Betty Duffy

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

I'm Afraid of Your Brain

Today I drove past the local Tattoo World and saw a man entering the shop with what looked like a painfully new and painfully ugly tattoo on his calf muscle. His leg was shaved and raw looking, and the art, a disturbingly graphic portrait of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector, wild eyed, with his mouth barred shut by a leather muzzle.

It occurred to me that if the “man of faith” is influential to those around him, the man who tattoos himself with images of notable cannibals is one of the least influential members of our society. “Hey people, I’m so into cannibalism that I have a tattoo of a cannibal on my calf muscle. Want to go out with me? Want to hire me to prepare your food or do your taxes?”

I’m sorry. No. I want to run away from you.

Like ancient cave drawings, tattoos tell a story. They are nearly always representational (I have yet to see the Jackson Pollack tattoo), giving an outward sign of what kind of a person the wearer might be. They are a form of social communication: “I am a Christian.” “I am a practitioner of Eastern Meditation.” “I am interested in serial killers.” Or in the case of a gal on my college cross country team whose turtle tattoo on her big toe peaked out of her Teva sandals, “I am a lover of congenial reptiles.”

What I resist about tattoos is that the impression made by the tattooed image can only fall short of the whole person.

Recently, I reread the Flannery O’Connor short story, “Parker’s Back.” For those who haven’t read it, the plot: A local ne’er-do-well who’s always had his way with the ladies, encounters an upright, though unattractive Christian girl. Unable to tolerate the sense of superiority she has over him in spite of her homeliness and humble circumstances, he marries her. She agrees to this ill-fated marriage, presumably to try her hand at saving him, even while she is aware that a woman of her bearing can’t expect much in the way of courtiers.

The marriage is a disaster. He’s unable to bring her down. She’s unable to bring him to the light. In an attempt to impress her, he decides to get a tattoo of the image of Jesus on his back. In the tattoo shop he is mesmerized by an iconic Byzantine Christ and wrongfully assumes that the tattoo would be beyond her reproach since it is the image of Christ himself. She however, considers the material image of God idolatry and kicks him out for good when she sees the tattoo.

I’d always placed more blame on Sarah (the woman in the story) because she rejects the notion that Christ can meet people in any human terms. Her god is so almighty and so untouchable that he would not allow himself to mingle with human beings. Conversely, Parker (the man in the story) discards the divinity of God by taming Christ into an image and extension of himself.

In this story we have an earthly god, and an almighty god, and never the two shall meet. Both characters hold tight to their heresies never realizing that they each hold only a partial truth, and that if they put their concepts of God together, they would begin to see the full picture of a God who is both human and divine.

But back to tattoos, because I think there’s a relationship between the tattoo addict who uses profane imagery to forward the idea that people are consumables, and Parker who used an image of Christ as a means to subdue a woman into loving him.

To use one’s own body as a canvas may seem some sort of artistic ideal. But as JPII pointed out, the opposite of love is use. To use oneself or anyone else as an object for any type of consumption is abuse. And the image put forward by the wearer, will inevitably fall short of the image God had in mind when he created that human being. How can any image inked on the skin possibly capture the divinity that God infuses into that soul?

I think about the images of the profane that I have seen in my life. I can remember things that I saw when I was twelve, fifteen, what have you. They made their stamp on my brain and there they will remain for the rest of my life. You have to wonder how submerged in the profane you would have to be to think that a tattoo of Hannibal Lector is a good idea.

It reminds me of that Will Smith movie, “I Am Legend,” where a plague attacks the world and turns human beings into something like a rabid dog that can only live in darkness. They spend their nights hunting for survivors to consume and infect.

I want to go up to the man with the tattoo and shake him by the shoulders and say, “Come out! Come out and live in the light! It will only kill the worst parts of you! But the good will live on!” I have the same feeling when I pass the giant window-less Casino that just went up near our house. “Come out People!! It’s beautiful out here!” To the porn addicts in their basement masturbatoriums: “Come out and live in the light!”

Be body AND soul.

But I’m scared. I’m scared not only of how a man with a cannibal tattoo might react to my supplication, but also of the images and dramas that play out in his head, the same way those old images of the profane continue to play out in mine.

Judgmental? Fine, I'm a Sarah.


Kaighla said...

Although I cannot imagine ever getting something so horrifying on my body, or even wearing a shirt with his face on it, I love tattoos. I have two, both of them meaningful, both of them permanent, neither of them exactly what I wanted them to be. and although I understand your point about them (tattoos)not being able to even pale in comparison to the soul of the person inside, I feel that everytime I see my tattoos, I am reminded of whatever it was inside of me that caused me to go through such pain for something so small (or big in one case). and I remember the heart inside of me that burns for the souls of people (the inspiration for the art on my shoulder), that is literally aflame with love for the poor and lonely and enraged in anger at the people who ignore them. and when i see my tattoo of my forearm, I am reminded of the scents and sounds and sights and feelings that pervaded my soul when I lived in India. I remember the mistakes I made and the joy that came later.

much better than carting around my journal and reading it day and night like a wierdo or carrying around luggage full of photographs and mementos...:-)

Kaighla said...

correction: I do not have a tattoo OF my forearm. that would be creepy. I have a tattoo ON my forearm.

Loren Christie said...

This is so well-written Betty. I'm often stumped when teens in the youth ministry program I run ask why they should not get tatoos. My answer is not as well-thought out as yours. Also, I LOVE Flannery O'Connor and that story is so fantastic. I like your thoughts on it.