A recent Guardian article said “a fifth of all British adults have now been inked (as contemporary usage has it).” It’s not just sailors anymore. The survey said 29% of 16- 44 year olds have one or more tattoos as opposed to only 9% of Over 60s.Celebrities are leading the charge to the tattoo parlour with the likes of Wayne Rooney, David Beckham, Robbie Williams, Amy Winehouse, and Angelina Jolie decorating their birthday suits with all sorts of words and pictures.
Why? Well, the tattooist interview by the guardian gave this explanation:
“A tattoo gives you something to live for. Why do you get up in the morning? To wear grey, to have your life ruled by train timetables? A tattoo offers you something personal and fun and exciting in a world that can be drab and grey. People’s souls are crying out for that. Tattoos are great for finding out more about yourself, for meeting people, for getting up in the morning and looking in the mirror and thinking: look at that! A work of art, in progress.”
Now, what interests me is not the increased popularity of tattoos, or discussing the wisdom of putting something permanent on your body, but the terms in which this answer was given. The guy is effectively preaching a gospel of body art. Forget the proposed solution for a moment and listen to the need he is describing. People crave meaning in their lives. Something to get them out of bed in the morning, something to live for. Many feel that the world and their lives are rather dull and pointless. They know somehow that things have faded, that they should be much newer and brighter. Then there is the aching need to know who we really are. Some trace their family tree back in search of identity while others reinvent themselves and become “the new me”. And what do we do if we don’t like who we see in the mirror? Even if we think we are doing ok, few want to stay as they are, but grow, develop and change for the better.
This tattooist has seen a recurring need in the hundreds of people he has coloured in over the years; the desire for meaning, beauty and identity. People get tattoos, he says, because they are looking for meaning. Sometimes they are purely decorative but often it means something important to a person; A girlfriend’s name, a baby, a symbolic crane for long life and wisdom, places people have been, (apparently in the 1800s sailors had a tattoo of a turtle done to show they had crossed the equator), and so on. My guess is that the permanence of tattoos helps express something significant in a person’s life. T-shirts are too disposable and diamonds too expensive and limited in their semantic range. Tattoos on the other hand can say anything with a sense of strong permanence. *
With so many souls crying out for meaning in a fallen world, it’s worth considering whether tattooing is the complete answer. Interestingly the article says that 23% of adults regret having their tattoo and that tattoo removal (which is more painful and very expensive) is almost as big a business as tattooing itself. Is it really delivering in the way people expect? Does a picture on your arm fill the void of meaning in your life or change who you really are? Can a butterfly on your shoulder or a dragon on your back brighten up a world dulled by so much sadness and suffering?
Some people trust in a gospel of shopping, some believe the promises of salvation through fame, while others trust in the old favourite money to help make sense of life. “Gospel” means “good news” or “great announcement” and most adverts herald their particular product as the answer to life’s ills. The truth is though that meaning and identity are not really found in these things and their beauty is fading.
Personally I have looked in many of those places for answers but have found that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the one that truly delivers where others fail. I have found meaning in an eternal relationship with God that will endure long after my body (and any tattoos I decide to have) has rotted in the grave. I have a new identity in Christ and “the new me” is day by day learning to live out of who I am. All the stuff I don’t like about myself has been dealt the death blow on the cross of Jesus and is passing away. Everything I aspire to be is being formed in me as I become more like Jesus. There is a way to go but God will do it!
My new word for beauty is “glory”; The visible, shining excellence of who God is. One day this world will be lit up with God’s glory. Every stone, tree, brick, and person radiating his magnificence as everything is made new. God spoke the first creation into being with his word and it was good. He redeemed the second creation with his blood and it will be glorious beyond description.
Shopping, tattoos, food, friends and even fans may have their place but surely the answer to the cry of the human heart is found in anther gospel – That of Jesus Christ. He has a tattoo – it’s on his thigh and reads “KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS”.
* another thought – I remember a strong feeling of wanting to express myself as I grew up. There was something I wanted to get out in art or programming, or music but never managed. I wonder if some of that is because we are made to worship. To creatively, powerfully, deeply and loudly express our love and adoration of the Lord Jesus. It’s like being born with a 1000Watt speaker but not knowing what to play into it. Since becoming a Christian that deep urge seems to be satisfied in worship. Just another thought.
PS. 9th Sept 2010 Rick Warren has just twittered this “The Cross’ nail scars are Jesus’ love tatoo for u:”I’ve engraved YOU on the palms of my hands” Isa49:16 He CANT FORGET you!”