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.
Let’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?”