On Tattooing

At Yale, my favorite class was my senior seminar with all the other Religious Studies majors. We read canonical works on the definition of religion and ritual theory, supported each other on our senior theses, and frequently caught up over kosher meals at the on-campus Hillel. We celebrated turning in our final papers by nailing the front pages, Luther-like, to the front door of the department. We even nicknamed ourselves “RelStuds” – which, while an apt shortening of our major, perhaps belied how cool we were.

One of the things I most valued about that group was the diversity of perspectives we brought to the table. We each had a distinctly different touch point with religion – some of us aspiring to be priests or rabbis, some of us fascinated by ritual and meaning-making, some of us investigating the intersections of church and state.

I remember being particularly struck by one classmate whose senior thesis focused on Christian tattooing. She looked at the interpretation and theories of tribal tattooing and applied these to modern-day biker tats. This topic completely bent my brain. First, I found it such a paradox that tattooing (which, at the time, seemed radical and edgy to me) could carry the message of Christianity (which seemed conservative and traditional to me). Further, her whole approach reframed tattooing from the artistic to the spiritual, from the arbitrary to the meaningful, from the ephemeral to the enduring. Instead of being an impetuous act of youth, a tattoo could be a lasting, unyielding reminder of a core value or purpose. Instead of being something which one might regret, a tattoo could be an essential reminder in the future. I feel in love with the idea of tattooing as an act of inscribing life lessons onto one’s body in a way that could never be lost or forgotten.

I first thought about getting a tattoo immediately after I graduated, but it took a full five years for that first tattoo to come to fruition. I’ve learned, after a few sessions under the needle that coming to the right tattoo takes time. Each of my tattoos represents an insight, experience, or value, inscribed upon my body with thought and consideration. Because of this tie to my life and my development, I can’t plan ahead from them. Instead, as life progresses, I sometimes get the feeling that a tattoo is coming (almost of its own volition), and, over time, the reason and design unfold before me. I have to let them happen instead of declaring that “It’s now time to wrap up that life lesson and write it down!” As you probably know, that’s not how being a human being works. Instead, I surrender to the tattoo.

Since that first tattoo in 2008, I’ve had three more, each at an utterly unpredicted and completely perfect moment in time. This past weekend was my most recent addition. After dropping Liz off at the Denver airport, I knew what I had to do. I drove to Boulder, found a tattoo shop on Yelp, and was soon sitting down with my new friend Sam. Being a bit squeamish, I always need to find the stronger person inside of me to make it through the tattooing process, but I once again proved that I can be braver than expected when it’s really needed.

Now, the ‘charm bracelet’ on my left wrist is one step closer to encircling it, with a newly drawn dot and flourish trailing off to the left. Perhaps someday we’ll talk about all the meanings. But, in the short-term, it’s another step in life, never to be forgotten.

With love,
Meredith

The dark ink is the new tattoo, adding onto the line of the old piece, which you can see to the top left.

The dark ink is the new tattoo, adding onto the line of the old piece, which you can see to the top left.

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