October 12th, 2013
08:50 PM ET

A journey of faith in five tattoos

Opinion by the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, special to CNN

(CNN) - The first tattoo I got was meant to set me apart from my conservative suburban Christian community, a way to signify “I don't belong to your tribe.”

Little did I realize that if I lived long enough I’d eventually become mainstream.

Tattoos now cover me from shoulder to wrist, but with the ubiquity of body art today, in many of the places I hang out I look more like a soccer mom than an outlaw.

Even the ill-advised and regrettable tattoos are part of my story, and ultimately, that’s what tattoos are: a way to wear stories–– our mistakes, celebrations, relationships, insights and losses–– on the skin.

Today, as an ordained Lutheran pastor, when I stand behind the altar table on Sundays and lift up the bread and wine and tell the story of the night Jesus gathered with his faltering friends for a meal that tasted of freedom, the arms that lift those common and holy things are themselves, common.

But they are covered in images of the holy.

These tattoos, both the Christian and decidedly non-Christian ones, tell the story of how I became who I am today. An unlikely lady preacher who loves Jesus a lot, but also swears a little.

1. The long-stemmed rose

It was 1986 and I was dating an older man when I got my first tattoo.

He was 20. I was in high school and not legally of age to do many of the things he introduced me to.

The biker dude at the tattoo shop didn’t ask my age. We were in and out of the dingy, little converted bungalow in half an hour. My body was forever altered. As was my attitude. The long-stemmed rose inked on my right hip set me apart. Now I. Was. An. Outlaw. The most Outlaw Church of Christ girl out there.

I don’t show a lot of people that very first tattoo. I tipped the scale at 236 pounds when I was pregnant with my first child, so that long-stemmed rose tattoo, which at the time was the self-affirmation of a really tall teenage girl, is now an unidentifiable blobby stretch mark which can easily double as a Rorschach test. So…what do YOU think this is?

2. The Peace Dove

I would get my second tattoo a year or two later after hitchhiking up Highway 101 to San Francisco from Pepperdine University, where I failed out after a single term, having succeeded more in impressing frat boys with my ability to drink like a man than in actually showing up for class.

I got a peace dove tattooed onto my ankle at the famous Lyle Tuttle Tattoo shop. I fancied myself a revolutionary at the time, and was getting arrested at protests–– when I was coherent enough to show up for them. I wanted to change the world but I had a hard enough time remembering to change my socks.

3. The Snake Goddess

When I was a young adult, everything felt like a crisis, as though my skin was letting too much in. Too many emotions and fears and threats and uncertainties.

I needed my skin to protect me, so I had tattooed on my arm an image of the Snake Goddess from a pre-historic Minoan society. She wore a long skirt, and was shirtless, and in each hand she held snakes above her head.

At 21, I needed to be strong and so I did the next best thing: I pretended I was. I claimed the strongest sacred image of a woman I could find, since my fundamentalist Christian upbringing had nothing helpful to offer in this area, and I knew I needed to borrow something from somewhere holy.

4. Saint Mary Magdalen

I got my first Christian tattoo in seminary: an image of Saint Mary Magdalen taken from Saint Alban’s Psalter, a 12th-century illuminated manuscript.

One hand is opened to heaven, while the other makes a pointing gesture as though to say “Shut the hell up, I have something to tell you.”

The other half of this depiction of Mary Magdalen announcing the resurrection did not fit on my arm. It’s a huddled mass of male disciples with befuddled looks on their faces, several of them pointing stupidly at scrolls.

I’d returned to the religion (but not the denomination) I was raised in, after 10 years searching elsewhere. I was struggling with my call to ordained Christian ministry for many reasons, including my own checkered past and a decidedly non-pastoral personality.

I started to study more about Mary Magdalen, again borrowing strength from a sacred female figure.

On my right forearm is the image of this deeply faithful, yet deeply flawed woman, who, like me, had been delivered from so much, and who had dropped everything to follow Jesus. Jesus, who loves like crazy and eats with all the wrong people and touches the unclean, chose Mary to be the first witness to his resurrection.

She was the one he chose to “go and tell”. Maybe to those more pious and good disciples, she seemed a questionable choice for the job. But Jesus is just like that.

5. The Liturgical Year

As a seminary graduation present to myself, my Snake Goddess was covered by the Advent image of a night sky from which the angel Gabriel announces to Elizabeth and Zechariah that they are going to have a bug-eating desert-dwelling baby boy: John the Baptist.

From this flows images of the church’s entire liturgical year. My arm has turned into a sort of stained-glass window telling the story of Jesus: a nativity for Christmas; Jesus in the desert for Lent; the Marys at either side of Jesus’ crucifixion for Good Friday; the angel and the women at the empty tomb for Easter; and Mary and the apostles with flames on their heads for Pentecost at my wrist.

I didn’t see it as a cover-up of the Snake Goddess as much as a layering of my story. My tattoos create a colorful confession of my journey to the cranky, beautiful faith I hold today.

The enormous image of the Annunciation currently in progress on my back that hides the black scratchy tattoo Jimmy the Junkie gave me in his living room….now that’s a coverup.

But that’s another story for another time.

The Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber is author of the New York Times Best Selling memoir, "Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint," and the founding pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado.

- CNN Religion Editor

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • Church • Faith • Jesus • Opinion

soundoff (809 Responses)
  1. Anthony

    The article says she was ordained as a Lutheran minister.

    October 13, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
  2. jkflipflop

    Tattoos are disgusting acts of self mutilation. I can't wait until this whole fad of having graffiti scrawled all over your skin is over. It's NOT cool nor beautiful to look like a Sons of Anarchy reject.

    October 13, 2013 at 12:14 pm |
    • Debbie

      I think men who shave their heads are disgusting. I think women who wear mens clothes are disgusting, I think women who wear makeup are not authentic. I think men who are fat and lazy are disgusting. I think men who drive hummers are trying to compensate for something.

      How am I doing in making dumb generalization about people, since you were..... I thought I would join in.

      October 13, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
    • Jon

      She can't be a holy person. The bible says tattoo's are a sin. She must be the devil we were warned about in that great book of myth known as the bible.

      October 13, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Don't like one? Don't get one. See how simple that is?

      October 13, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
      • Jon

        If your reply is to me please note – my post was said out of sarcasm. Don't get your panties in a bunch.

        October 13, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
        • tallulah13

          My reply was to the original post. No bunching.

          October 13, 2013 at 1:11 pm |
  3. scranton

    Tatts are for people that need attention and have a poor self image.

    October 13, 2013 at 12:09 pm |
    • midwest rail

      Utter nonsense.

      October 13, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
    • Robert

      You obviously don't know people with tattoos. So all the professional athletes that have tattoos have poor self image – NOT!

      October 13, 2013 at 12:13 pm |
      • Johnny5

        Those athletes are usually street thugs.

        October 13, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
        • Robert

          Let's guess you probably think they're all black too. – NOT!

          October 13, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
    • EldRick

      No-one else cares about the significant events in her life, but she mutilates herself to remember them. What a flake.

      October 13, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
      • Cpt. Obvious

        Maybe people that care a great deal for her will find more significance than you notice?

        October 13, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
    • Johnny5


      October 13, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
  4. The Creator

    Ahh, my child... Have you not yet learned that it is your body that is your temple?

    October 13, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
    • Doris

      Oh goodness. Do you really have room for all that mythology and hypocrisy and crap? There's no need to hold all that junk in. I suggest a few prunes before bedtime to help with that.

      October 13, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      I'm pretty sure I have seen many temples that have been decorated.

      October 13, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
    • Marc

      Considering most temples have stained glass windows and are built for show... What's your point here against tattoos?

      October 13, 2013 at 5:54 pm |
  5. bum4evr

    I don't know if anyone here will agree with me on this but- I don't like girls who have tattoos – its like a constant reminder of good times that girl had with someone else. No girl gets a tattoo when they are alone and miserable, girls get tattoos when they are in a relationship and confident about their bodies, so I would not want a GF with a tattoo that would be a constant reminder or her previous boyfriends she got a tattoo with.

    October 13, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
    • bum4evr

      spelling correction "constant reminder OF her previous boyfriends she got a tattoo with." what?? no edit function here??

      October 13, 2013 at 12:06 pm |
    • Yo!

      Your narrow view of people with tattoos is priceless. So based on your poor logic everyone who has gotten a tattoo did so because they were in a relationship. LOL!

      October 13, 2013 at 12:08 pm |
      • bum4evr

        most of them.. yes. Ive know way too many girls with tattoos and they ALL were in a relationship when they got them.

        October 13, 2013 at 9:22 pm |
        • G to the T

          So... you only want to date a women that's never been in a relationship before or you just don't want the visible reminder that they are people with their own history before you? Either way, how messed up is your self-esteem in this equation?

          October 15, 2013 at 11:29 am |
  6. Yo!

    Hey El Pibe the fact you are using Leviticus about tattoos is hilarious cause Christians don't have to follow Leviticus.

    October 13, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
    • jkflipflop

      So you get to pick and choose which parts of the bible are real and what's hokum depending on the situation? Isn't that rather convenient.

      October 13, 2013 at 12:09 pm |
      • Jon

        Convenient, and a sign of how gullible, simple minded, and just plain silly religious people are.

        October 13, 2013 at 12:39 pm |
      • David

        Pick and choose, of course Christians do that. Have you even read Leviticus?

        So since this is a Christian nation then all the companies need to change how people get paid because according Leviticus holding back the wages of an employee overnight is a sin. The all those men including the pope who cut their sideburns and trim their beards are sinner!

        October 13, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
  7. DM

    I look forward to the day when Walmart Chic comes to an end and intentionally looking like you need a shower falls out of favor.

    October 13, 2013 at 11:56 am |
  8. Joe

    Your rantings confirm that you are as crazy as this nutjob "reverend" is.

    October 13, 2013 at 11:54 am |
  9. jkflipflop

    God's view on buying other humans. . .

    However, you may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you. You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way. (Leviticus 25:44-46)

    October 13, 2013 at 11:53 am |
  10. Joe

    Yeah, I am going to listen to a graffiti stained lunatic raving about fantasy events and creatures.

    October 13, 2013 at 11:51 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      Do you mean Pink or Amy Winehouse, which graffiti stained lunatic is your favorite to listen to?

      October 13, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
    • Johnny5

      This woman is clearly disturbed, and above all, delusional.

      October 13, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
  11. amelieandelise

    Write a book. Its less painful and you can make some money off of it. When that lady is 70, those tattoos will be green and saggin'. What a mistake.

    October 13, 2013 at 11:50 am |
  12. jkflipflop

    Well if we're going off what the bible says. . . I want my slaves!

    If you buy a Hebrew slave, he is to serve for only six years. Set him free in the seventh year, and he will owe you nothing for his freedom. If he was single when he became your slave and then married afterward, only he will go free in the seventh year. But if he was married before he became a slave, then his wife will be freed with him. If his master gave him a wife while he was a slave, and they had sons or daughters, then the man will be free in the seventh year, but his wife and children will still belong to his master. But the slave may plainly declare, 'I love my master, my wife, and my children. I would rather not go free.' If he does this, his master must present him before God. Then his master must take him to the door and publicly pierce his ear with an awl. After that, the slave will belong to his master forever. (Exodus 21:2-6)

    October 13, 2013 at 11:50 am |
  13. David

    If there were better quality temporary tattoos out there (that would last 1-2 weeks) would people go for it? I have heard that 2/3 people getting permanent tattoos regret it.

    October 13, 2013 at 11:40 am |
  14. fixedpoint

    Tattoos are an insane craze that this country is going through...People all jellied up looking and marking their bodies for LIFE is entirely nutz...This country has gone nutz...that an insane over-usage of cellphones are a big part of the problem with people's minds today!

    October 13, 2013 at 11:31 am |
  15. mike

    Tattoo girl, wish you would have shared your wisdom too, as now you are much smarter than when you got the first tattoo.

    October 13, 2013 at 11:27 am |
  16. Richard Cranium

    Yeah, but he's also a theif. He comes here to steal advertising for his delusional website.

    October 13, 2013 at 11:18 am |
  17. Billy

    "YOU must not put tattoo"

    Nice try. As in the King James, the intent is not tatoos, but "marks". It was clearly a foretelling for the Jewish people that they were not to accept a future gospel that would be called "Mark".

    "present YOUR bodies a sacrifice living"

    Go ahead and present your rotted vanilla flesh to God. And remind me not to have you decorate any cakes for my kids.

    October 13, 2013 at 11:13 am |
    • El Pibe

      Billy for you info, the Byington translation says as well "...nor incribe tattoo marks on you..." as well, and theres other that translate the same way . The KJV says"...nor print any marks upon you.." it could be translated as, "tattoo". Good try though!

      October 13, 2013 at 11:24 am |
      • Betty

        LOL. I think Billy was being intentionally off-base to show the ridiculousness of any Biblical argument for rules for life.

        October 13, 2013 at 11:46 am |
      • ed

        You're right, Betty. It doesn't take much to see right through the hypocrisy and ridiculousness of the translation and interpretation wars.

        October 13, 2013 at 11:53 am |
      • El Pibe

        Betty – off base or not billy needs to know the truth. Its not bad to gain knowledge in different areas of life.

        October 13, 2013 at 11:54 am |
  18. Ric

    You, sir, are an idiot.

    October 13, 2013 at 11:12 am |
  19. Sinisa

    It is amazing how our God works and changes lives. He changed me too. I was gay for many years. My mind and emotions played tricks on me when I was a teen and not knowing any better, I started going with men and indulging in their attention and bodies. It got me nearly destroyed. And I was like in chains. IF it were as some say "once gay always gay" I would still be in misery. BUT we have God, God who heals and restores. He straightened my twisted ways and healed me.
    Jesus is good. His love healed me!
    God, keep amazing us with your love and power!

    October 13, 2013 at 11:10 am |
    • Colin

      When extrapolated to the extreme of a god, the math becomes meaningless. For e.g., if I posited a god a billion times more vengeful and gruesome than yours, would you drop your belief in God and run over to my super-god based on your Pascal’s Wager logic?

      And Buttercup walked up to the top of the hill, her cowbell jiggling around her neck. She closed her eyes and repeated three times to the wish-granting fairy in the sky, "I'm not a cow, I'm not a cow, I'm not a cow." She fell asleep that night under the stars.

      But, when she woke up in the morning, here black and white coat was still there, her large udders still gave milk and she still had an overwhelming urge to eat grass.

      October 13, 2013 at 11:17 am |
      • fixedpoint

        the ramblings of a LUNATIC!!!

        October 13, 2013 at 11:34 am |
      • nerdy_christian_13

        Nothing that Sinisa said seems to have anything to do with Pascal's Wager. In fact, he doesn't say anything at all about why he believes what he believes!

        October 13, 2013 at 11:40 am |
    • DiogenesWept

      Please seek professional psychiatric help.

      October 13, 2013 at 11:38 am |
    • jkflipflop

      Funny you should bring that up, God clearly says it's OK to put people in chains so long as they're foreigners. Did they mention this part of their little religion while they were brainwashing you?\

      However, you may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you. You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way. (Leviticus 25:44-46 NLT)

      October 13, 2013 at 11:54 am |
    • Kevin

      Nah, bro. You're still gay.

      October 13, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
      • Jon

        Good comeback...for a simple minded fool.

        October 13, 2013 at 12:36 pm |
  20. Pete Zanko

    Tattoos weren't even found by Westerners until the 18th century when ships went to Polynesia, you idiot. God does not have an opinion on tattoos. I do, which is that they are lame. I also have an opinion on religion, which is that it's dumb.

    October 13, 2013 at 11:07 am |
    • El Pibe

      Pete – If the Scripture in Leviticus talks about "tattoo" be sure that other nations had tattoos. Everyone knows that tattoos are a very ancient...only you dont know that.

      October 13, 2013 at 11:12 am |
      • Pete Zanko

        Hey Bro, the bible wasn't written in English.

        And no, there were no permanent tattoos anywhere near Palestine and Mesopotamia and Egypt and wherever else these fools were hanging out.

        October 13, 2013 at 11:21 am |
    • Sanych

      Otzi, the man who lived over 5,000 years ago in Europe and whose mummified body was found in Alps, had plenty of tattoos. They were done with ash.

      October 13, 2013 at 11:25 am |
    • El Pibe

      Pete – Some bible translations translate that verse as "tattoo", others "printed marks on your body"...if everyone translate these two possible ways, would you say that non of the translation committees were right in translating from hebrew to english??

      October 13, 2013 at 11:38 am |
      • Pete Zanko

        Does it matter? It's just a work of fiction. Think of it as streamlining the dialogue for the modern audiences, like in the "Lord of the Rings" flicks.

        October 13, 2013 at 11:56 am |
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