Conversatio Divina

Part 4 of 16

Marked: A Personal Story of Tattoos and Transformation

Jason Brian Santos

Without a doubt, going to a conservative Christian liberal arts college in the Midwest has its advantages and its disadvantages. Among the many restrictions to which I was restricted was subjected to on a daily basis, tattoos actually fell into a grey area.

Students couldn’t drink or smoke or go dancing without finding themselves in the dean’s office. Guys were not allowed to get their ears pierced, a rule that often caused the local Claire’s Boutique in the downtown mall to be flooded by young men the day after graduation. Some still got their ears pierced—only wearing little hoops when they were far from the watchful eye of the dean—but for me, the hassle wasn’t worth it. A tattoo, on the other hand, was fairly concealable, and quite frankly, once it was inked, I knew that the dean couldn’t really ask me to take it off.

It just so happens that toward the end of my junior year a group of my friends decided to get tattoos. I remember their conversations at the lunch table about which parlor, what design, and on what part of their bodies these indelible designs would come to reside. One of my friends chose the cartoon character Underdog for his shoulder, while another chose Taz on his upper back. I was swept up in all the excitement and soon resolved that I, too, had to get a tattoo. Most of my friends went to get their tattoos right after the end of the school year. Because of other commitments, however, I decided to wait a few weeks—until my twenty-first birthday at the end of the month. It would give me a little more time to ponder what sort of picture I might want displayed on my body for the rest of my days.

Still uncertain what tattoo I would choose, I made the appointment at the oldest tattoo parlor in Minneapolis. The weeks went by, and my birthday finally rolled around. After dinner and some cake, a friend and I headed over to the parlor. I was still uncertain about the design, though still resolved about getting something done. On the way there, she assured me that we would find something in their stock tattoo books, and with those not-quite-comforting words we entered the shop.

I recall thinking it wasn’t as dirty as I had imagined. In fact, it was rather clean and surprisingly hygienic. The tattoo artist showed us some popular designs and listed a few of the more common places for tattoos. I still couldn’t make up my mind. I think everyone was growing a little impatient. Then, as if a ray of light came beaming through the clouds with a herald of angels singing, it hit my friend. She looked me square in the face, pointed at my chest, and said, “Why don’t you get that?” She was pointing at the little embroidered polo player on my Ralph Lauren oxford.

I liked the idea. It was small. It was kind of preppy (something I was into a little more during my college years). And the way I saw it back then, Polo was a brand that would never go out of style. So in under a minute I had decided to permanently adorn my body with a little navy polo player. The next decision was where to put it? The adage “Location, Location, Location” came to mind. My friend pointed at the little horse and rider and said, “Get it right under that one so that when you take your shirt off, the little polo player will still be there!”

Hmmm! . . . Sure, that’s what I want, a little guy-on-a-horse-shaped third nipple. That’d win me some friends playing ball at the park, I thought.

In the end, I settled on the inside of my left ankle. The location was subtle, and if need be, I could cover the tattoo with socks. Within no time, I was in a barber-style chair with my leg up on a pedestal. My ankle was shaved, and I was given the single instruction to breathe (apparently, a lot of people pass out from holding their breath). He turned on the tattoo gun, gave me a quirky (almost sadistic) smile and touched the pulsating needle to my skin. I remember thinking, Okay… that hurts, but I can take it. After all, the last thing you want to do is whine or make cringing faces over getting a tattoo smaller than a quarter.

He outlined the polo player in black and then turned the gun off. “All done?” I said, with a hint of the hope that I just survived my first tattoo.

“Not quite,” he replied with that same dubious smile, “I’ve got to switch needles.” He proceeded to attach a multi-needle head. When he fired the gun up again, he said, “Now we’ll color it in.” In an effort not to be melodramatic, let’s just say it was one of the most painful experiences I’ve ever subjected myself to in my entire life. It felt as if someone were scraping the skin off my ankle with a butter knife. In retrospect, I’m certain that the whole tattoo took only about ten minutes, but at the time, I remember thinking it would never end.

When I chose my ankle for the tattoo, the artist never said, “Are you sure?” or “It really hurts on that part of your body.” However, just as he was finishing (and he was plainly aware of my newfound distaste for my skin being scraped off with flatware), he punctuated his handiwork by remarking, “By the way, the inner ankle is one of the most painful areas of the body to get a tattoo.” Maybe he was just humoring my pained face, or perhaps he was humoring himself for not telling me sooner. Regardless, it was over, and I was tattooed!

The response I got to my tattoo was mostly positive. It was different from most tattoos in a quasi-refined sort of way. It was almost tasteful—at least, more so than a snake coiled around the stem of a rose with a skull in the background. That said, most of the accolades came from a bunch of Dave Matthews-loving college students who wore a fair bit of designer clothing (and just for the record, I still like Dave Matthews, although I’ll deny it if you ask me in public).

I received a few comments suggesting the possibility of long-term regret, but I assured them that the classic appeal of this American fashion icon would endure the test of time. It even survived a really brisk scrubbing with one of those green scouring pads (the kind you use to get burnt food off the bottom of pans), because that’s what my mother did when she discovered it when I went home for a visit that summer. She vehemently opposed tattoos and was convinced that I was simply riling her up with a fine-tip Sharpie; so when I challenged her to wipe it off, I was quickly brought back to the initial tattooing experience itself. I’m just thankful she didn’t have any steel wool in the house.

So there I was with my little polo player. I had joined the world of the tattooed in my own unique way. For years, I was proud of my tattoo. I think I stopped wearing socks for the first year, and I insisted that rolling up one’s jeans, even when not at the beach, was cool. But as time progressed, I began to see the tattoo differently.

In my mid-twenties, I found myself showing people my ankle only after making little disclaimers. Mind you, I wasn’t ashamed of it, but I did find that I was a little embarrassed that I had permanently marked myself with an icon associated with consumerism. But what could I do? The indelible nature of tattoos is part of what makes them so powerful in our culture and in an individual’s self-expression. In a day and age when people can choose and re-choose their identity from the expansive buffet of available lifestyles, affixing something permanently to one’s body as a means of identity expression seems almost eerily premature.

My wife, Shannon, and I occasionally talked about getting another tattoo over it, but I didn’t want to make the same mistake twice. The best design we came up with was putting my son’s birth footprint over it. I really liked the idea, that is, until I realized I would have had to magnify his adorable little footprint at least two hundred percent in order to cover the whole tattoo properly. There was something unappealing about having the footprint of a ten-year-old on my ankle. Not quite the look I was going for.

As time did tell, by my thirtieth birthday I loathed that little blue man and his pony. I had developed a fairly hearty revulsion for North American consumerism and all of its foibles, and having one of its icons on my ankle as a reminder of my own idolatry was too much. I considered having it removed, but by that time I was in seminary, and the procedure was expensive and apparently more painful than having the thing covered up. Shannon had read about a cosmetic surgeon who was removing gang tattoos for former gang members, but I was pretty sure that the doctor wouldn’t believe a story about a preppy Ralph Lauren gang—which is why I decided I would have to get another tattoo.

The problem was, I didn’t have any ideas. I seriously considered just getting a black square over it, but Shannon thought we could do better than that. During the last year of my studies for a Master of Divinity degree, I went on my first research trip to Taizé, an ecumenical monastic community in the Burgundy region of France. When I returned, I gifted my family with little enamel pendants of a cross in the shape of a dove, a symbol commonly associated with the Taizé community. Shortly after, Shannon came up with the idea of putting the Taizé dove over my tattoo. It was the right size to cover the whole tattoo, and it was simple enough not to take over my ankle. It was perfect by most accounts except one—it was a symbol of a community of which I wasn’t a part, and in which I wasn’t really invested. I didn’t want to brand myself again with something that was outside who I was as a person. So I decided to take a pass. When I got another tattoo, it wasn’t going to be something I would regret.

As my research on Taizé progressed, however, an opportunity arose for me to write a book about the community. From the original concept to my final manuscript, the book took about eighteen months to research and write. It was what my wife likes to call a labor of love. During my research on the community, I was transformed by its witness and its passion for sharing Christ’s reconciliation across the globe. My deep appreciation for the redemption. No, purchasing and wearing brand-name clothing is not a sin, but I had made the North American ethos of consumerism an idol in its own right. And I was using my body as a billboard to promote it. My ideology was incarnated in my flesh.

This is why the dove/cross symbol was so redeeming for me. It embodied the existential nature of who I was as a Christian. The core of my identity (the cross) was indelibly etched on my flesh and blood. It covered over that of which I was ashamed and freed me from its bondage—in both a physical and a spiritual way. I’m not suggesting that anyone go out and get a tattoo. Although I’ve considered getting another, I’m not rushing out the door (nor should you). What I am suggesting is that there is something far deeper in this act of indelibly marking our bodies than much of the church really wants to acknowledge. To put a Christian symbol or an image of one’s faith journey permanently on one’s body is an act of evangelism. It’s a form of witness to the redemption that we all experience in the cross. It’s not only their story, but it’s the collective story of our faith.



Going Deeper: In Conversation with Jason Santos


Gary W. Moon: Jason, you wrote that your re-tattooing experience was a “joyful pain,” a “baptism,” a “sacramental experience.” how important to you was it to have had a physical experience of redemption—if that word seems appropriate?

Jason B. Santos: Great question, Gary. To be honest, I don’t know if could say that it was important. The desire for a physical experience of redemption is a little too ascetic for me. Even the mention of it draws me back into the late middle ages of the Church. I don’t think that I need to experience extreme fasting or lashes with a wet noodle to experience God. That is probably part of the reason the redemption felt in that tattoo was so profound; I wasn’t seeking it or expecting it.

GWM: Thank you, Jason. You told a powerful story of the incarnation of God’s redemption on (and through) your own body. How important is your body in relationship with God?

JBS: Gary, I grew up with a strong notion that our bodies were temples of the Holy Ghost, and consequently, tattoos or any other body modifications were scrutinized carefully, sometimes with excess. But at the end of the day, this sort of emphasis on the body really has more akin with issues around the puritanical conception of sanctification. The body, in fact, throughout history has played a significant role in our spiritual lives. Prior to the growth in literacy prior, during and after the Reformation, embodied spirituality was central to a Christian’s experience. Our bodily senses—touch, taste, smell, hearing, and sight—are gifts that God gave us to experience the world. I believe our worship should also reflect these gifts. Communal Christian worship, the corporate expression of our relationship with God, should invite all our senses to experience God.

GWM: There are a number of different perspectives on Christian tattooing, all of which we/I respect. How did your experience with tattooing open you to discussion about spirituality and the body?

JBS: I wouldn’t say that my personal experience with tattooing opened me to the topic of spirituality and the body as both have been interests of mine for some time. What the tattoo experience did was offer a first-hand experience of confronting our redemption in an unexpected way.

GWM: Thanks, Jason, for being part of the conversation.


Jason Brian Santos is an ordained minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA). He is a PhD candidate (ABD) and teaching fellow in Practical Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary studying Christian education, spiritual formation & discipleship. he was named a timothy scholar for the study of youth, church and culture. his dissertation focuses on integrating the monastic practices of the Taizé community into the church as a means of more effectively forming Christian identity in youth and young adults. currently he is the associate pastor for youth mission and ministry at university presbyterian church in Seattle, Washington. he’s the author of A Community Called Taizé: A Story of Prayer, Worship and Reconciliation (IVP, 2008). currently, he serves on the advisory board for the Immerse Journal.