Fourteen years ago, Falen McNulty and her brother came home from the military for a summer vacation.
McNulty’s sibling was well into the military’s tattoo culture and he was sporting a new image of a cross on his forearm.
“There’s something to note here: my brother is not a church goer, was not a church goer, and, let’s be honest, I don’t foresee him being a church goer. But he is a Christian, and says so himself,” McNulty told a crowd gathered in the St. Columba Chapel at the Atlantic School of Theology.
One night over the dinner table, their mother quizzed him about why he chose a cross tattoo.
“You guys don’t know my brother, but he has this really sly, smiley grin, and he looks over at my mother, kind of winks at me and I thought, ‘Oh boy, this is going to be interesting.’ And he says: ‘Just because I don’t go to church doesn’t mean I don’t believe in God.’ So for me, this has always raised the question: Why do people get religious tattoos?”
That internal line of questioning led McNulty, who has almost completed her studies at AST, to her graduate project on tattoos and spirituality.
Her research involved interviewing tattooed people from across Canada ranging in age from their early 20s to their late 30s, as well as a variety of tattoo artists.
“Tattoos can have a spiritual side,” McNulty said. “The church, over the years, has had an ambivalent position about it.”
There’s a passage in Leviticus, a book in the Old Testament, about not marking one’s own body.
“Others turn to the New Testament and the sayings of Paul that he was a marked man for Christ as a reason to support tattoos,” McNulty said.
Tattooing has become much more mainstream than it was 70 years ago, when most people who had them were sailors, soldiers, or criminals, she said.
“Tattoo shops went from small places where the unruly went to super-hip boutiques.”
Pain and suffering
During her research that involved questioning folks from Newfoundland to British Columbia, a number of themes emerged, including pain, memory connection, and healing.
“Pain was touched on by everyone I spoke to,” McNulty said. “The actual physical sensation of extreme discomfort reveals a more existential dimension of pain – one that resonates with the theology of pain.”
One participant in the study told McNulty they want to get a tattoo when they get stressed out because the healing process is refreshing.
“Another said: ‘The pain, ahh, it felt good. It’s hard to explain it. I’m not supposed to feel good. But I didn’t mind it.’”
A third described the pain of getting a tattoo as “a release; it was a step forward.”
The woman in that last case had lost a friend in a car accident she and her parents had survived. “There was a lot of pain and suffering.”
One of her tattoos, while not overtly Christian, was the one that had the most affect on her.
“Three years after the car accident she got the tattoo of a butterfly because it was her friend’s favourite thing, and it also covered up her own scar from the car accident.”
The woman said she felt a sense of closure after getting the butterfly tattoo on her hip three years after the crash.
One man told McNulty a lot of his tattoos were random, including the one he got at a shop he noticed and stopped at while stuck in traffic.
“Now that tattoo artist is doing the piece on my back,” he said. “So it’s the beginning of a story, right?”
What started with getting a tattoo because he was stuck in traffic turned into a relationship of trust to do a bigger piece of work, McNulty said.
One tattoo artist told McNulty he goes through a lot of spiritual processes with his clients before applying the ink to help them connect with the divine.
“Sometimes they have a benevolent experience in the process,” he said. “I follow the ways of the ancients, indigenous tribes, shamans who invoke and evoke, through the tattoo process. This was tattooing’s origins in sacred ways. I apply modern day science to a process I created from transpersonal psychology, counseling, (neuro-linguistic programming), and hypnosis. This enables the person to connect to the source and will, at any time in the future. This is the focus of my work today – to bring back tattoos sacred origins.”
Participants told McNulty their tattoos had helped them heal from various troubles in their lives.
“I lost a bunch of weight, and I said if I kept it off for a year, I would tattoo my whole side,” said one. “So when I was 25 I tattooed my whole side.”
Tattoos as conversation
McNulty said she’s been noticing a lot of tattoos over the past year and speaking to people about why they got them.
“One thing that became clear to me was that some of the apparently non-religious tattoos that people have possess a greater spiritual significance and connection than some of the overtly religious ones do.”
At the Dartmouth Market a few weeks back, one woman explained her sleeve tattoo depicting fruits and vegetables. “To her it was her past, her present and her future. She was more than happy to share her story, her struggles and, in a way, her faith that was represented there.”
McNulty recalled a conversation she had about tattoos this past summer, while serving at a parish in New Brunswick, with a woman in her 90s.
“I still remember her in her sweetest way looking up at me and saying: ‘Well, an upstanding young lady like yourself would never have a tattoo.’ What a door that opened. Much to her surprise, I have tattoos.”
That revelation led to a chat about tattoos sported by McNulty and her friends.
“By the end of the conversation, she openly said that her opinion towards tattoos had changed and that she wanted to know people’s stories about them,” McNulty said.
“For me, this is the part where the connection and memory of them becomes an opening to communication among people and helps us engage with different generations.”
McNulty, an Anglican, said her research could be useful for the church.
“It can help to open conversations between generations; how in my 30s I view tattoo culture, and how a World War II war bride views a tattoo are going to be very different. But in using this project in a starting point for conversation we can engage each other and our views to build bonds that can last a lifetime.”
One study participant told McNulty that her first tattoos, which she regrets getting, “were meaningless bullshit that I did just for the sake of doing it, which was very me from the ages of 12 to 18, until I found myself. And then I put more thought into them and they became more reflective of me as a person. Mind blown.”
Sometimes people don’t reflect on their motivations for getting tattoos until somebody asks, McNulty said. “So that is a take-away for me: to ask the question. The answer might surprise you.”
In a quick interview after her presentation, McNulty said she has a tattoo on her back of two songbirds and a heart.
“For me, it is the fact that we are never alone. There’s always somebody with us and we are encircled in love.”
She has another tattoo on her foot of a heart with an infinity symbol that says: “My brother’s keeper.”
Her brother sports the same design on his back that says: “My sister’s protector.”
“Part of the reason for that is that we are infinitely connected, even though we are on opposite sides of the country, and we infinitely support each other.”
McNulty once studied to become an officer at the Royal Military College in Kingston. In high school, she was a reservist with the Royal New Brunswick North Shore Regiment.
“I was reg force for two and half years while I was at the college,” she said. “I left the military because it wasn’t for me.”
McNulty is in her final year of study at AST. She’s en route to ordination in the Anglican Church of Canada.
Sometimes the tattoo on her foot is visible and prompts conversations with strangers.
“The one on my back was intentionally hid because that was for me,” she said.
“It sparks really interesting conversations around the love of God and why I would put two songbirds and heart some place where it’s not readily visible. But for me, it was the idea that no matter where we are in the world, there’s somebody with us. That’s why there’s two songbirds, and the heart is all about love.”