Someone who wants a tattoo is trying to say something. And sometimes, I’m afraid, I fear it’s just a form of narcissism: “I just can’t be happy unless there’s something about me that makes me different, that draws attention to the uniqueness and individuality of me, to the unique and individual claim that I have on your attention. Please can we talk about me now – my life, my loves, my experiences?”
This remains the case whatever particular design of tattoo the young Narcissus has in mind. Indeed, this is exactly the point: Some people like wildlife, so they want a dolphin tattoo on their ankle; some people like death metal, so they want a 6-inch tarantula crawling across their face; some people like Christian Cool, so they want El Shaddai in Hebrew spanning their C3 to C6 cervical vertebrae. Whatever. But in every case, the message is the same: “This is me, please will you notice me.”
This tendency is strongest in teenagers (and adults who are still acting like teenagers), who naturally go through periods of (often understandable) insecurity, and is good reason for any parent to say to an under-18-year-old (and any wise friend to say to an under-30-year-old), “No, you can’t (shouldn’t) have a tattoo now. You really will grow out of it.”
Sometimes, however, there’s something else going on. This narcissism can be a sign of a deeper relational pathology. People just don’t have friends – at least, they don’t have friends they feel able to talk to about things that really matter to them. In such instances, the tattoo is a cry for a particular kind of relationship, one in which we can get beyond the superficial and talk about our deepest, most intense, most joyful, most painful experiences.
This need is understandable: Of course a teenage girl wants to talk about the fact that the LORD alone has been her Almighty One, her Shaddai; of course the newly-engaged 22-year-old Joshua wants to talk about Judy; of course a bereaved couple want to talk about the death of a child. But the solution to these needs is not to parade them across our bodies, but to pursue the kinds of relationships that will meet them.<>