The first time I ever encountered the idea that a tattoo could be spiritual was in Tahiti. My wife and I were on our honeymoon. On day two, we were still recovering from our wedding, a long flight into the middle of the Pacific, and a terribly uncomfortable overnight stint in Tahiti’s international airport that included unsuccessful attempts to stretch out and fall asleep on hard plastic armchairs. Worse, we were still reeling from the shock of seeing the local food prices ($50 salad, anyone?).
Anyway, on that second day (after we had split that $50 salad for lunch) we were happy to be driven a cultural center and fire dancing show at the Tiki Village. At the time I had no real appreciation for Polynesian culture or spirituality, but fire dancing sounded cool and I knew they were going to feed us. So, exhausted as we were, we cheerfully got onto that bus and slept our way through the long drive to the other side of the Island of Mo’orea. The siren song of free food called.
Before we could actually get to that food, we were given a tour of the village that was hosting us. It really was incredible. Although it seems like a tourist trap, the Tiki Village exists to preserve and educate visitors about Tahitian arts, culture, history, and spiritual practice. Like many beautiful places in the world, Europeans (in this case the French) had colonized the islands and brought with them their own religion, language, and culture. This was the first time I had ever encountered a tangible example of the whitewashing of indigenous people, and I tried to fight through my mental cobwebs to wrap my brain around it.
One of the village’s missions was to provide a space for the locals to learn and practice traditional arts. It gives traditional craftspeople a livelihood. We learned about the traditional practice of making outrigger canoes. We met some wonderful local artists. Finally, we came across an exhibit on traditional tattooing. This was 1999, and tattooing did not have anything near the widespread acceptance and television air time it does today. No brilliant scientist with two full sleeves of ink had landed a spacecraft on a comet yet. Tattooing, at least in my sheltered mind, was for the fringes. I could never understand why anyone would want to go through all that pain and spend all that money to permanently affix their favorite baseball team’s name or some random flower to their skin. I conceived of tattoo parlors were seedy dives where drunk people stumbled in on a dare and got painted with markings they would be ashamed of for the rest of their lives. Tattooing, in my ignorant head, was in a galaxy far far away from anything spiritual.
But this presentation shocked me. I wish I remembered enough of it to be able to repeat the details (the smell of roast pork was a bit of a distraction). We were taught about the history and technique of this ancient practice. Tahitian tattoos (tatou) consist of an intricate interplay of a large lexicon of symbols that in pre-European times were governed by strict rules. The French missionaries banned the practice because they believed it connected the Tahitian people to their indigenous “pagan” religion. Today, local artists can create beautiful documentations of a client’s life history, goals, and values.
The presenter told us all about the traditional technique. In a time before needles (especially sterile, pre-packaged ones), the dyes were inserted with natural pointy objects like thorns, spikes, and stones. I remember wondering why anyone on earth would want to go through that process, especially in a time and place where the pain was so much stronger and the risk of infection was ever present. I knew it must commemorate something very special, but I could not conceive of anything special enough to justify that kind of voluntary torture.
Times have changed. I have known more and more people to get tattoos for spiritual purposes. They span across religious traditions and generations. I know people with deeply Christian tattoos and others with beautiful Pagan themes. Large crosses and small tributes to Jesus are just as common around me as are Gods, Goddesses, and pentagrams. I know people with Harry Potter themed tattoos. While that may not be spiritual, it pays tribute to a very special aspect of the person’s childhood- a memory worth keeping through a lifetime.
What I’ve learned from all of these people is that there is something deeper about the tattoo. Our bodies are sacred, and anything we mark upon them is too. When we affix a mark upon our body, we join a current of like-minded souls. And that current stretches no just to the living, but to all who have ever received a tattoo. Each one went through a painful ordeal to give energy to a sacred ideal in their life. Tattoos are a powerful rite of passage.
I know that now because last week I got my own tattoo. I had my own spiritual milestone to mark, and all of my meditations, divinations, and synchronicities pushed me directly toward the sacred ink. I was fortunate enough to get connected to Jen Shakti, an amazing artist who specializes in sacred tattoos. Jen is a shaman who makes it her mission to remind the world that the act of getting a tattoo, as I learned all those years ago in Tahiti, has a long history as a sacred and respected ritual. She seeks to unify her fellow tattoo artists and their clients to the sacred history of the tattoo.
The process was both comfortable and powerful. After I created my own altar to symbolize my intent for the tattoo, Jen created sacred space in the style of her own tradition; she invited me to include my own guides as a desired. There was a beautiful interplay as we created the space. Jen was creating it for herself first, for she was about to perform magical, sacred work. I could feel that. I’m a little shy in one-on-one situations, so I cast my own circle privately as she called in her own spirit allies. That interaction made sense, though. She was giving, and I was receiving. The artist needs her allies to be there in all their power. I needed mine for comfort, support, and manifestation.
As she applied the tattoo, Jen encouraged me to send the energy generated from the initial pain into any parts of my body or spirit that needed healing. As we proceeded (and once the endorphins kicked in), we were able to hold a conversation about the history of the tattoo in tribal cultures, both of our spiritual paths, and the power of marking your body with symbols that guide your life.
We spoke of all the various cultures across time and distance who have utilized that tattoo and consider it sacred. We honored them and invited them into our sacred space. They were with both of us as she guided me through the ceremony that initiated me into their ranks. And, as Samhain approaches, I realized that I have a new line of ancestors to assist me in my spiritual journey.
We often speak of ancestors of blood, breath, and bone this time of year, but during the tattoo ordeal, I came to feel the presence of a new set of ancestors. Call them ancestors of ink. Those who have gone through similar experiences as each other tend to understand each other more intimately than those outside the experience. In the case of the tattoo, the experience cuts across culture and spiritual practice. I’m not saying my experience was anything near what ancient tribal cultures went through, but all who have voluntarily received that permanent marking have sacrificed part of themselves to honor something extraordinary in their lives.
You can see it on the physical level. Tattooed people are always interested in the work displayed on other people’s skin. In the same way, I found it to be true spiritually. The ancestors of ink appeared gradually to support and guide the process, and now I have new relationships to nurture with them just as I have to nurture my sacred marking as it heals. I hope it is the beginning of a beautiful two-way relationship.