A year ago at this time, I was fresh from completing graduate school. Ink wasn’t drying on a diploma—that would come the following month—but was scored into the skin of my forearm. It was my first tattoo and it will not be my last and I will not tell you what it means.
O.E. Parker, in Flannery O’Connor’s story “Parker’s Back,” could not tell you exactly what the Christ-figure on his back meant to him. He couldn’t even see it, which was the reason his back had remained the only part of his skin without a tattoo. But like Parker, I felt that same sensation for desiring a tattoo. The one that finds you “turned so gently in a different direction that he did not know his destination had been changed.”
So, why a tattoo? Why, like Parker, experience the pain associated with it, even if it was “just enough to make it appear… to be worth doing”? As a kid, I thought tattoos to be the indulgences of people with other vices. They were on the arms of the addicts and alcoholics to whom our church ministered. People who would stand and curse at my father during the Sunday service with outstretched green arms. I saw them with the same coiled eyes of Parker’s wife Sarah Ruth, as the “vanity of vanities”, or the sin of sinners.
Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz-Weber, herself tattooed, flipped my perception of tattoos—“[h]uman bodies carry stories, and some people choose to carry those stories on the outside.” Grad school was ending and life was irrevocably headed in a new direction. Third child in tow now and a possible continental-sized move a-comin’. A longer road lay ahead, but I had been pivoted. So, I carry a story, now, on the outside of my body.
But why get a tattoo with a meaning I won’t share with those who ask? It’s not for not wanting too. You can use my son’s spy book to understand the symbols. But I can’t explain to anyone why the bread and wine doesn’t just taste like bread and wine.
Parker’s attempt to win the love of his wife, by getting a tattoo he believed she would find meaning in, ended with him being beaten to tears by Sarah Ruth and called an idolater. In a gesture of sacrament, I stretch out this wordless story as I write. Because, as O’Connor has said, “If it’s a symbol, then to hell with it.”