‘I’ve been thinking for a long time about getting a tattoo. I’m not
really sure what I want, I mean what kind of a tattoo. To tell you
the truth I’m not really sure where I am going to get it, I mean
where on my body. I think probably on my chest.’
‘Well I am telling you there will be no tattoos in this house.
When we were growing up it was only soldiers and sailors and
of course prisoners that had tattoos, anyway they are dirty
looking oul things and you are stuck with them. It is almost
impossible to get them off. So no, no way, not under my roof.’
This was a conversation that I sat on the edge of recently. In a way I was glad I had not been asked for my opinion because at that stage I was not really sure how I felt about tattoos, though I am clearer now. I have known for a long time that there is a whole world there that I know little or nothing about. The world of the tattoo
‘I tattooed a number on her arm. She tattooed her name on my heart.
In 1942, Lale Sokolov arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenenau. He was given the job of tattooing the prisoners marked for survival – scratching numbers into his fellow victims’ arms in indelible ink to create what would become one of the most potent symbols of the Holocaust.
Waiting in line to be tattooed, terrified and shaking was a young girl. For Lale – a dandy, a jack – the – lad, a bit of a chancer – it was love at first sight. And he was determined not only to survive himself, but to ensure this woman, Gita, did, too.’
This is the story, the love story of the tattooist of Auschwitz. If you have not read it, make sure you do.
I always knew the tattooists I meet down in the Full Stop Cafe were sound lads, friendly and so on. I never doubted their professionalism and a good while ago a few people showed me their work and I discovered that they are artists. However there is another aspect of their work that I have been unaware of until these last few weeks. What I am talking about could almost be called a ministry. Clearly at times the tattooist relationship with his or her client, if that is the right word, moves from business or operating on the level of customer and the service provided, to something much deeper. Yes the truth of the matter is that both receiving and indeed ‘delivering’, drawing, painting, or sketching the tattoo has an intimate dimension to it.
When you think about it, the work is carried out on the skin, which is personal enough in itself. However, let us remember, in addition to this, this is no fleeting encounter. This is something that will have been planned for weeks and will take hours, and perhaps several long sittings to complete. The real learning for me about tattoos in these days is the real significance of many of these tattoos and indeed the almost sacred exchange that often happens between tattooist and the tattooed.
I have been privileged to hear the story of a number of tattoos and it has erased forever any notion that they are frivolous or tacky. Not so. The name of a beautiful little daughter that Mum and Dad were only able to hold for a few days. The minute, day and hour tattooed in number form of when a much loved Mum went to God. Suddenly a new world was opened to me. The tattooist is now the confidante, the psychotherapist, maybe even the ‘confessor’. Not in the sense of the Sacrament. Sometimes the significance of the tattoo is too painful, too sacred to speak of. Yet by its nature it is always there. A constant reminder. Perhaps a little comfort. Talisman. Worry stone. An intimate part of us. Could it be that the tattoo is a way to prompt us, in the madness of a given day to take time to remember. To take time to say thanks. Is there not a little theology here. The theology of the tattoo?