cultural issues, stories, theological

On Grandmas and "Tattoo People"

I’ve been wearing the Greek word for grace on my forearm for 2 months now. I write it with a black ink pen, retracing it almost daily so that it doesn’t wash away. For now I’m content, but it may become a tattoo before too long. The picture here is a bit blurry, but you get the idea.

Last Sunday, my grandma was sitting next to me at the dinner table and, sounding alarmed, asked me, “What’s that on your arm?”

“Ink pen” I said, “It’s the Greek word for grace…used in the Bible” (as if my reference to the Bible would immediately assuage her concerns).

“Oh. Well, as long as it’s not a tattoo,” she replied. “I don’t like tattoo people.”

Wait a minute. “I don’t like tattoo people?”

Particularly coming from a woman who goes to church (and sits in the same pew) every Sunday and claims to read through the whole Bible every year, this irks me. I understand that, as my grandma, she comes from a very different generation and just wants the best for her granddaughter. Nonetheless, there are at least three questions I’d like to ask my grandma and others who say, “I don’t like tattoo people.”

1. Whose business is a tattoo really? (“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” – Matthew 7:1-2)

I find it interesting that my grandma (and mom too when she first noticed the word on my forearm) seemed concerned for my moral standing while she thought I’d gotten a tattoo but seemed quite at ease when I told her it was just ink pen.

This makes me wonder: What difference does it make if I write the word in ink pen or get it permanently tattooed? The difference is physical. An ink pen is temporary; a tattoo isn’t. An ink pen doesn’t have any potential health risks (as far as I know); a tattoo can (if done poorly, that is). I understand that physical choices can have moral consequences. But I think the moral consequences should affect only the inked individual, their relationship with God, and possibly their relationship with anyone they’re very intimate with (i.e. a spouse). Other than those people, it’s no one else’s business.

2. What does the tattoo say, anyways? Does it demonstrate love for God, for other people, and for one’s self? (“Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” – Matthew 22:37-38)

The word on my arm is the Greek word for grace. It occurs many times in the New Testament, but I take my inspiration from Ephesians 2:8-9, which says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast.” Grace moved into my life at the start of my sophomore year of college when I had a bit of a mental breakdown due to academic and extracurricular stress but heard friends, mentors, God, and God’s Word saying in unison: “It is by grace you have been saved…not by works.” Since that time, grace hasn’t moved out of my life. No, it’s unpacked, settled in, made its home. I’ve worked hard and I’ve failed hard, relied on good grades and relied on bad habits. But, because of grace, there’s nothing I can do to make God love me any more or any less. This is something I want to tell myself and tell others as often as possible. So, yes, I believe this potential-tattoo demonstrates love for God, for other people, and for myself.

3. When it comes down to it, does a tattoo change the identity of the person whose skin it is on? (“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” – Galatians 3:26-28)

I think, if Paul was around today, he could’ve added that there are “neither tattoo people nor non-tattoo people, pierced people nor non-pierced people, drinkers nor non-drinkers.” Yes, these choices are part of who we are. But they’re not who we are. In Christ, we are “children of God through faith.” Whether I have a bare forearm, ink-penned forearm, or tattooed forearm, I am a child of God through faith – not a “tattoo person.” To call anyone a “tattoo person” is to assign them a superficial, limiting label. And, as People of the Second Chance puts it, “Labels Lie. Don’t accept them. Don’t use them.”

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