Identity in Ink: Life Is a Journey, and Some Mark the Milestones with Tattoos

By Sanna, Emily | U.S. Catholic, December 2016 | Go to article overview

Identity in Ink: Life Is a Journey, and Some Mark the Milestones with Tattoos


Sanna, Emily, U.S. Catholic


I'm used to strangers stopping me in public. "What kind of bird is that on your arm?" they ask. "I've never seen a tattoo like that."

The tattoo in question is a small black-and-white chickadee--a couple of inches tall--on my right bicep. And I'm comfortable answering questions about what kind of bird it is, when and where I got it, and whether it hurt. It's the questions about why I chose to have this image permanently and indelibly drawn on my body that always throw me for a loop. Not because I'm unwilling or unable to reply, but because the answer means sharing something very personal about myself with a total stranger.

I got my tattoo after my grandfather died. The chickadee was my grandma's favorite bird, and my grandfather, a natural mimic, would often greet me with its call. The image on my arm is a constant reminder of my close relationship with both my grandparents.

But it's also more than that. It reminds me of where I came from--that my family is not just two grandparents but a whole clan of aunts and uncles and cousins, not to mention the other side of my family. Each has had a role in making me who I am today. My tattoo reminds me of the importance of living fully in my body--of being present and taking care of myself as a child of God. It reminds me that I'm connected to the chickadees of the world, as well as the rest of creation, and that we are all connected by the presence of God.

But how do I translate this--my relationship with my family, my faith, and my identity--into a 15-second elevator speech on the train or in the grocery store?

My tattoo, as simple as it is, reflects some of the deepest truths about me. And, without fail, the people I spoke to for this story all said the same thing: Their tattoos, overtly religious or not, reflect their identity, their relationship with God, and their journey toward something larger than themselves. Elizabeth Huff, a high school counselor in Atlanta, sums up the words I heard over and over again:

"I like to honor the places I've come from and how they've shaped me as a person. I use my tattoos as a way to remember important periods in my life as I move forward, in the same way that people create art. And yet, this is something I carry on me always, instead of something that's in a collection of poems or a portfolio. To me, that makes the meaning inherently more powerful; this is something I'm willing to carry on me forever."

A brief history of tattoos

Tattoos have been around for nearly as long as humans--about 200,000 years. Take Otzi, the "Iceman" mummy found in the Alps, who lived around 3,300 B.C.E. He had tattoos that are thought to have been treatment for arthritis. And long before any stereotypes about tattooed sailors or burly motorcyclists, there's the book of Leviticus. Tucked between prohibitions against "rounding off your hair at the temples" and making your daughter a prostitute is the following verse: "You shall not make any gashes on your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you" (19:28). Today, many Christians continue to use this as justification against tattoos or permanent body markings of any kind.

Perhaps partially because of Leviticus, negative stereotypes about tattoos still abound. As recently as 2007 a study found that women with tattoos were seen as less attractive and more promiscuous than non-tattooed women. In New York City, tattoo parlors were illegal from 1964 until as recently as 1997. According to an article in the New York Times, city legislators cited not only the risk of disease from unsanitary needles, but also the possibility that young people would forever regret a hasty decision to get a tattoo.

Apart from all the negative stereotypes, there is also a rich history of Christian tattooing. Coptic Christians, for example, have been marking their bodies with crosses and Christian symbols since the eighth century. Today, the Razzouk family, a family of tattoo artists in Jerusalem, continues that ancient tradition. …

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