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Icons of Meaning

Tattoos are an essential aspect of New Copernican spirituality. If reality is a verb, relationships best framed in story, and spirituality a personal pilgrimage, then tattoos are the road signs. Close to forty percent of millennials have at least one tattoo. Each represents a story to be told about oneself and one’s ultimate concerns.

Ancient cultures would often erect a monument of stone to commemorate a battle or victory, “raising an Ebenezer” or “stone of help.” Such was a communal marker. The David Crowder’s hymn states,

Here I raise my Ebenezer

Hither by Thy help I come

Oh, and I hope by Thy good pleasure

Safely to arrive at home.

My friend’s tattoo pictured above is Braille for the words “invisible reality.” Here emblazoned on his forearm is a secret code of his deepest belief from which he is daily reminded to draw his spiritual strength. It is a natural onramp to spiritual storytelling and says much about his sensitivities and priorities. He is public about his spirituality without being overbearing.

Today, we mark our significant moments of spiritual passage by going to a tattoo parlor. Our tattoos come to represent chapter headings in our spiritual pilgrimage for those who live lives of conscious self-reflection. It is not uncommon for a person to cry after getting their tattoo for it combines the deepest aspects of one’s identity, with the pain and uncertainty of one’s spiritual journey, with the reminder that the story continues.

Getting a tattoo is not fun—there is pain involved. Often there is a transference of one pain for another. The hours of painful meditation during the process is itself a healing process. The pain is therapeutic, even in some sense redemptive as it brings renewed meaning to the experience of suffering.

Project Semicolon is a movement seeking to present hope and love to those who are struggling with depression, suicide, addiction, and self-injury by having people tattoo semicolons on their body. They explain, “A semicolon is used when an author could’ve chosen to end their sentence, but chose not to. The author is you and the sentence is your life.” The journey continues;

Getting a tattoo for most people is not a whim after a long night of drinking. Rather it involves commitment, not unlike a spiritual journey: reflective decision-making, careful planning, financial investment, embodied pain, and public symbol. It is an icon of meaning into the deepest recesses of one’s heart.

Commentators on tattoos often make a distinction between existential tattoos and aesthetic tattoos: those motivated as statements of meaning and those motivated as a fashion statement. In reality, these two categories of tattoos merge. For even an aesthetic tattoo—an embodied fashion statement—carries with it larger cultural meanings and identifies one in a larger community.

Lars Krutak, a tattoo anthropologist at the Smithsonian says, “I cannot think of another medium of personal expression and meaning that is so intimately connected to our bodies and memories. The desire to adorn, commemorate, heal, self-identify, empower, and inscribe personal history via tattoo has always been a part of being human.” Indeed, Otzi the Iceman, a mummy found in the Swiss Alps during the 1990s, was tattooed and he lived around 3300 BC.

Tattoos are a reminder that life is a verb, a story, and a journey—and one filled with meaning. New Copernicans’ tattoos remind us of this reality.

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