach that conclusion with these two. Because of this experience, I might be tempted to not make the same effort to make this offer in the future.

But then I thought about the Lord’s Supper.

Throughout the Gospels, especially the first three Gospels, the disciples are clueless as to Jesus’ identity, mission, and kingdom. Like our experience at the surf shop, they miss the point of most of what Jesus has to say, preferring  to hear something completely different. Several times in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus predicts his upcoming trial and death. Immediately following his pronouncements, the disciples get into arguments about who will be the greatest or who will have a seat closest to the throne in Jesus’ kingdom. Jesus remains patient with them, repeating his words and making everything into focus as they travel toward Jerusalem, the place where Jesus will be tried and put to death.

Then, on the night of his betrayal, Jesus takes a loaf of bread, asks God’s blessing upon it, breaks it, and gives it to his disciples. One of these disciples will betray him. Another will deny him three times. Others will desert him when he is arrested. Jesus knows all this, and he’s already told them it’s going to happen. He knows they’re about to throw away the bread he’s about to offer them, but he gives it to them anyway.

So maybe it’s not about how my attempts at kindness and generosity are received; instead it’s about offering them freely, expecting nothing in return. I just read this morning that in God’s economy of abundance, we can give like this, expecting nothing in return, because there is plenty enough for all. So as a follower of Jesus, I’m not asked to evaluate the reception of my gift; I’m simply asked to give. And it is in giving–not in judging the recipient, or in refusing to give because the gift is refused–that I become more like Jesus.

Santa Cruz 1: Harbinger

Things didn’t go as planned in Santa Cruz, but I learned some important lessons. I’d like to share these lessons, especially one biggie, over the next few posts. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. In this post, I want to share the premonitory episodes that took place on the first night in Santa Cruz. But even before I get to that, some back-story should be shared.

Santa Cruz wasn’t initially on the radar for Ink and Skin: Word Made Flesh. I already had a Spring Break beach trip planned (initially for this year but postponed until 2016) to Daytona Beach, FL. Then my good friend Chris called to say that he had access to a cabin at Mission Springs, near Santa Cruz, and asked if I would like to do some tattoo research among the surfing crowd that gravitates there. He also mentioned that Echo and the Bunnymen, one of our favorite 80s bands, would be playing Santa Cruz in early August. We checked the dates and made it happen.

On the way in to the cabin, we stopped at a coffee shop in Scotts Valley. I noticed that they served vacuum-pot coffee. I asked the barista about it, but unfortunately they were too busy training some new staff to take the time necessary to make that particular type of coffee. I would have to wait one more day to experience what is supposed to produce the smoothest coffee on the planet. We bought some beans for the cabin and chatted with the barista, who was sporting a number of tattoos. When I told her that I liked her ink and asked if there might be a story, she shared that she had struggled with depression in her life (I also saw, but did not comment on what I assumed were cutting scars on her arms). She pointed out the tattoo on her wrist, which reminded her to STAY STRONG. At that moment I thought our conversation was a promising sign that Santa Cruz would indeed be a great place for ink-talk. Little did I know that this would be one–and definitely the most meaningful– of only a small number of tattoo-initiated conversations we’d have that week.

After we got settled in the cabin, we headed into downtown Santa Cruz for some dinner at Kianti’s. From their lovely outdoor seating, we were able to observe the constant stream of foot traffic through the downtown strip. It was impossible not to notice a burned-out young couple who looked like zombies. For no apparent reason, the woman looked terrified and the man looked completely defeated. When we saw them later, they looked slightly more relaxed but just as lost. We would see them again several times throughout the week.

Our waitress was professional and friendly. We learned that she was from Costa Rica and was in the USA studying at UC Santa Cruz. I said, “Oh, so you’re a slug”, referring to the UCSC mascot, the Banana Slug. She agreed, but asked us to keep that on the down-low; for some reason the locals aren’t all that appreciative of their local university. I asked why, and she surmised that it had to do with the impact UCSC students had on local apartment prices. I thought it a bit strange, especially since the school resides up the hill from the city of Santa Cruz, but as a fellow outsider, I took note of her experience.

Chris and I crossed the street to The Catalyst, where we would remain for the concert. An innocuous acoustic duo played a few opening numbers, after which we were ready for the Bunnymen. However, the Bunnymen weren’t quite ready for us, and their stage crew took quite some time setting up after the opening group and their equipment were cleared. We guessed that the group had not taken a sound-check prior to the show; all the instruments needed tuning and the amplifiers checking. We were excited to see and hear the guys we had promoted and listened to during our days in college radio–even though our colleges were on opposite coasts.

Down went the house lights,IMG_1947 and Echo and the Bunnymen took the stage. Singer Ian McCulloch, wearing dark sunglasses, assumed a statuesque pose at center stage, both hands around the microphone which was held in a floor stand before him. This would be his position during every song they played. Guitarist Will Sergeant, the other of  two original members present that evening, took his place to the far left with a red Fender Jaguar in his hands. The rest of the band consisted of a keyboardist, drummer, bassist, and a second guitarist. I took quite a few photos with my iPhone that night, the best of which is here on the left. We enjoyed the opening few numbers before we began to observe some strange things happening onstage.

First of all, the lighting was coming exclusively froIMG_1944m the rear of the band, effectively placing them all into silhouette. Their faces remained in shadow, as you can see in this photo on the right. That was disappointing as I (as well as, I imagine, most people) had been looking forward to “seeing” the band perform. Even though we were relatively close to the stage, facial expressions were indistinguishable. McCulloch’s sunglasses remained in place for the entire performance, which added a certain absurd sense of irony, considering that all the lighting was coming from behind the band. The guitar technician had to hold a flashlight so that Sergeant could see what he was playing!

Between songs, McCulloch spoke to the crowd, but his words were indecipherable. I’m not sure if it was his accent, his state of insobriety, or a combination of the two, but other than a few f-bombs, we couldn’t make out anything. Then he would turn away from the audience, to a small table that contained a glass of milk, a second glass of brown liquid that we assumed was some form of hard liquor, a pack of cigarettes, and a lighIMG_1954ter. At first he smoked between songs, then switched to keeping one lit as he sang. Milk, booze, and cigarettes. Probably not suggestions given to him by his vocal coach, but they were McCulloch’s stage staples.

The band didn’t  interact much with one another, and even less with the audience. During two of their best-known songs, the whole band pulled back their volume so the audience could be heard singing on the chorus, but other than that, there was pretty much zero interaction. Chris and I talked about this after the show. At first we agreed that their stage presence was intense, but the best word Chris found to describe the experience was “impenetrable.” They seemed unhappy and/or bored to be there, which might have been explained by the small stage, the small venue, the lighting, the lack of a sound-check, jet-lag, or many other things. The audience was excited, but it seemed like the band was ready to head for bed.

I should add one correction to that last paragraph. Echo and the Bunnymen performed two encores after the show. One of them was my favorite selection from their library: Lips Like Sugar. At the end of the show, and at the end of each of these two encores, McCulloch threw cigarettes (unlit, thankfully) into the audience. Not sure why, but there were plenty of folks smoking outside the venue afterwards, and they were probably pleased with the gifts. I guess that was interaction, Bunnymen-style.

These experiences, all of which took place on our first evening in Santa Cruz, were a collective harbinger of the week to come. As I will write in the next entry or two, the Ink and Skin: Word Made Flesh experience of Santa Cruz was intense, but in the end pretty much impenetrable. Just as the lights and sunglasses obscured these performers, we would find that many of our experiences, from surf shops to coffee shops, were more confusing and less engaging than we had hoped. Fortunately, there were lessons to be learned, which I will begin to share in my next post.



Guest Post: Sarah in Boston

IMG_1819My daughter Sarah was my partner for our trip to Boston. She took lots of photographs, which I hope to get posted soon. The following is her “guest post” about her Ink and Skin: Word Made Flesh experience in Boston.

Tattoos are a very interesting concept. They permanently ink your skin with a picture, words, or whatever someone has the desire to get. Some people get them because they think they are tough looking, or that they make them look cool. Other people get them because they want something that will be a constant reminder of a memory or a person. When I agreed to be my dad’s (amateur) photographer for the trip to Boston, I knew what he had in mind for the whole “tattoo stories” idea, but I didn’t know how much would actually happen. He had told me about how people would “open up” about the stories behind their tattoos.

I have a fondness for tattoos, just as my dad does, but in a different way. I want to get them, he likes hearing the stories. When we got on the train, we found a woman in the observation car sitting and reading a book. My dad had already started up a conversation with her when I walked in, and he had told her about his idea. She started to talk about people that she knew that got tattoos to commemorate family or friends that they had lost.

When we arrived in Boston, we went to the Seafarer’s Mission, which allowed for us to talk to some of the people that worked in and around the ships. It was there that we met Julia, who was a dockworker.. Julia probably had the most interesting tattoos that I have ever seen on someone. My personal favorites were the cats that she had tattooed on her hands. IMG_1608As we talked to her, we found out that most of her ink was dedicated to family members and friends, many of whom she had lost. She explained that she had lost a lot of people in her life, and tattoos were her way of remembering them. She had stories behind every one of her tattoos, some serious, and some rendering, “I went to a shop that didn’t do as great of a job on this idea that I had, so I had it covered up with a giant Aztec-like black bar. I told myself I would never get a tribal tattoo, but looks like I ended up with one.” IMG_1613Julia described tattoos not only as her way of commemorating people, but as an addiction. She loved getting tattoos, and that they were her way of expressing herself.

When we came back the next day, we talked to a guy named Kevin, who was another dockworker. Kevin’s storytelling was really the one that opened my eyes as to what my dad was talking about. All we did was ask him about his tattoo on his forearm, and he opened up and told us all about the story of his mother’s passing. IMG_1621He told us about the struggles that not only she went through in her battle with cancer, but also his personal struggles during and following her death. It was amazing that someone that we had never talked to before would be so open about sharing that kind of personal information, simply because we asked about his tattoo. Before then, I had never really witnessed what my dad was talking about when he introduced the idea of people opening up and sharing when asked about their tattoos.

It’s amazing how much a pattern of ink can mean to a person.

New England Seafarers Mission

IMG_1753The New England Seafarers Mission is located right on Boston Harbor at the EDIC Pier, where cruise ships are docked for loading and unloading. The pier alternates between a lull of anticipation and bustling busyness. Shortly after 9:00am, returningIMG_1750 passengers exit the ships after spending a week to the north, in beautiful Canadian destinations, or to the south, in the warmth of Bermuda. Receiving these sea-legged travelers are the longshoremen, who haul their luggage to the taxis and buses prepared to take them across the harbor to Logan Airport, downtown to their hotels, or back to their hometowns.

The last of the buses and taxis has barely left the pier area before a new wave of vehicles arrives with those who are ready to be loaded aboard the ship for its next journey to one of these destinations. The process is reversed, but the actors are the same: bus/taxi drivers, longshoremen, and passengers.

IMG_1760The mission is located at one end of the pier, which is also the location of an elevator that is used to transport handicapped and/or special needs persons aboard ship. As this elevator serves as a portal to international destinations, a MassPort officer and a cruise employee are on hand to check passports and tickets before allowing them to depart. The officer agreed when I suggested that his job was better than the jobs of those serving across the harbor at Logan Airport: these people are all happy to be returning from a great vacation or preparing to embark on one.

Meanwhile, the employees on the cruise ships have precious little time to accomplish important tasks. On this particular Friday, the  workers–who are of a wide variety of ethnicities and nationalities–have gotten paid.  That means their first priority is to send money to their families back home. Second, they may need to purchase a few items to bring back to their quarters on the ship for their next hardworking journey. Third, these international employees find that purchasing items online in the United States is sometimes cheaper than their home countries. To take advantage of these savings, they need a mailbox service for receiving these packages, which will then be loaded into their quarters.  Finally, they need a spot with WiFi to catch up on email and social media.IMG_1604

In addition to  spiritual counseling, the New England Seafarers Mission provides for these needs. There are three levels to the mission: level one is a convenience store that stocks, among other things, many international snacks. My daughter Sarah was amused by the banana-flavored marshmallow pies. Level two houses  MoneyGram and postal services, and level three is the internet cafe as well as the counseling office. When I described this multilayered mission to the on-duty MassPort officer, he was impressed and said “It’s about time someone did that: find out what people need!”

For the past 17 years, Steve Cushing has served as the chaplain of the New England Seafarers mission. For about the past 15, NESM has used the model described above. Steve and I were part of a Leadership Cohort, sponsored by a Lilly Grant and facilitated by several pastors in the Evangelical Covenant Church. When I told Steve about Ink and Skin: Word Made Flesh, he told me that tattoos were one of the best ways he’s found to open communication with young international seafarers. I asked if I might come out for a visit, and he enthusiastically agreed. Sarah and I visited in early June, and I’ll be posting some of our discoveries, right here, in the near future.

Amtrak: Omaha to Boston

IMG_1801By the time we boarded the California Zephyr at Omaha, some of the passengers had already been traveling for two days and two nights. Omaha to Chicago would be the final leg, and the train was running late (I’ve been told by an industry insider that passenger trains still take precedence over freight trains IF (and that’s a big IF) the former is on-time. If not, the freight can’t wait). What I’ve often found on Amtrak, as opposed to other forms of travel, is that people remain civil–even polite–despite delays. This politeness, unfortunately, doesn’t always mean good hygiene. After a couple of days without a shower, some folks could really use one.

In general, people on trains are much more open to conversation than they would be elsewhere. To be sure, there are plenty of folk who are tethered to computers, tablets, and phones. But the dining car is an example of how train travel is different. They seat you with people–people whom you’ve never met before! For some this may be a nightmare, but I found it fascinating to hear people from vastly diverse demographics getting to know one another. Sharing more than just the weather–sharing themselves.

In the observation car, I sat next to a woman from Wheaton, Illinois (When I mentioned that Wheaton is home to some of the best-roasted coffee on the planet, we discovered that we both know Pete Leonard, the entrepreneurial artisan roastmaster at I Have a Bean. Her children had participated in some of the junior high activities Pete and his wife led at their church. Small world!). She asked where and why I was traveling, and I told her a little bit about Ink and Skin: Word Made Flesh.

Part of my story with I&S:WMF involves a conscious choice to try to meet people with an attitude of curiosity rather than judgment. The woman in the observation car responded with a great example of each: on the one hand, she believes that people who are on economic assistance programs should not be getting tattoos. Together, we noted that this is a judgmental statement; a sweeping, abstract comment about a large group of people. While the judgment may or not be fair or correct, it’s a statement that is unconnected to a face and/or a story. Secondly, she shared about someone she knew who chose to have a phoenix tattoo to represent the life she was leading – a life filled with recovery from difficult circumstances. Here was an example of a real person with a real story, represented by a tattoo that symbolized the real life she was living.

While we were still talking, an older gentleman and his wife sat next to us. Noting the tattoo on his arm, I said, “That looks like it’s been there for awhile.” He agreed, and then shared that he had served in all four branches of the military, including some time in the Korean War. He showed me several other tattoos, which represented these different branches of service, along with his name.

Judgment doesn’t get us to the story, but curiosity opens the door to hear who the other person truly is. Judgments categorize, but curiosity can catalyze a conversation that goes deeper than skin. “I like your ink – is there a story?”