Tattoos and Modern Art
In a climactic anecdote Francis Peters in Ours: The Making and Unmaking of a Jesuit describes a scene at summer villa playing cards with another Jesuit scholastic whom he thought he knew well. The friend had removed his shirt during the game and there, on his left breast, was a tattooed prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Peters was shocked, and began to reconsider his vocation. If his best Jesuit friend felt free to wear a tattoo, albeit a religious one, does he himself fit in the Order?
For most of my life I shared with Peters a prejudice against tattoos, even those made with the best of intentions. My youngest brother has one of the baby hands of his grandson located on the upper back of his shoulder where the baby would have been held in his arms. Although I did not comment when he showed me this, I was not impressed.
However, since coming to live at Quixote House in Winnipeg with recently paroled prisoners from Stony Mountain Penitentiary, I have revised my opinion. I now see some tattoos as a form of very personal body art.
Most ex-prisoners have tattoos. Some are easy to see; others are more discrete. But all are meaningful to the man who wears them. I hear no discussion of ways and means of having them removed if and when their sitz-im-leben has changed.
One man is Scottish in background and has had an emblem associated with his clan added to an already existing tattoo on his arm. Another has an elaborate one on his upper body and has plans to extend it. The artist who did it is well known and does quality work. No one whom I know has a frivolous tattoo that holds no meaning for him.
What I learned from this experience of changing my mind on tattoos is that while I myself, like Francis Peters, cannot find God in this form of art, others can and do find that it expresses meaning and value in their lives which they choose to make permanent through the tattoo process.