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I was 18 when I got my first tattoo. I was sitting in my small Christian college dorm room and I knew that I was ready to get ink. I had known what I wanted since a mission trip in middle school where I first felt called to urban ministry. I gathered my friends and we drove to the parlor, making this middle school dream finally come true.
I remember the juxtaposition of my cheery pink sweater against the heavy metal music in the shop. My friends held my hand as the artist tenderly talked to me and as he tattooed a small cross and Jesus fish on my inner left ankle. That moment was painful, exhilarating, and it opened me up to the world of body art.
My parents come from an era where only a “certain kind” of person got a tattoo. When I came home and showed them my new piece of art they were hospitable, even though I know I was pushing the boundary of their idea of “what kind” of person gets a tattoo. I told them that this wouldn’t be my last tattoo. They loved that (sarcasm), but I was right; this college tattoo, conceived on a middle school mission trip, opened up the door for many more pieces of body art.
I look at tattoos as a living journal of my pilgrimage. Would I get a cross and Jesus fish today? No, it’s too cliché. Yet was it important to me in my adolescent years? Yes. I don’t regret that piece of art because it tells the story of where I was, who I was, and my process and progress along the way. Body art is a way of knowing who I am.
One of my favorite quotes from John Calvin is: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves” (Institutes, Book 1, Chapter 1). When I ask a tattoo artist to permanently imprint a piece of art on me I am choosing to express a piece of who I am and who I believe God is. I view ink as part of my spiritual autobiography.
I love tattoos and I love New York City. When I discovered this video a couple years ago it has been on repeat since. It’s short, so you will have enough time to read this and watch the video. Let me pull a couple quotes that capture my attention.
- New York City is such a living breathing entity unto itself. No matter what culture these artists are coming from, New York is a place to find common ground.
- They are creators and they need to create and tattooing is just one part of it.
- Tattooing is one of the most ancient art forms in the world. So you want to always be growing in your art but you never want to forget tradition.
N.Y. Adorned “Tradition” from Evan Owen Dennis on Vimeo.
Do you have tattoos? In what ways do they tell your story? Or maybe you don’t have a tattoo but if you were to get one there’s something you know you would get. What is it? And how does it connect to your story?
Thanks for this. I'm not "that kind" of person – : ) – but your thoughts gave me a new perspective on and appreciation for why people get tattoos. I was particularly struck by the reference to the "power of permanency" in the videos. That's what makes me skittish about tattoos, I guess, but I hadn't realized (duh) that for other people this permanency is a very beautiful thing.
Hey Abi! Thanks for offering your thoughts. I've had a few people tell me that this helped them understand the beauty of ink for some. I appreciate your comment.
The peace and joy of Christ be with you,