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?