Guest commentary by Kurt Esslinger
I first started thinking about getting a tattoo in college. I knew I didn’t want to take it lightly, whatever symbol I was going to choose. I told myself that if I ever decided what I wanted and the place I wanted to put it, then I would think on it for three years first. Then, after three years, if I still wanted it, I knew that I would be happy about it as a permanent part of my body.
So, after an experience studying in Glasgow, Scotland, for a year, learning the Scottish Gaelic language and studying Celtic civilization, I realized that the tree of life was a very powerful symbol for my understanding of spirituality. While in seminary at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, I decided that I wanted that tattoo on my arm; so I sat on the idea for three years. Seven years later, I realized that I was well past my three-year time and still wanted the same tattoo in the same place. I was finally making enough money to go through the process, so I sought out an artist. I found Tine DeFiore at a studio in Chicago, and I liked her other work on plants and floral designs. Also, she was a coach for the Chicago Riots, a women’s flat track roller derby team; I was volunteering as an official for the Windy City Rollers at the time, so the derby connection sealed the deal choosing her as an artist. Then it took four sessions (about two hours each) full of pain and healing, and every moment was worth it.
I chose the tree of life because it spoke to my spiritual understanding that everything is connected, life and death, the secular and the divine. I learned in my Celtic civilizations class that the most common understanding of the tree of life was to honor the concept of eternal life in Celtic spirituality. The roots represent death and the branches represent life. Having them connected affirms that a spiritual part of us continues on after death, that our existence is not severed. I also learned of the Germanic/Nordic World Tree, known as Yggdrasill and its relation to the Celtic tree of life. I saw a new layer of meaning in some representations of Yggdrasill where the tree is connected to Asgaard, the land of gods, and to Midgard, the land of humans. I saw in this the Psalm 139 sense of God’s divine presence being connected to everywhere throughout our world. “Where can I go from your presence? Where can I flee from your spirit? … If I go to the heavens you are there. If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.” It now serves as a reminder that wherever I go, I am connected to God’s divine presence. I could be on the top of a beautiful mountain where it is easy to say I feel the presence of God. I can also be in the middle of a city, present in the pain and suffering of the discarded and overlooked, and there God will still be present suffering alongside us. Every time I notice my tattoo, I am reminded of this even as it peeks out from under some of my shorter-sleeved shirts.
I was a campus minister at University of Illinois Chicago Campus at the time I got the tattoo, and I remember talking to my board of directors about it. We talked about how it probably wasn’t going to turn away anyone in this generation of young adults, but would mostly likely make other connections that otherwise would have been unapproachable. After three years, I actually never had a specific moment where a connection was made through a conversation about my tattoo. I have the feeling that – especially in Chicago – tattoos are a completely non-issue and not exciting enough to start a conversation over anymore! This was fine since that was not my intention in getting the tattoo anyway. The only time I did have a conversation with someone about my tattoo was with a student connected to the Catholic ministry on campus. He found out I was an ordained campus minister, and he commented how it was cool that I was willing to still wear shirts that reveal my tattoo, I suppose as a way of saying that I own my past of deviance. He was a little surprised when I told him it was a tattoo I received after I had been ordained for a year.
When applying for the job as mission co-worker in Korea, I knew that the tattoo could be an issue and we talked about it with our Asia-area coordinator, Mienda Uriarte, before I accepted the job. I had studied for a year in Seoul, Korea, at Hanshin University during seminary, and I was already married to Hyeyoung, a Korean, before applying for the job. I was aware that Korea is still very uneasy about tattoos, and especially the Korean church. There is still a prevailing sense, especially among older generations, that tattoos are associated with gangsters, and they don’t make the connection between the Leviticus codes about wearing cloth of two fabrics and the one about making a mark in your skin for dead people. There have been some changes recently with younger generations seeing their favorite athletes, actors and musicians getting more and more tattoos, but I knew I would need to keep it covered for most of my job. I actually went out and bought a week’s worth of raglan baseball sleeved shirts (that come down just past the elbow) that I can wear in summer and not be horribly hot. They have served me well. Slowly, some of the students at Hannam University (different from Hanshin) have learned about my tattoo. From them we have learned that tattoos are slowly becoming a non-issue in Korea as well. Since elders and pastors in their church are not quite there yet, I continue to keep it on the down low so that I can continue our ministry there without ruffling too many (a few is okay) feathers.
I still love my tattoo and have also had a couple more symbols on my mind for future additions, but for now it is just the one.
KURT ESSLINGER is a mission co-worker for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in South Korea and co-coordinator of a Young Adult Volunteer site there.