Saturday, March 3, 2012

Marks of the cross that don't rub off

Tattoo representing the Fourth Station: Jesus
meeting his mother
As mentioned previously, I'm a tattooed person. Not heavily so, but I've got 'em. I also have, after quite a lot of observation of other people's tattoos and their explanations of why they got them, developed a schema regarding the central elements of getting a tattoo:

1) Placement: where does it go on your body, and how is it aligned?
2) Significance: what is its meaning, and how well is that conveyed?
3) Aesthetics: how good does it look, in the end?

These are weighted differently for different people, but they're all important. Discount any one of those three, and you're on your way to a bad tattoo. A highly meaningful, beautiful tattoo will very likely still be regretted if you get it in a place where you might later want to hide it but can't, or it doesn't work with your body. A beautiful tattoo in a good place that means nothing to you might be just fine if you're already covered with other tattoos, but if it's your only one or one of just a few, you might later wonder why you bothered getting it. A tattoo which is very important to you and in a good place but looks bad will leave you regretting that you didn't choose to represent such a significant thought better.

With regard to meaning, it's cliche that you shouldn't get the name of a significant other tattooed on you. It's tempting fate, practically foretelling the end of what was previously considered a rock solid, everlasting case of true love. I would even say that in most cases it's probably not a good idea to get text tattooed on yourself, though there are exceptions. The name of a deceased relative or your child is probably pretty safe-- the deceased relative is gone and cannot change (though I suppose you could discover something horrible about them posthumously, the likelihood of that seems small) and whatever happens with your child, he/she is still your child.

What about....your religion?
 In a hip, artsy, area of Houston, a hip, artsy pastor is taking an unorthodox approach to Lent.
Standing in front of his congregation at Ecclesia Church, a congregation he admits is different - more diverse, more urban - than many evangelical churches - Chris Seay encouraged them to do so something he said combines the ideas of sacrifice and devotion that mark the Lenten season, the 40-day lead up to Easter. 
He asked them to get tattoos. Specifically, he asked congregants to get a tattoo corresponding with one of the Stations of the Cross, the collection of images that depict scenes in Jesus’ journey to his crucifixion. 
“The tendency we have as Christians is to skip past Jesus’ suffering,” Seay said in an interview. “Not only do tattoos come with a bit of suffering, they are also an art form that has not fully been embraced.” 
To help with the project, Seay enlisted Scott Erickson, artist-in-residence at his church. Erickson designed 10 distinct Stations of the Cross tattoos, leaving out four stations that Seay said changed in context when you are asking someone to get something permanently drawn on their body.
So, not just religious tattoos (though those are numerous, in most religions you can think of as well as plenty more). Tattoos encouraged by your pastor, within specific parameters, applied by your church's artist-in-residence. The article doesn't say which four stations of the original 12 Stations of the Cross were left out because they change in context as tattoos, but I'm guessing "Jesus is stripped of his garments" is one of them.

It's up to them, of course, but it doesn't sound like the best idea to me. First, because people have been known to change religions, or deconvert entirely. Second, because even if they don't change religion, they might leave this church. And if they do, they would leave it bearing a very specific mark that ties them to every other member of the congregation who likewise decided to participate in this. Third, because that's a whole lot of constraint on the design and aesthetic quality of the tattoo that they might not have chosen for themselves otherwise. Individuals opt to get tattooed ritually-- that is, to make a religious ritual out of the experience of getting tattooed itself-- all of the time. But to make a proposition of such to a congregation on the occasion of Lent seems...well, pushy. Like some people might feel encouraged to get a permanent mark etched on their skin as a signal to pastor and/or congregation of their commitment, rather than as a signifier to themselves as individuals of the meaning of Jesus' sentencing, suffering, death, and resurrection.

Other people can argue about whether getting a tattoo in the first place is fundamentally irreligious. I don't believe it is. It seems to me that if people do something for the sake of religion, it can't be irreligious by definition. I also don't care to play No True Christian and take a side on whether it's doctrinally appropriate for believers of the Bible to get tattoos (though there are comments on that in the article itself if you wish to play). The pastor (Seay) says he has dissuaded some congregants from getting tattoos after announcing the idea, though the article doesn't discuss why.

The standard objection to tattoos is "How is that going to look when you're old?" I'd say a much more important concern is "How are you going to think about that if/when you become a different person, or when others do?"

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