Tattoos are Revolting

My friend, Marc, wrote this piece a few years back. (You might know Marc Ostlie-Olson from his guest theologian appearances at Skinner's and Shamrock's. Or from his juggling at Wild Summer events, or maybe as a pastor at Saint Anthony Park Lutheran). He gave me permisson to include it.  

An Incurable Wound

But we, little fishes, after the example of our ΙΧΘΥΣ Jesus Christ, are born in water, nor have we safety in any other way than by permanently abiding in water...”

Tertullian - On Baptism (193 A.D.)

My tattoo is revolting.  I mean this in both ways.  It turns out that I am among the human beings of the world whose bodies react poorly to some of the metal salts used in some of the pigments for some of the inks that people pay other people to stipple into their bodies with an electric needle and no small amount of pain.  Red, specifically, and the mercury that provides the color.  And my tattoo, located on the inside of my right forearm was drawn with a lot of red.  So now, while others’ ink remains submerged beneath the smooth surface of their skins, my salmon’s swirly body ripples and surges upwards, its red parts pushed by the stubborn flow of my alerted immune system as it attempts to clear the stream.

Three years ago, while living in Seattle and on internship (a great time, btw, to get a tattoo), I went ahead and transformed a watercolor I’d painted the year before Dane was born into a tattoo.  I spent a fair amount of money and several days of discomfort in late spring having the bright colors and smooth lines of a spawning sockeye salmon injected into the deepest layers of my skin by a chunky and dazzlingly drawn-upon woman from Wisconsin called Erica.

I wanted to have an icthus, the ancient Christian code-symbol, but not so abstract as the two-line kind that you find on bumper stickers and devotional jewelry.  The scandal of the incarnation is the scandal of particularity.  It entails complexity and resists abstraction.  Witness to this scandal and this specificity can rightly be borne in the perishable and perishing (and complex) body. I chose the salmon for its particularity (each species has its own river) for the dramatic and self-sacrificial life cycle, and for its ongoing significance as a not-fully-understood metaphor for my own journey of faith.  I had it engraved in so visible a spot on my body so, like the coptic crosses tattooed on the right-hand wrists of some Egyptian Christians, it would do some talking.  It did.

I had envisioned a spawning salmon, but perhaps a bit earlier in its journey home from the sea.  The fish I intended to carry was to be further downstream than the one that buckles below my elbow and spots my shirts - more sleek and glorious and smooth and whole.  And for a couple of years, that’s what I had.  Today my poor tattoo looks scabby and ancient, like those battered and hook-nosed monsters in the nature shows, their skin and scales sloughing away against the unrelenting backwards blow of the river as they press on towards the headwaters of both death and life.  It’s revolting, but it’s still mine and it still speaks.

When you inscribe a metaphor into your skin, it doesn’t cease being a metaphor, even when things go bad.  And when your metaphor is theological, it doesn’t cease being theological, even when it itches and cracks and bleeds.  Metaphors, if they’re worth their salt, are made of sturdier stuff than that.  I think theology, to be at all helpful or relevant, must be too.

My research suggests that I am experiencing what some medical professionals have dubbed “The Red Reaction” or “The Red Effect”, and what I believe many tattoo enthusiasts describe as “The Sucks-to-be-You Effect”.  The green and black portions of my tattoo are fine - smooth and detailed, while the red parts appear to have been traced by an angry toddler armed with a burning cigar and a scratch awl.  There is no topical cure for this histamine response, and laser tattoo removal is not recommended because it only breaks up and disperses the pigment into an already-inhospitable bloodstream. Surgical excision is suggested as an option.  Someday, when I have the money and time and nerve, perhaps a plastic surgeon will follow the lines of my red with one of those wire-loop pottery trimmer tools (though sharpened and sterilized) and replace the defeated tissue with scars.  In time, these will fade a bit.  For now, I carry a more or less incurable wound.

Though clucked at by some as a trendy (and vulgar) phenomenon, tattoos and their more primitive equivalents have been around as long as human beings have been self-aware.  To identify, honor, attract, or frighten, people in nearly all cultures have adorned their bodies with patterns of cuts and burns and drawings and paint.  Some even knock out strategic teeth and trim away portions of their genitalia. The markings and maimings of many tribal cultures often accompany rites of passage and rituals of initiation - life stages thought to entail outer transformations with the power to communicate inner ones.    

We may debate the benefits of the more extreme among these practices, the problem of their ambiguity, as well as the way they are often perpetrated on the unwilling, but they continue even into this postmodern age.  The emergence of tattooing and piercing into the mainstream of Western culture over the last decade comes from the same human urge behind the ritual scarification and ear cutting of the Maasai: to tell a tale and send a signal about what is personally and corporately true or beautiful or real.

As a rule, Christians don’t cut as part of our initiation rite; we drown instead.  Sometimes we even put babies under the water, joining them with the death and resurrection of Jesus as they scream and cry and don’t understand.  Usually its described as a bath or a washing, but that’s only part of the story and the symbol, and overlooks the fact that we also wash corpses.  Each of the sacraments has something revolting about it: the watery grave of baptism, the cannibalism of communion, the patent injustice of absolution.  We Christians are a funky bunch, and it’s not too hard to see why we can gross out the Unitarians and make our Muslim brothers and sisters so uncomfortable.  

We carry baptism as an incurable cross-shaped wound on our foreheads, traced not superficially, but deeply and permanently.  This cross is a foreign substance, and deadly as mercury, against which our natures revolt, but we bear it nonetheless.  It is a pattern and a wound, both inner and outer, that demands daily return, like a missing tooth or stinging scar that pulls the tongue or the touch. 

Our baptismal marking and maiming coincides with our inscription into the palms of God’s hands.  And though it will cost God pain and bitterness and itching and bleeding and maybe even some regret, God will not forget us, and we will not be washed away.  It’s terrible - revolting, even - but it’s also true.  And it’s beautiful.  And it’s real.

Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.  See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands...

(God, to the exiles.) Isaiah 49:15-16