Of Tattoos and Maps

The other day, while doing my treadmill duties at the gym, a young woman stepped on the Stair Master in front of me.  She wore a top that allowed me to see the tattoo sketched across her scapula: a map of the world.  In my work-out a day world, I see many tattoos, but this was the first time I saw a world and wondered why.  Is the world a taboo tattoo?  Further questions emerged.   How do people decide what to print on skin?  What is the purpose of tattoos anyways?  I understand that tattoos, in one form or another, are as old as humankind.  Sometimes they seem to mark identification with a particular group; sometimes they are seen to serve a totem-like role in keeping evil at bay; sometimes they are simply means of self-expression; they can even be ways to make religious commitment public.

The religions have mixed views on the propriety of tattooing.  Some are fer’,  some agin’, some indifferent.   Yet one thing seems certain: a decision to ink a visible body part with a picture probably communicates deep seated commitments on their flesh come canvas.  I wondered what my fellow runner meant to intimate with a map of the world?  Was it her desire to explore the world?  Was it her passion for the well being of the world?  Or perhaps she unwittingly was promoting some new clever marketing strategy that uses a map of the world to sell widgets?  It struck me that any of these options might be possible – alongside of so many more.  Yet one more thing struck me as I pondered her mapped shoulder:  maps are really mysterious marvels.

Maps are mysterious marvels because they purport to picture what cannot be viewed.  There simply is no place in space in which we can see what a map of the world pictures.  A map of the world images a non-image; and so, in some ways, does what religious language does.  It pictures what cannot be pictured but still points to what holds us spell-bound because it speaks to a deep seated mysterious need to explore.  Maps bid us come.  They call us to step away from our present pre-occupations.  They invite us to hop a plane, a train, an automobile in order to cross borders.  Maps invite us to broaden our perspectives; to do obeisance at the wonder of the horizon.  Maps take us outside of ourselves.  Yet even while they do exactly this they betray the prejudices of the map makers.  Not so long ago I saw a map that put the Arctic in the center rather than the edge of a map. They shape the way we view the world.  Maps fascinate me on so many levels!

I do not know if my neighbor pondered any of this in choosing to flash the world my way.  I suppose it doesn’t much matter.  I benefited anyways.  If I was inclined to get a tattoo, I think I could do worse than a world on my shoulder.  But since that isn’t my proclivity, I ponder instead, how I might tattoo the world on my heart?  How can I map the world in a way that allows me to love it along with the One who so loves the world?

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8 thoughts on “Of Tattoos and Maps

  1. jannatwrites says:

    Yes, tattoos are controversial in religion. I don’t have, nor do I plan to have, tattoos, but I don’t think they are inherently bad. A world is a unique and interesting tattoo. Perhaps if it hadn’t have been at a gym, you could have had a conversation about it. I guess we’ll never know if the map symbolized her past or her future, or something else entirely…but it made for an interesting blog post 🙂

  2. agjorgenson says:

    Hi Janna, thanks for commenting. I have to say I was quite taken by the map of the world, which struck me as rather thoughtful.

  3. diannegray says:

    To me it sounds like she has had the weight of the world on her shoulders….

    I don’t have any tattoos (argh – scared of getting my skin hurt!) But I did see a delivery man one day who bent over and I caught a glimpse of his behind. He had a tattoo of a set of women’s lips on his upper cheek (seriously, I didn’t want to look! It was just ‘there’ all of a sudden). I immediately thought he got it as a ‘kiss my butt’ sign. Very weird indeed!

  4. agjorgenson says:

    That is too funny! Thanks for making my day!! I can hardly wait to get to the gym today to see what is on display. I too have avoided the tattoos, as have my three daughters (17, 20, 22). We haven’t really discouraged tattoos, but I think they are mindful of the long term consequence, and the even more painful removal.

  5. Denise Hisey says:

    Well, I’ll admit I’m one of those delinquents with a tattoo! 😉

    I love the idea of the world, and would also be interested in the ‘why’ behind her choice.

    My butterfly is a recent do-over on top of the old, faded rose I got when I turned 20. The first was strictly out of rebellion, a rose had no meaning whatsoever. My butterfly, however, was chosen as a reflection of my newly emerging healed self coming out of my cocoon of abuse.

    (I must say the lips on the behind is pretty clever!! ha ha!!)

  6. agjorgenson says:

    Hi Denise! Thanks for commenting. I like the way you explain your choice, and it suggests to me that many people take their tattoo pretty seriously. I would love to find out more about the world choice, but it is generally bad form for middle aged professors to ask young students about their body decoration, so I will have to content myself with simple wonderment. Glad to hear of your healing. It is so hopeful to hear of people being healed. I too got a kick out the lips. If I had my druthers, though, I would go with a footprint…

  7. Marie Taylor says:

    I enjoyed reading this reflection. I don’t have a tattoo but almost got one when I was about 30 to commemorate a passing from youth to adulthood. I too love maps. They symbolize possibilities and mysteries to me.

  8. agjorgenson says:

    Hi Marie. Thanks for commenting. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. i don’t have a tattoo either, nor do my three young adult daughters, which is rather odd since we have never “laid down the law.” I like what you say about maps. I’m not a GPS person and really like the way a map concretizes adventure.

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