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Tuesday, April 12, 2005
Along about the fifth inning of the Giants game on Saturday, the kid in front of us took off his shirt. On his back was the outline of a cross, scapula to scapula, cervical to lumbar vertebrae. The extremeties of the cross were scalloped. I'm guessing it's a style with a specific name, and I did several google searches -- "cross glossary," "cross types" and so on -- and couldn't match the shape. My wife thought she'd seen crosses of a similar shape on rosaries. I don't suppose it matters, but the Internet does make you think there aren't more than three degrees of separation between you and every fact under the sun.
In the middle of the cross were the words Galatians 2:20. Many years ago I was familiar with the epistle to the early Christians in that part of what is now modern Turkey, but I'm long past remembering particular Bible verses. Galatians 2:20 was actually the first thing I looked up, even before the shape of the cross, because the guy had a pale scruffy White Power look, and I was curious to see if I was being invited to consider a piece of anti-Semitic scripture. Or anti-female. Or just patriarchal.
Galatians 2:20 is not such a verse. It's pro-Jesus, not compelling to an old lapsed Christian like myself but not irritating either. I remember being told when I was young that if you could but get an unbeliever to read certain verses the gospel would pierce their hearts. I recall the notion was that God would prepare certain hearts at certain moments, and you never knew when the susceptible moment and your proselytizing would intersect. That was why we were supposed to carry our Bibles to school so that the curious would inquire or the scornful would scorn, in either case giving us the opportunity to share a verse or two. John 3:16 was the verse of choice in these situations, and still is judging by the signs you see waved at the camera at athletic events. There was supposed to be a special moment, you see, and if through your timidity that moment was lost, then let the eternal damnation of that soul be on your conscience. That did not particulary concern me since my understanding was that there were no bad consciences in heaven, only eternal bliss. It did, however, seem somewhat unfair that God would prepare hearts to receive his message only at certain moments. Why not intrude into human hearts perpetually? Why intrude selectively? The subtleties of the operation of salvation always puzzled me.
Still, taking your Bible to school was one thing. Having your back tattooed seems quite another, a rather bold upping of the ante. That's a real commitment. Going back on your faith after having your back tattooed -- that would be turning your back on your back. That would be foregoing your tribal identity.
That's how I think of tattoos, as an act of tribal identity. That's why young people with extensive tattooing of any kind are objects of my concern. When I was 17 or 18, I certainly wouldn't like to have chosen a certain set of pictures to be bolted to the walls of my life, as it were, for the next 60 years. Tastes change. Tribal loyalties change. Even faith can change. Not so good an idea, I'm thinking, to lock in your identity so early on. I'm not talking about a butterfly on your shoulder blade or a nice "AFT" for American Federation of Teachers on your left buttock -- which would also be quite a sly little joke as well as a union label. A discreet tattoo would be the kind of ontological nuance a supreme court justice might be pleased to have. What worries me is using your body as a canvas at a time of your life when your taste -- which at that age is more a series of impulses than actual taste -- is still evolving. How will these gaudy impulses play out? If I were in my early 20s, rather than a tattoo I would get a video camera and do a hundred interviews with a hundred emphatically tattooed people my own age. I'd keep in touch with my subjects, and every seven years or so come back to them and try to determine the degree to which their tattoos have limited or burdened them.
Or liberated them. Possible in the short term. But it's the long term that intrigues me. We are a fluid culture. We aren't snakes. We can't shed our skins.
I'm imagining. It's a hot day and look at the beautiful woman in the turtleneck with the long sleeves. A tattoo is more than a bikini wax. You have established a new status quo.
If it's a verse you want, how about Ecclesiastes 3:1?
To everything there is a season.
In magic marker, I think, which washes right off.