I have three tattoos.
I guess it says a lot about our relationship that I waited until my mother was on the ground in Africa to tell her that when she sees me in a couple of weeks, I will have two more tattoos than I did when I left Memphis. My mom really doesn’t like my tattoos. She refers to them as “those things” or, my favorite, “bruises”. My mom and I don’t argue about much, but when we do, the permanent ink markings on my skin usually come up in the conversation. Unless they are the center of the conversation, which also happens a lot.
I think I get it. Some tattoos do look tacky. And some communities don’t really welcome them. Almost everyone I know in Orlando has tattoos – teachers, preachers, therapists, administrators, lawyers, doctors, pastors, pastors’ wives, mothers, fathers, friends, etc. Almost no one I know in Memphis has tattoos. I guess they are still kind of taboo in the South.
I love my tattoos. My first tattoo is on the inside of my left leg. I got it when I lived in Berkeley, CA almost 10 years ago. It is the logo of the church I attended there, and I got it the week after I flushed my Clonopin for the last time and stopped abusing prescription drugs. I also got it on my left leg because that is the ankle I broke in high school that had to be reconstructed from other ligaments and tendons in my body. It’s my weak leg, and it’s a constant reminder that I can still walk on weak legs.
I got my other two tattoos at the same time. One is on my left wrist and is says, “Do Right”, in cursive. My grandfather, and this tattoo is my constant reminder of his love and presence. He died five years ago this coming November. Of all the things he used to instill in my head, the loudest phrase was “Do right.” He never asked me to be perfect. He never asked me to not be me. He just asked me to always do right by others. The tattoo is on my left wrist because PawPaw was a left handed artist and pitcher. I love that it is in cursive because while he paid for me to attend classes at Memphis College of Art as a kid, he also paid for me to go to etiquette classes after school and learn “how to be a lady”.
The third tattoo is on the inside of my right arm. It is a simple arrow, but instead of an arrow shaft there is a line of Hebrew that reads, “I am a Samaritan woman.” This is my favorite of my tattoos. A few months ago, I preached a sermon for the first time. That alone would have made me laugh in disbelief even just a year ago, but what made it really crazy was that I was preaching in a jail. The passage I chose was John 4:1-46, which describes the encounter Jesus had with a Samaritan woman at a well. I talked about how I related to that woman – feeling alone, worthless, lost, and abandoned. I talked about how I related to her shame and how she almost mocked Jesus when he introduced himself to her. When I finished delivering the sermon, I looked up from my notes to see a room full of crying women. A woman named Solo spoke up and said, “I am a Samaritan woman.” Another voice rose saying, “I am a Samaritan woman, too.” I will never forget that day, and I will never forget what these women teach me every week. John 4 ends with that Samaritan women sharing her story with others so that they can experience hope. My tattoo reminds me to get up every day and do just that.
Kids love my tattoos, too. I don’t really think about my tattoos much, because they are just a part of me now, but I love babysitting or having a playdate with a friend’s child because they are so enamored by the black markings on my skin. My friends’ daughter, Bailey (age 3), came over to my house today and after we went swimming, we came back to my apartment to “play movie theater”. I put in Finding Nemo, popped some popcorn, sliced some apples, and we cuddled up on the couch (which Bailey said is “very cozy”) to watch Nemo’s dad try to find him in the big blue ocean.
Half way through the movie, I realized Bailey was staring at my arm tattoos and running her fingers over them. She seemed mesmerized – like she couldn’t tell where the tattoos ended and I began. She never said a word, she just rubbed my skin with the tips of her little fingers and smiled.
Most of my clients have tattoos, and when I am doing an intake session I usually break the ice by saying, “Tell me the stories behind those.” It works every time. Even the dumbest looking tattoos have a story. If the story is that the person got drunk on college spring break and got matching unicorns on his or her butt cheeks because his or her friends did it, it is still a story. I may not immediately connect to everyone who walks into my office, but I can connect to a good story.
I got my last two tattoos at the same time. I really enjoyed the experience because I had done a lot of research on where to go here in Orlando, and when I went in I was the only person in the shop. The tattoo artist/shop owner is also a paint artist and he does beautiful work. I had met him before, but didn’t know much about him until now. When you are strapped to a seat for over an hour while someone imprints black ink into your skin, you have three choices: you can learn a lot, you can talk a lot, or you can stare at the wall. I decided to learn a lot, so we started to share our stories. And this guy had quite a story. When I asked him if he ever refused to tattoo people, he said “Sure. Last week a guy came in wanting a swastika on his face. I told him I wouldn’t do it and neither would anyone in this shop. He pulled a gun on me. I still didn’t give the guy the tattoo.”
I know a lot of people don’t connect with tattoos and that’s ok. I don’t understand why some people monogram everything from their towels to their cars. Is it that hard to remember what belongs to whom? But when I see someone who has tattoos, the only assumptions I make are A) They have a high tolerance for pain; B) They believe in something enough to have it permanently applied to their skin; and C) They have a story to tell.
These three assumptions are certainly true for me, and I am happy to share.