I got my first tattoo when I was serving as the youth director at a small Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee, Florida. The teenagers in my youth group pooled their money and paid for it themselves – much to the chagrin of many of their parents and most of the elders of the church.
Somewhere in my travels, I had seen an image of a Jesus fish designed to look like a crown of thorns, and I couldn’t get the image out of my head. I decided that it was exactly what I wanted, and shared it more than a few times with the kids in my youth group.
Back in the late 1990s, not many youth pastors had tattoos. In those early days, I got into more than few arguments with Christians I encountered who believed I was violating God’s law by getting ink. But over time, like my tattoo, those arguments faded. Now, the tattoo serves as a reminder of those early days of ministry.
My second tattoo happened because of a documentary I saw on TV about how pilgrims to the Holy Land in the Middle Ages would often get a tattoo of a Jerusalem cross in Jerusalem to prove they were there.
Some of the most incredible experiences of my spiritual life have happened during my several trips to the Holy Land. After I returned from my second trip, I decided to mark my pilgrimage by getting a tattoo of a Jerusalem cross on my shoulder. Every time I see it, I am reminded of those pilgrimages and what they meant to me.
My third tattoo (I know – some of you are saying, “You’re kidding me, right?”) happened because of a challenge with my church two years ago. I challenged my congregation to break the 130-year-old attendance record for Easter by surpassing 800 worshippers. If we did, I promised to get a tattoo of the church’s cross logo on my leg.
Well, they broke the record, so I got the tattoo. A local TV station documented the whole thing from start to finish. I told the reporter that my getting the tattoo of the church’s logo on my leg was a sign to my congregation that I was all in with them. They would always be a part of me.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the spiritual and theological implications of body art. There are a number of books that have been written on the subject. One that was helpful to me was “Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community” by Margo DeMello.
DeMello writes about how many individuals “seek to express and reclaim themselves” through the act of getting a tattoo. It may express an aspect of themselves that they feel is repressed by society or that lacks public expression. Almost all people who express themselves through tattoos want to tell the story of the art.
In other words, they want to “bear witness” to their journey – whether it is spiritual, physical, emotional or theological.
I believe that tattoos have become a more ubiquitous part of culture for the millennial generation, free from the taboos their parents and grandparents may have held on the matter. I also believe that for many Christians, tattoos have become a way of bearing witness to God’s grace, mercy and constant love for them – signposts for their journey.
Leon Bloder is a preacher, a poet, a would-be writer, a husband, a father, a son, a dreamer, a sinner, a pastor, a fellow-traveler and a failed artist. He is talentless, but well-connected. He stumbles after Jesus, but hopes beyond hope that he is stumbling in the right direction. Leon has been married to Merideth for 22 years, is the father of three awesome boys, and serves in ministry at the First Presbyterian Church of Eustis in Eustis, Florida.