Why Body Art?

In an attempt to find some consistency with writing, I’ve decided to start a few series. The one I’m beginning today will be on the different tattoos I’ve collected over the years (the most recent addition happening yesterday).
It seems appropriate to start with the Why. Why did I start getting tattoos at 27 years old, and why do I continue to do so? Details behind the motivation and meaning of individual pieces are to come, but for now let’s get a little philosophical shall we?

I believe there are three main reasons people don’t get tattoos. First, the pain. This is indeed a factor. However for most people I know the actual pain was not nearly as bad as they expected. Once you have one or two and realize it’s no worse than a sunburn, this is no longer a deterrent. Second, the permanence. So many people tell me they just can’t come up with something they want to commit to for the rest of their lives. To these people I say absolutely do not get a tattoo. You’ll know when the right idea comes along. Third, moral issues with tattooing. This I completely respect and have no need to talk anyone out of their convictions.

The big Christian arguments against tattooing that I’ve heard seem to branch from two verses. First is found in the Old Testament book of Leviticus, in a list of rules that mostly pertain to the worship of other gods and spirits. The verse says “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourself. I am the Lord.” I’ll save you a long explanation about the book of Leviticus teaching a slave nation about what is holy, what is common, and what is profane and the implications of each. I will just say that everything about the context of this verse says to me that the tattooing being done here was a way to worship the spirits of the dead. God longs for His people to know who they are and who He is, and these other beliefs are so contrary to truth that He has to draw hard and fast lines in order for them to understand the dangers and embrace the good. They were literally weeks out of having been slaves in a polytheistic nation that worshiped their Pharaoh as a god. They had no idea how to exist as a monotheistic nation of their own. We see evidence of them practicing all sorts of acts of “worship” that degraded them and their God. His instruction was intended to teach them a new way.

The other argument used against tattooing comes from a letter written to a rather dysfunctional church in the first days of the Church. The verses read: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” Now I’ve heard this verse used to condemn smoking, gluttony, and tattoos. However the deeper issue is that this verse is written in the context of warning believers to not engage in sex with pagan temple prostitutes. The people in this church are new to monotheism, new to everything about this belief system they were adopting. Their old system, and really many religious systems throughout known history, melded sex and worship of deities in all sorts of interesting and despicable ways. This was not the way of following Jesus. Temples are for worship, not for sex. And temples are no longer places we go, but part of our personhood and what makes us new creations in the world. God’s Spirit mystically, inexplicably finds a place in the soul of every person following Christ. This indwelling makes us the temples of God. As such, we are called to use our bodies to love, care for, respect, serve, and worship. We are to use them to do the things Jesus did with His.

I appreciate the sentiment of my tattooed Facebook friends who proclaim proudly they are “decorating their temples” with their pieces. And this is actually part of the reason I’ve continued to get body art. I’m surrounded by images of what the world is telling me is considered beautiful, and many of these attributes are beyond me. I’ve spent many a day with friends lamenting this lumpy bit or that gray hair, and my heart breaks for the women I know who actively despise their bodies. Bodies that have carried children into the world, created amazing food in the kitchen, climbed impossible mountains, survived terrible diseases. While I will likely always struggle with the ways in which I don’t fit, don’t measure up to, don’t qualify based on definitions of beauty around me, body art allows me to choose for myself what makes me beautiful. Each image marks my body with something meaningful that was created by an artist to convey a significant aspect of my journey. I’ll continue to wrestle with true definitions of beauty and femininity and attraction, but along the way I will also continue to adorn my imperfect body with images that I hold to be both beautiful and true.

Which leads me to the second reason I have for continuing to add body art. One of my artists refers to tattoos as life markers. For me they are like the boundary stones Israel was instructed to erect in the Jordan river as they crossed over to the promised land. God told them to choose twelve stones, representing the twelve clans, and to erect monuments with them so that future generations would know that God had done a miracle for His people. Each of my tattoos is a boundary stone, a reminder of a miracle God has done for me. They keep me from forgetting that my God is still active, still real, still engaged with li’l old me.

In the coming weeks I want to share with you what those miracles were, how they continue to impact me today. I want to be able to tell my future generations the story of God leading me through the desert to a promised land. These small pictures are the stones I have followed to this point in the journey, and I look forward to the many I might add as years roll on (assuming my pain tolerance holds up).

1 Comment

  1. Tatooless said,

    July 27, 2013 at 2:50 pm

    Interesting article Mandy. Always enjoy your point of view.


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