Explaining my Tattoo to Kids of the Inner City

Working in a place where everyone and their 30-year-old grandma has a tattoo, it’s been an interesting experience trying to explain mine to them. I thought it was simple to understand. Especially since so many of them understand the significance of a cross.

The difference stemmed from the fact that they think a tattoo should be a part of self expression. It’s very personal. Unless it’s a gang tattoo. Then it’s a part of a group identity and is meant to show loyalty.

“That’s a gang tattoo,” the kids told me in May. “You’re a part of a gang. Or at least a squad.”

“No,” I insisted.

“Yes,” they said. “It’s a tattoo that all these people got to show that their the same, right? That’s a gang tattoo.”

I was baffled (as I often am with these kids), but after I let the idea sink in, I accepted it as a difference in semantics. Since gangs are what they know, their vocabulary to describe what I have reflects that. They don’t understand standing in solidarity with others around the world, but they understand sticking up for a gang brother. And really, the two are the same.

What I mean to say is, I, apparently, am a part of a “gang,” which would make Jesus my gang leader. He’s a very strange sort of gang leader. He says things like, “If someone takes a swing at you, let him take another, too” and “Love your enemies and pray for those who hurt you.”

It was not the conversation I expected to have over my tattoo, but it has been a fascinating look into the world of my students and a chance to see myself in a new light. I already knew that I was a Citizen of Heaven (Philippians 3:20), an Ambassador (2 Corinthians 5:20), a Slave of Christ (1 Corinthians 7:22), a Prisoner of Christ (Ephesians 3:1), a Temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19), a Child of God (John 1:12) and a Friend of God (John 15:15). But now, I have a new identity:

I’m Christ’s Gang Member (my students).

Standing in Solidarity

I got a tattoo.

In this day and age, that can be a mundane statement, or a damming one. I have been talked out of, scared out of and begged out of getting one many times before. To all of those who make that scrunched up and hurt face, I do apologize. I don’t mean to offend.

But this tattoo means more than a western taboo.

My sister, Jodi on the left. I'm on the right.

My sister on the left. I’m on the right.

What it is:

The Coptic Cross is the symbol of the Coptic Christian Church in Egypt and has been tattooed on Christian arms, young and old, for centuries now. In a world of religious violence and oppression, the cross tattoo is a symbol of faith and solidarity. It’s a symbol of fearlessness in the face of  terror. And it’s a family crest.
Why the tattoo:
God has blessed me greatly by allowing me to live in a country where it’s safe to be a Christian. In fact, Christianity is so common place that people have a hard time understanding what trial by fire really means. We read about the martyrs of the Bible and we think, “Huh. What saints!” and move on with our lives of soccer games and TV show, comfortable in knowing that no one is going to imprison us or torture us for saying we believe in Christ. Worst case scenario, we’ll get a scoff and an intellectual challenge, which I always enjoy because it makes my brain tingle.
But elsewhere in the world, the scene of the martyrs is still going on. Christians are being killed, and imprisoned around the world today. Sometimes we hear about it and shake our heads sadly for the people we don’t know–who live so far away we should probably pull out a map to find them, if we weren’t too busy looking at kitty pictures on the internet. We call them brothers and sisters in Christ, but we have very little emotional connection to them. We don’t even know their names. And if we heard them, we’d probably bulk at how foreign it sounds. It’s nothing like Paul or John, whom we proudly name our kids after.
In our world of placid comfort and spiritual lethargy, it is important to have a constant reminder of the turmoil and spiritual war going on in the world–something to keep me mindful and alert, to think beyond my own little bubble to the Christian family members around the world.
That’s what this tattoo is: a reminder of my greater family around the world–all who are suffering for their faith. And it’s a reminder of my own identity. I stand with them.

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