Tattoos and Theology

"Help Lord" tattoosA few weeks ago we attended an emerging church in downtown Philadelphia. The music was amazingly fresh, the message was timely and relevant, the worship stations around the room were spiritually inviting, and the multi-generational audience was a blessing. At one point in the service, my spouse leaned over and said, “I think I am the only one in the room over 18 without a tattoo.” It was that kind of crowd. Lots of folks with art on them – on their bodies, in their jewelry, on their clothing, and in the ways they expressed themselves physically in creative manners.

I hate to admit it but some of these folks would have a hard time fitting in as “normal” in most mainstream/main street churches in America.  I have pastored some of those churches and attended many where folks living counter-cultural in how they express themselves would likely feel out of place.  And I have watched some of those same creative folks try anyway – just because they were so desperate to find a community of faith where they could connect to others on the journey and with God.  I have also seen folks cover their tats, take off their piercings, and hide who they are as much as possible to “fit in.”  Most are not willing to do it – and they should not be asked to.

Younger generations in America – and many older folks as well – express themselves through their bodies.  They ought to feel at home in church.  Unfortunately many churches turn up their noses to this generation by frowning at their clothing, their piercings, and their tats-and even their theology.  Many churches claim an inclusive attitude but still frown at folks who are being “too expressive.” 

However, faith communities are popping up across the country and from a variety of denominational and non-denominational roots where just about anyone could be at home.  Many of them are trying new and exciting things that are attracting younger generations – through music, missional experiences, use of technology, and being places of inclusion and grace.  Churches that refuse to make room at the table and in their hearts and lives for a variety of different people who are expressing their understanding of who they are in artistic and creative ways will find themselves diminishing in numbers. 

Tattoos are more and more common.  One in four adults from age 18-50 has body art today.  Many of those have multiple tattoos—many covering large portions of their bodies.  Some express their faith, others their family situations, some their love lives, and still others display significant transitions or occasions in their lives.

Up until last year, I was employed in a seminary that was a tough place to be.  I was “downsized” and began looking for a new position.  When I found a new job I wanted to celebrate this huge transition out of a place where I was not valued and was even treated badly.  I searched for ways to show my joy at leaving a bad situation and finding a place where my gifts were being valued and my worth was being celebrated.  My decision – I got a tattoo.  It is a rainbow peace frog on my ankle.  I was 48 and got my first and only tattoo.  It expresses my joy, my love of self, and my celebration of a new phase in my life.

But the first time my multicolor frog giving peace sign tattooparents saw it they were – to say the least—surprised.   They did not understand, even though several of my younger family members already had tats.  I do go places where I definitely might not flash my tat around, but I am proud of it.  It means a lot to me.  My best friend took me to her tattoo artist to get it done.  It was an amazing experience and says a lot about how I feel about myself.  But at the same time, I know there are places where and times when showing off my tat might make others uncomfortable.  There are even some tats I have seen on others that made me a bit uneasy, however I understood their desire to express themselves.  I also knew that some might question my professionalism by having a tat, but it is part of me. 

I am a beloved child of God.  I am a person of faith.  I am a lover of justice.  I am a person who loves the radical inclusivity of Jesus.  And my tat is all about that—it is about peace, justice, grace and inclusion.  My theology and my tat are in sync.  And the church should welcome both.