CHICAGO, IL (June 15, 2016) — While body art has been around for millennia, it wasn’t too long ago that in our culture tattoos were primarily the domain of sailors, bikers, or those with an adventurous or rebellious streak. But now tats are now a popular form of personal expression for people of all ages and walks of life.
I have a ship on my right arm. As someone who has a tendency to talk a lot (too much?), I wanted a constant reminder of James 3, where our tongues are likened to a rudder on a large ship. It’s the reality of how such a small part steers the entire body. Our tongues have the power to curse someone or to bless, and I hope to be someone who does the latter.
I have one tattoo of the word for aphaeresis, which comes to us via Latin from the Greek aphairesis, meaning “to take away.” It’s also the process for collecting stem cells for transplant. I was a donor for my sister during her cancer journey with Hodgkin’s lymphoma years ago. It was a deeply personal, challenging process and I was grateful for the opportunity to be a part of her journey.
On my other forearm I have the Chicago skyline bookended by my kids’ names, which are Lincoln and William, named after Abraham Lincoln and William Clark. I chose actual signatures of each of those men to use for the tattoo. My boys were born in Chicago, and though we live on the West Coast now, Chicago is near and dear to our hearts!
After hearing North Park chaplain Judy Peterson speak at CHIC 2015, which I attended as a small group leader, I decided on my second tattoo. She told us that every single high-school student, staff member, counselor, and volunteer in the room had sinned—and, like Judas, each of us has sold Jesus out for something better. My tattoo is based on Luke 9:51: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Jesus set his face in one direction, ste¯rizo¯, to continue his journey. The cross I designed represents my renewed commitment to seek Christ in the interwoven fabric of my life. It reminds me that I am fixed on the cross yet moving forward with God’s calling in my life. I incorporated a true north arrow as a statement of my desire to seek God’s purpose rather than my own.
Coming from a Midwestern conservative Christian family, I spent many months wrestling with the traditional value system regarding taboo expressions of faith, such as tattoos. My parents were not thrilled with the idea. Because both of my tattoos are visible (on my foot and upper back), I have had many beautiful opportunities to talk about a personal Savior with complete strangers—opportunities that my introverted personality would not otherwise have found. My favorite thing about Christian tattoos is the way they confront religion with relationship.
Growing up in central California, with a really strong skateboarding and punk rock culture in 1980s and ’90s, I was around lots of people with tattoos. Ever since I was eight or nine, I knew I wanted a lot of tattoos.
In 1994 my grandfather bought me a plane ticket to CHIC, and, lo and behold, I met Christ there. As a new Christian, my sense of Christianity was that it plays a countercultural role in the world. So tattoos never felt like a contradiction to me.
My grandfather used to call me at five in the morning to read me David Nyvall quotes. More than once, he would end the conversation saying, “That’s your inheritance.” I knew I was going to be a pastor, and as a student at North Park, I got a Jesus fish on my ankle that I designed. It was a natural part of my faith development and the art and music I was into, and it was the way my heroes expressed themselves. So of course it was how I was going to mark myself.
In the summer of 2011, I got the Covenant logo. That was the summer after my grandfather died, so I got the Covenant cross in connection to him. It isn’t so much “I love the Cov”—rather, the significance
is the inheritance I received from him. For me, every one of my tattoos is significant and represents life. It’s about being who I am.
When I saw that three of my colleagues in ministry had tattoos of the Covenant logo, I knew I wanted one. But I was looking for work at the time, and even looking outside of the ECC. So when I was hired by my current church—Community Covenant in El Cajon, California—I wanted to celebrate being able to “stay in the family” and got the tattoo I had wanted for nearly a year.
La Mesa, California
I wanted to mark a season of grief and loss in my life, and I had been considering a tattoo for a few months. Then I heard the song “Blackbird” during the closing credits of a movie. The intense beauty of the words resonated with me—it was this moment, this season of grief that was allowing me to arise, to be free. I searched for images of blackbirds in flight but couldn’t find what I was looking for, so I met with a local tattoo artist. She took what I was imagining and put it on paper—and then on my arm!
This tattoo isn’t just a blackbird, it’s a blackbird with its head up, its wings spanned. It is “flying into the light of the dark black night.” As I continue to grieve, I now have a reminder of what this loss has meant to me, a reminder of who I am and who I want to be. When I see the blackbird on my arm I know that although grief has propelled me into darkness, it’s a darkness that bears something of light, something of hope.
I have several tattoos—each one a simple, black outline. My favorite is a tiny rhino on my right wrist. It’s more than just an ode to my favorite animal. It is a reminder that God asked us to protect his planet. The rhinoceros is a powerful animal, yet it is vulnerable to humans who seek to do it harm. It is a reminder that we humans have a duty to those in need—to step outside ourselves and work to create a better, safer, and kinder world.
Many Christians are surprised when I respond to questions about my tattoo stories by simply saying, “They’re art.” There may have been some deeper thoughts in my mind circulating when I got cascading leaves on my left forearm, or a sprawling octopus on my right. But first and foremost, they are simply art for art’s sake.
What’s the meaning behind them? Well, what do they mean to you, the viewer? Plants, animals…God has already loaded these dynamic creations with plenty of meaning, depth, and story on their own that we as his children can appreciate. God’s creativity in nature is a gift to us—and art is a gift as well. The representations on my body simply point to those meanings, and that’s enough story for me. The rest is up to you.