Monday, June 23, 2008

Open Forum: The Pastor With the Visible Tattoo

All posts are open for comments, but Open Forum posts especially ask for feedback from readers...

I've been meaning to write this entry for a year or so, and finally got around to doing it.

There should be no question in the minds of my readership that I am a tattooed pastor. For many, the phrase "tattooed pastor" is an oxymoron, which is part of the reason I love having them so much.

Anyway, my tattoos are not in places that people would be able to see them unless I wanted them to. And as I think about future additions to my body art, I've considered a couple places that would be more likely to be seen if I were to wear shorts or short sleeves. This raises a dilemma for me, because while I believe that tattoos open doors for me as a pastor, I also wonder what doors would be shut with a tattoo in a more visible area.

Thankfully, I came across a new blog earlier this year authored by a Lutheran pastor calling himself Lutherpunk, who does have at least one tattoo that is visible if he wears short sleeves. He writes of his experience in part:

It is interesting how people react to me. The people who know me don’t see a disconnect. Take my tattoo artist: he knows that I am minister and yet he spends hours working on my arms and doesn’t think it odd, just a little different. Most of my parishioners are the same way. They have just sort of become accustomed to all the ink. What has been interesting about that is that I have been told by some parishioners that they feel much more free to discuss some real struggles with me that they wouldn’t have brought to clergy in the past because of fear of being judged. I recently I had a long conversation with a former vice squad officer who has been going through a slow process of confessing the things that he did as part of his job. It is nice that, in some ways, the tattoos actually seem to break down some of the traditional barriers that may be erected between clergy who are often perceived as holier-than-thou and the people. What they care about is that I am there for them, that I lead faithfully, that sort of thing.

For me, the bolded part says it all. It has been my experience that every member of my congregation who has discovered that I sport tattoos has reacted one of two ways: 1) impressed acceptance, or 2) shock that a pastor of all people would have one, followed by impressed acceptance. This comes with one exception, if one can call it that: I once purposefully wore my Evil Skull Tattoo Shop t-shirt to choir practice, which drew some befuddled reactions from a couple people...however, it was my impression that they were reacting more to the "Evil Skull" part, and I was not asked directly about my own tattooed state:

"You don't have an evil skull tattoo, do you?"
"Not of an evil skull, no."

Another church member got me a Miami Ink ballcap and t-shirt for Christmas this year. This was one of the "impressed acceptance" people, obviously.

Even so, there is a certain stigma surrounding those with visible tattoos, mainly those who get them on their forearms or wrists (moreso those with tats on their necks, but there's no way I'm doing that). Tattoos in general carry an image of low class, or is associated with danger, debauchery, or violence. I once participated on a "conservative" Christian forum and painstakingly tried to counter peoples' ideas that tattoos are automatically a sign of sin, sex, drug use, gang membership, and any number of other taboo behaviors with little positive result. I wonder about this stigma as it applies in my own context and any and all future contexts in which I serve. Two thoughts comfort me in this area.

First, I've been where I am for three years now, so people know me well enough to perhaps not react as strongly, if at all.

Second, would I really want to serve in a place that would have such a negative reaction to a tattoo on my arm (and that's the visible one!)?

Here's what prompted my thinking about this to begin with: picture a younger couple that has barely set foot in a church before they began hunting around for a venue for their wedding. They call me and ask if they can set something up, and I give them the lowdown about fees and required pre-marriage meetings. They're okay with that, if for no other reason than as a slightly annoying hoop they have to jump through. They've otherwise experienced the church to be a silly, irrelevant, or judgmental place. They walk in for their first session with me, and there I am in a short-sleeve shirt. As we begin talking, the groom does a double-take as he notices something on my wrist. And something about noticing this relaxes him, because it helps counter his preconceived notions about pastors and even churches.

So really, this is one stigma against another. The opened doors vs. the closed ones. I wonder to which one I give the most leverage.

It's also probably important to mention that I put a lot of thought into what I get. I generally go years in between ink sessions. I don't get tattoos just to get them. So if something did end up in a more visible spot, it would be something I really believe in and because I thought the placement "worked." It wouldn't be just a matter of asking what I can get on my arm so that random people think I'm cool. Know what I mean?

Anyway, have at it.