Earlier this year I wrote about a planned event at our church to discuss tattoos.
I wrote, “A tattoo is a permanent story, a story so important that a person is willing to bear that story forever. Yet so often, those stories remain untold, ignored, dismissed. I was struck by how deeply personal and meaningful most of the tattoos were. They represent sobriety, loss, hope, memory. They celebrate relationship, success, triumph, and love. They are a mirror for a person’s sorrows and joys. Some are playful, some are dense, some are lovely, some are jarring — but they all have a story.”
Several people have asked how that night turned out. It was rather amazing, actually. Eleven people showed up, and of those eleven, exactly one person had a tattoo. She was very gracious as she shared the story behind a unique tattoo just above her knee. As the only one in the group who could speak from experience, she was also our de facto expert on whether or not it hurt (well, yes, but not too much), how long it takes (depends on the design), and how much it costs (ditto).
What happened next was the amazing part. Those ten people without tattoos launched into stories and stories and stories. There was the story of the guy who is on the bone marrow donor list who would love to get a tattoo, but you cannot donate marrow for a year after being inked, and he didn’t want to risk missing the chance to help someone when the need arises.
There were the stories of the social worker whose clients had a variety of DIY and prison tats, who regret the impulses that now mark them as they try to walk new life paths.
There was the story of the marathoner who imagined a tattoo to celebrate her accomplishments in spite of race officials’ boneheaded decision to label her class as “The Clydesdales.”
We thumbed through the book “Permanence: Tattoo Portraits” by Kip Fulbeck, and discussed the stories of Holocaust survivors, those who connected with their ethnic heritage through ritual tattoos, those who rediscovered the beauty of their bodies after cancer surgeries.
The conversation was full and lively. We all left more enlightened, a little more playful, a little more thoughtful than when we’d gathered.
Some of those folks have since told me about how much more they notice the tattoos around them, and of asking people they encounter about their tattoos. Because of a night of stories, they now see beyond the pictures to the person. And that, finally, is what matters.
• Reverend Sue Bahleda is pastor at Resurrection Lutheran Church