A recent pair of Christian Century articles talk about tattooing, its mainstreaming (is it possible that almost one in five Americans are tattooed? Really?) and the Christian response/ perspective. One article (by Tim Keel, emergent guy and pastor of Jacob's Well) is more of a "surveying the landscape" of tattooing and the kinds of tattoos Christians might get (a cross?). The other article, by Beth Felker Jones, a biblical scholar, offers some scriptural perspective and a challenge to the notion that tattoos are a "witness," suggesting there are other ways to show that we have been "marked for life" by Christ.
About ten years ago a good friend celebrated her 40th birthday by getting a tattoo-- a wolf, just over where she was guessing her ovary might be. I remember thinking that it was quite a cool way to celebrate that landmark, and wondering if I might not do something like that... kind of edgy.
A few years prior to that, I was swimming frequently at a local gym. As a result of that habit I was being confronted regularly with what I now recognize was my discomfort at being in the presence of women in various states of undress. One woman particularly intrigued me because of a tattoo she had: a thin ring of ivy around her ankle. I thought it was beautiful and quite alluring. At the same time, I couldn't quite see my way to making a plan to get one myself.
I have been thinking about these articles and memories this week, and it finally hit me that I have one memory of tattoos that goes back even further. I was 18 or 19, and I was in college in a big Northeastern city. I was, for the first time in my life, enjoying the kind of adventure and freedom that a small town girl experiences when she leaves the nest. I went to foreign films. I ate Chinese food for the first time (hilarious in retrospect... now as ubiquitous as McDonald's). I rode the subway. I saw homosexuals up close.
One night I was riding the subway, I assume with a friend, but I might have been on my own. We were going into the city-- to a concert? Play? Movie? Those specifics are lost to me now, but the following memory is vivid. Sitting across from me were two young women whom I figured out pretty quickly were lesbians . They didn't look any older than I was. They were dressed in a way my children now might describe as "goth" or "indie." They had lots of chains, and really short hair, and piercings in places I'd never seen before. And they both had the same tattoo-- a tattoo of a small chain, circling the fourth finger of their left hands.
I remember feeling a kind of stirring in myself... I was not, at that point in my life, prepared to seriously consider that I might be a lesbian, despite the fact that I'd known myself to have "those feelings" for other women at least since the age of 13. Still, I had this stirring, which I would describe as a mixture of desire and fear and longing. And the impossibility of it all. All because of seeing those tattoos.
I wonder where those young women are now, now that they are middle-aged lesbians? Are they still together (which, of course, would seem to have been the intention behind the tattoos that functioned as wedding rings)? Or, as with so many college-age relationships, are they each but a fond (or awful) memory for the other? And what do they feel now about marking themselves so dramatically for one another, for their love, in a world that was at least 25 years less willing than it is right now to acknowledge and celebrate it?
For what and whom would I be willing to so mark myself?