Taboo Tattoos

JESSICA MCGHEE


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I got my first tattoo when I was 18.

It’s a terrible tattoo.

I got my second tattoo a few months later.

It is also a terrible tattoo.

Many, many years and a few tattoos later, I got my first “visible” tattoo: a delicate strand of leaves around my left wrist, with a rising phoenix and the word “hope” on the inside.

And for ten years, that was my last tattoo.

Life got weird a few years ago. Big things were happening, great things were happening, but terrible things were also happening. Sometimes my response to terrible things is to become terrible. It’s not pretty, and it’s not something I’m proud of, and I fight it regularly. During this period, I found myself regularly fighting off the urge to be a terrible person—to lash out, to mock, to scream, to yell, to maybe even break things. To respond to terrible by being awful, which is not at all the person I wanted to be.

Once upon a time, I had etched the word “hope” on my skin, as a reminder and a wish and a prayer to carry me through a dark time. I needed a new etching.

I went to a tattoo artist friend and asked him to ink the word “kindness” into the inside of my right wrist. I needed the reminder, I said. I don’t want to be a terrible person. I want to be hopeful and kind and so much better than the worst version of myself.

And it helped! Terrible would happen and inside my head I would respond with clenched teeth, clenched fists...and a look at my wrists. I know what kind of person I want to be. I know what kind of person I can be. I can be kind.

And so I was.

Usually.

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But bad weather doesn’t always clear up just because you’ve wrangled your inner demons. Sometimes people are bad weather and of course, who can control that? So, I got hit with some really bad weather, a whirlwind of rumors and smears that just. never. seemed. to. let. up.

I broke. I broke so hard. Like, therapists and panic attacks and suicidal thoughts and crippling depression and medication and I can’t work and I can’t breathe and I DON’T WANT TO BE HERE ANYMORE kind of breaking. Which thankfully ended up being more of just a...crumpling. I am not broken. I was not broken. I just experienced some damage in the storm. I came to Imago around this time—a church. Imagine that. The very last place in the world I ever thought I would find peace and safety. But life is funny. And beautiful.

I did a lot of googling around this time.

“Why are people mean?”

“Why do people lie?”

“How do you stop rumors?”

“How do you recover from rumors?”

“How hard is it to move to Alaska?”

I came across this parable. In a nutshell, it told the story of a man who started a rumor about a rabbi, based on a falsehood. When he realized the damage that the rumor had done to the rabbi, he went to him and asked how he could make it better. The rabbi told him to take a bag of feathers and to place one on the door of every person in town. And so the man did. When he was done he returned and asked, “Now what?” And the rabbi directed the man to now go and collect all of those feathers and to bring them back. But when the man tried, every feather had been blown away—he could not bring them back.

Because, of course, rumors are like feathers in the wind—once they’re out there, who knows where they will go, who knows where they will land? And I thought to myself, I don’t ever want to do to someone else what has been done to me.

Words have so much power.

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We have so much power.

And so, I went back to my tattoo artist friend and I asked for a feather, bathed in messy watercolors. “Please put ‘mercy over judgement’ above the feather,” I said, “and put ‘always love’ below. I’ll need the reminders.”

And these were placed next to “kindness” on the inside of my arm, and when I see them, I am reminded of the person I want to be and the kind of person I can be. I am reminded to speak with love. I am reminded to reserve my judgement. I am reminded to practice mercy and compassion.

Sometimes I rub my hands back and forth over the design, like I am my own worry stone. I do this a lot in church, actually. I do this in church, while listening to people talk about God, while I wonder about God, while I wonder about Jesus, while I wonder what I really believe, while I wonder about omniscience, while I wonder about a plan for everything and while I wonder about free will.

While I wonder how this all works.

One day, I started drawing it: a series of lines and messy circles, colors falling outside of the lines, dark-circled lines intersecting with light, so many lines coming from one spot, some dark, some light, so many paths, so many choices, stars woven in between.

I felt like I was drawing my relationship with God.

I felt like I was drawing my faith.

And so I went back to my friend the tattoo artist, with my best version of what I had been drawing in church for weeks.

“What is it?” he asked.

It’s my faith.

I think.

“What does it mean?” he asked.

“I’m not sure?” I said. “Paths. Choices. Free will. Bad decisions. Good decisions. Divine intervention. No intervention. Consequences. Lessons. Love.”

And so he put it on my arm, and I love it so very much. I still don’t really know what it means. I’m still figuring it out. It could not represent my faith any more perfectly.

You know how they say some people wear their heart on their sleeve? I do, too. My heart is all over my arms and every time I look down and see them, I am reminded of the kind of person I want to be and that I can be. I am reminded of love. I am reminded of journeys. I am reminded that I am not alone and that I have a purpose that is beyond anything I can even imagine.


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Jessica is a full time artist and designer, usually living in central Illinois, but sometimes not. She loves her husband, her dogs and her home, but requires regular visits to the sea to stay healthy. She loves people very much, but feels weird around them, so isn’t very social. Her current passion is painting pictures of marine life and constructing educational sculptures from garbage she finds on beaches around the world.





Christina Hite