Tattoos are everywhere these days. According to pew research in 2010, nearly 4 in 10 millennials had tattoos. And half of those have 2 to 5. Generation X isn’t far behind with 32% having been inked.
So it hardly makes me unusual to be a millennial with tattoos.
I am also a Lutheran pastor, but I am by no means the only pastor with tattoos out there. In fact, if I had to guess about the pastors that I hang with, we might be more tattooed than average. And there is of course that famous tattooed Lutheran pastor, who has also written a few best selling books and even been interviewed on national radio here in Canada.
I went under the needle for the first time in the summer of 2006. Part of me is hopeful that I was ahead of the mainstream 10 years ago but I am sure I wasn’t. I was working at a bible camp at the time, and I remember having long talks about the implication of being tattooed. It would need to be a christian image, but not a cross. Every rapper had a cross tattoo by then (and rappers are a bad thing to the kind of young adults who work at bible camps). It would need to be in a place I could cover with clothes on a regular basis so that I could be a proper pastor (I was already a seminary student by then). But I also wanted the opportunity to show it off now and then. An original artwork Jesus fish on the back of my calf seemed like the best option.
That first tattoo made me feel cool. The comments of my co-workers, the kids at the camp, and my seminary classmates that I returned to that September made me feel ‘edgy’. Don’t laugh, it was 2006.
In 2009, I was ready to be ordained, and I hadn’t really thought about my Jesus fish much for a while. Then a church called me to be their pastor. My family told me to make sure I wore pants whenever I was working (as opposed to?), which I laughed at. But I was worried about what my new congregation would think if they ever saw my “edgy” tattoo.
And then the very first council meeting I was to attend, was also the day the uHaul was available for me to move into the parsonage. I drove up to the house only a few minutes before the meeting and sure enough I was wearing shorts on a hot summer day with my clothes still in boxes. What would these pious church folk think?
No one seemed to notice enough to say anything. So nothing?
That church had called me despite the fact that I looked like Hagrid from Harry Potter, or a giant dwarf from Lord of the Rings. My proportions are of someone with short legs and a squat body, except I am 6’2. And I had long hair and a beard at the time. A little calf tattoo was the least to get past when it came to my appearance.
After that I didn’t ever worry about my “edgy” tattoo.
But then unusual things started happening. I played slo-pitch in a Lutheran league, to which I usually wore shorts. Often players from other teams would comment on my Jesus fish. A number of times when other players found out that I was a pastor, they would think it was cool. They had never met a pastor with a tattoo (one they had seen).
For years after, I always wanted another tattoo, but I got my first on a lark at the one tattoo shop open on a Saturday in the small town near the bible camp. Going about getting tattooed in a serious way seemed like a lot of work.
Then life put another tattoo on the back burner. New calls to new churches, marriage and a baby.
For our 3rd wedding anniversary, my wife and I started talking about tattoos – yes, a bit of a stretch for the “leather” anniversary. And we wanted them to be seen. Somewhere that would regularly visible.
Courtenay got a peacock feather (we had a peacock feather themed wedding), and I got a lion of St. Mark with a greek bible verse (I am a pietist at heart and a church nerd).
So for the last 7 months I have had a tattoo that is visible the majority of time (I a
m almost always in short sleeves or rolled up sleeves). And as Justin Trudeau says, “Because it is 2015” I really didn’t think much of getting a tattoo, even as a pastor. My congregation largely didn’t notice either – bless them. A few said they thought I always had it, after I used it as an object lesson in a children’s sermon. Others have asked about and admired my lion.
Yet, outside of my usual group of church people, unusual things have started happening again.
Most of the baptisms I do are for families who are seldom active in the church, but have returned for whatever reason to get their child baptized. For this reason, I have opportunity to invite myself into the homes of unchurched or de-churched people in order to talk about Jesus. I have been doing this for 7 years and I always thought it was going well. But something changed once I had this big lion tattoo on my arm. People started relaxing more quickly, I didn’t have to make 10 jokes just to put people at ease. These poor young families with a pastor intruding in their home to talk about Jesus started to sense that I am a real person. All it took was a tattoo to break the image of christian judgement robot that pastors often have on TV.
My second tattoo is a wedding anniversary gift and it makes me think of my wife every time look at it (the greek bible verse says “the Kingdom of God is near”, and my wife and kids make me feel as close to paradise as I have ever felt).
But I never expected that my tattoo would also be a tool for ministry. I never thought it would humanize my clerical collar… that it would make the person in the shirt a person and not a caricature.
I never thought that when I rolled up my sleeves halfway through a conversation about baptism with a young unchurched mother who was getting her baby baptized for her mother-in-law that she would say,
“You have a tattoo! Is that okay for pastors to have?”
And then we would get to have a great conversation that makes Jesus, christians and the church seem reasonable.
A few weeks ago, I got my 3rd tattoo on my other forearm. A birthday present from my wife. An elephant for my son, whose constant companion day and night is a little stuffed elephant named Pete.
The day after I got it, I presided at a funeral. Funerals can be awkward for pastors as there are usually a lot of people and you become a momentary figure of importance on a small scale. Since they watch you lead worship, people feel like they know you, but you don’t know them. Some are friendly, but many people avert their eyes when you come strolling into the lunch. Either way, when you are the one in the collar, people react to you with different levels of comfort. Some see you as a friendly and safe person, others are wary or unsure.
As I was mingling before lunch, a women passed me, averting her eyes … which landed on my tattoo. This stopped her and she began asking about it. We then shared a brief conversation about where I got it, which opened the door to more conversation about the funeral itself. My guess is that this woman have likely avoided me, but the tattoos were an opening. Still, for those whom the collar is safe and friendly, that hasn’t changed. I am still a safe person to approach.
A few weeks later, I met a de-churched young couple coming for pre-baptismal preparation before worship. I was wearing my vestments, which cover my arms. They seemed nervous to greet me. But following worship, with my vestments off and my arms uncovered, I could see the tension and nervousness leave the couple. My tattoos made me seem more human and relatable.
Tattoos and Collars
When I made the decision to get inked with permanent body art, I did so because I wanted to. It wasn’t about ministry at all.
But in some ways tattoos are like clerical collars.
Becoming an ordained pastor or getting a tattoo is a deeply personal decision. When you put on a collar you are displaying publicly an important and personal part of yourself. Everyone who sees you knows important and personal details about your job and about your religious beliefs.
Tattoos function in much the same way. Tattoos are personal symbols and images on public display too. Everyone who sees your tattoos is given an image of something that is likely personal and meaningful to you.
When I wear a collar I embody a symbol that carries a variety of meanings to the people I meet. Symbols that range from spiritual caregiver to pedophile.
When I am just a guy in street clothes with tattoos, I embody an entirely different symbol to people. Symbols that range from millennial hipster to Hell’s Angel.
When I wear both, two symbols that have traditionally not mixed before come together.
And the thing I never expected about wearing both – a collar and tattoos – was that they would would humanize and tame each other, and they would together open doors that neither could on their own.
If you are in the Winnipeg area and looking for a fantastic tattoo artist, check out Tattoos by Coral.