Take and Ink: Finding the spirit beneath the tattoo

As one of nearly fifteen million Americans currently out of work, I had an inordinate amount of time to spend outdoors this summer. Since New York was especially warm throughout the season, I escaped to the shore regularly (my smartphone in hand, of course, to aid me in my continual search for jobs).

And what did I learn on my summer vacation? A lot of young adults have tattoos -- and some have many.

Not being “inked” myself, I wondered what would lead so many to undergo the pain and permanence of this increasingly ubiquitous art form. It’s remarkable that a generation that struggles with commitments of all kinds would be so willing to make this life-long contract with their outward appearance. I am stunned by how many women and men have their entire arms and backs covered with colorful symbols, names of loved ones -- even religious images. It’s estimated that more than 25 percent of people in the U.S. under the age of 30 have at least one tattoo.

Decades ago tattoos carried a social stigma. Only thugs, longshoremen, and criminals wore them. Psychiatrists saw them not as art, but as a form of self-mutilation. Even some religious leaders argued that God hates tattoos, citing Leviticus 19:28: “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh on account of the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the Lord.”

Given the prevalence of tattoos nowadays, it would be extreme to reduce such a large percentage of the twenty- and thirty-something population to the category of sociopaths. It seems more likely that a new form of symbolic language is emerging. But this time the ink is written on the skin, rather than the scroll. All of these outward signs might be telling us something about the innermost desires of younger generations.

According to psychologist Michael Mantell, the top three reasons that people get tattoos are to represent a loved one (living or dead), to express religious belief (such as the images of crosses, the sacred heart, or Mary), or to celebrate patriotism (the traditional genre of military tattoos). There is a fourth reason: they did it because friends were doing it. Regardless of the motivation, young people, whether consciously or not, are turning to ink to express their beliefs and commitments.

While marriage is losing its symbolic power in our culture, the significance of inking a loved one’s name and face seems to be growing as a weighty testimony to committed love. As young people lose touch with the church-oriented rituals of death, they offer their skin as a place to honor family members and friends. The tattoo becomes a living memorial and an aid in dealing with grief.

The tattooing of religious images is especially intriguing given the declining interest in religious institutions and worship by young adults. It’s likely that many of those bearing inked images of the crucifixion, the Sacred Heart, or the rosary do not attend church regularly. Yet they believe that these images carry spiritual power, revealing meanings and realities that transcend our earthly life.

In this way, tattoos actually function as sacramentals because they are religious depictions adapted to respond to the needs and the culture of a specific generation. And of course, given the notorious pain involved in getting a tattoo, there is a resonance with the Medieval notion of undergoing corporeal suffering for the greater glory of God.

Those who get inked because their friends are doing it are probably motivated by reasons similar to those in the military. Tattoos mark a person as a member of a group that shares common ideas, goals, or visions. These symbols create community by using the body to symbolize a connection with a larger circle of brothers, sisters, or friends.

Tattoos, it seems, have become a meaning-making tool for a generation that has been deprived of community and has been raised in a world of religious symbols that, for the most part, no longer speak to them. Those born after 1970 are the first generation to grow up in a post-communal age. Though our parents still enjoyed the last vestiges of community -- living with or near extended family, being part of a church -- new generations, beginning with Gen X, have been raised in a world where most extended family members live in different cities or states and a large percent are unchurched.

This is a significant break with the trajectory of human social development. Before the 1950s, human beings lived in some form of a village (in most of the world they still do), such as a tribe, an ethnic group, an extended family, or a close-knit neighborhood. Individuals were supported and given their very identity by their community. Today’s young adults and adolescents have been raised in a world so individualized, they are forced to find and create their own identities.

The personal draw back to all of this individualized freedom is the limit it places on the possibility of being known. Young people are growing up not only in a post-communal society, but also in a culture where attentiveness to others is quickly eroding. It is hard to get anyone to listen long enough to finish a story without a cell phone, text message, or TV screen distracting the person’s already tenuous attention.

We are being deprived of our opportunity to fully communicate our hopes and dreams to others and we are losing our ability to be present to the needs and desires of those around us. Without this fundamental level of communication and presence, it is challenging for relationships based on mutuality to survive.

And perhaps this is where the true power of the tattoo lies: they offer a graphic, edgy way to express one’s individuality and uniqueness, but also one’s beliefs, joys, and sorrows.

A tattoo is a remarkable sign of human longing to be known. As communication moves away from words and reverts to a language based on images and symbols, this new form of language of offers a new way to reveal the person beneath the skin.

[Jamie Manson received her Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School where she studied Catholic theology, personal commitments and sexual ethics with Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley. A writer based in New York, she is the former editor in chief of the Yale magazine Reflections. As a lay minister she has worked extensively with New York City's homeless and poor populations. She is a member of the national board of the Women's Ordination Conference.]

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