Tatoos

To tattoo, or not to tattoo, that is the question. With apologies to Shakespeare, this has been on my mind lately.

I recently woke up from one of those dreams so vivid I knew I had to share it before I forgot the details. I texted our family thread (my wife, Sharon, and daughters Bethany, 23, and Lindsey, 20) this description: “This was the dream I just had: Lindsey runs up to me, excited about the new tattoo she just got. She holds up her wrist, so I can see it. It’s really small. It’s a picture of a man, from behind, as he leaps forward with his left arm cocked all the way back holding a basketball like he’s about to dunk it. He is leaping directly into the giant jaws of a great white shark. He is also Walter Payton, a legendary football player for the Chicago Bears. He is wearing his Bears uniform, complete with helmet. I stare at the tattoo for several seconds. I look at Lindsey and say, ‘Do you know who this is?’ She grins and says, ‘Nope!’ I say, ‘He’s wearing a football uniform and about to dunk on Jaws.’ She says, ‘So?’ Then I woke up.”

There’s a lot to unpack here. I’m left-handed. “Jaws” is my favorite movie. Both of our daughters know that Sharon and I are not huge fans of tattoos. But before I could try to work all of this out, Lindsey replied, “I’m actually getting a tattoo right now.”

She sent us a picture of it: “LOVE RADICALLY” written on her left forearm. I answered back that I would pay for her to have “CLEAN CONSISTENTLY” put on the right forearm. She declined.

In fact, Sharon and I have long told our girls that any tattoos they choose to get would be paid for with their own money. It’s a topic that, along with chores and the artistic merits of Justin Bieber, has been a source of tension in our family for years. My prophetic (and unheeded) dream warning seemed as good a time as any to once again ask the girls the burning question: “Why tattoos?”

Bethany is my eldest, yet still trails her little sister with only three tattoos. Her first tattoo was a simple line drawing of a bouquet of flowers with the phrase “sweet to the soul” next to it in cursive script. She said, “I have always thought tattoos were cool. I see them as artwork and a way to express yourself and permanently decorate the body that God gave you. The first one I got represents my favorite Bible verse which is Proverbs 16:24: ‘Kind words are like honey; sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.’ This tattoo is a constant reminder to myself to use my words for healing rather than for hurting.”

Bethany is close to getting her teaching degree. Her most recent tattoo is an image of flowers intertwined with a book. “This tattoo represents my love of learning and books, but also the growth that I hope to instill in every single future student of mine,” she said.

The first of Lindsey’s 11 tattoos was the phrase, “And if not, He is still good.” As in, if things don’t go the way you thought they should, God is still good. She said, “Tattoos tell you a lot about a person by what they have. By having mine, I’m reminded daily of how much I’ve grown and how much I’m loved by my heavenly Father. I have map coordinates on my arm to a community called Hato del Yaque in the Dominican Republic. It was my first mission trip overseas and it changed my heart so much. I also just got ‘LOVE RADICALLY’ on my arm while on mission in Costa Rica. I was on mission for five months and the phrase “love radically” has a whole new meaning to me. My job is to love radically how Jesus does no matter who it is or where I am.”

I think some of my personal aversion to tattoos is generational. At 50 years old, I still remember a time when tattoos were not nearly as prevalent and were often associated with negative stereotypes. Yet even as I type this, I am aware that many people my age and older have tattoos. Included in this group would be my own mother, Bea, who decided a couple of years ago at age 87 to get her first (and so far only) tattoo: a bumblebee on her forearm. Was this act purely self-motivated? Influenced by her granddaughters’ behavior? Or simply a way to needle her uptight son? This also remains a controversial family topic.

Ultimately, I think my leading question was incorrect. I think it’s better to ask, “To tattoo or not to tattoo? Is that an important question?” It seems to me the last couple of years have provided an important question for Christian families to consider.

Can our children accept that even when we disagree with some of the things they do or say, our love for them does not diminish the tiniest bit?

Whenever I’m tempted to make too big a deal about the tattoo issue, I remember one of my favorite Scriptures: “‘I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth’” (3 John 1:4). My girls love Jesus; this I know.

Bill Womack has been a member of Southeast Christian Church since 1997.