Friday, November 1, 2013

Why We Get Tattoos

I got my first tattoo when I was 19. Like many young Americans raised in Christian homes, I wanted something that would set me apart from stodgy conservatives but also ingratiate me to the young badasses I was now surrounded with at the University. The obvious middle path: Christian tattoo!

At that time, various artistic renderings of the Cross had been all the rage among my peers, but were now on their way out. Words or phrases in biblical languages (Greek, Hebrew ... but not so much Aramaic) were totally in. Not entirely sure whether the first era had passed, I opted for yet another middle path: a cross inscribed with the Koine Greek words for "Live" and "Love".

We often hear that tattoos are statements of identity. I believe this is only partially true. Any coward could pay someone to ink the Roosevelt coat-of-arms on his shoulder without exhibiting an inkling of courage or moral character. But what would drive a young man to do such a thing is the desire to move from his current reality into a greater one.

The tattoo is an indicator of the transitions we desire to make, from one identity to another.

As a Laker fan, I recall being perplexed by Kobe Bryant's "religious" tattoo following the rape allegations in 2003. It depicts a crown and angel wings and a reference to an Old Testament psalm. Bryant had never been known for being very religious (as is still the case), so a seemingly Christian tattoo wouldn't make much sense if we hold to the idea of ink being reflective of current character. It makes much more sense if we see it as an illustration of a transition he hoped to pass through in his own life: from unfaithful to faithful; from sinner to scripture-bearer; victimizer to vindicated.

But why a tattoo? Why not a new car or a haircut? I believe it is because tattoos carry with them two elements we seem to desire in times of change: Permanence and pain.

In the face of change, we desire permanence. Change is uncomfortable, so in order to tackle this discomfort, we seek out something that will not change. Because the tattoo indicates the desire to progress from an inferior state to a superior, we desire permanence on that higher plane.

In the face of change, we subconsciously seek out pain. Most humans understand that pain is necessary to attain a higher quality of life, to move us from addiction to recovery; amateur to professional; busboy to boss; chump to champion. A great deal of suffering is endured by anyone who achieves greatness.

And so the tattoo offers, at least for the moment (and rather cheaply), exactly what we desire in a time of transition: pain that leads to permanence. And for a little while, it's thrilling. But after two weeks to a month of being stoked, many of us awaken to the realization that the coveted transition has not been made at all.

Seldom is the tattoo itself truly a catalyst for change.

Our tattoos then merely memorialize the impasse. Whereas the pain of the needle is physical and momentary, the kind of pain we have to undergo to change our character -- and become better men and women -- is spiritual, daily.

My tattoo failed to make me a more life-embracing, more loving Christian. But just as I bear the mark of desire to become a better man, I also bear the responsibility to see that it comes to pass.