Recently, I saw a touring tattoo exhibition at Melbourne’s Immigration Museum. Most of the tattoos shown were beautiful full-body tattoos, particularly the Japanese ones. However, the exhibition also reminded me how much my life has changed since leaving religion.
Choosing a favourite
The curator said he had wanted to show the public that tattoos are an art-form that deserve to be exhibited and to be appreciated. I think the exhibition succeeded in that: It could quite easily have hung in an art gallery rather than in a museum.
I don’t usually like choosing favourites, and this exhibition made it quite difficult, but eventually I decided on a striking picture of a dragon with a sword:
I’ll get back to what’s special about this particular tattoo, but first, a bit of my background.
Growing up holding The Truth
I grew up in a fairly fundamentalist Christadelphian family. In case you haven’t heard of Christadelphians, we were the ones that knew we alone held The Truth. You know, just like everyone else.
Curiously, though, we tended to define ourselves by what we were not rather than by what we were. For example, we didn’t believe in the Trinity, or a supernatural devil, or an immortal soul, or in heaven and hell. Yes, that meant we were viewed by most Christians as unorthodox at best, more probably as heretics doomed to hell.
However, we knew it to be Bible truth, because we read the Bible every day to confirm our pre-conceptions. To us, the Bible wasn’t just another book: It was the sword of the spirit, and we were the only ones trained to wield it appropriately. And our conflict wasn’t just with other Christians: as a generalisation, we looked suspiciously on science as “the wisdom of the world”, with evolution in particular being rejected.
But it wasn’t just about doctrine: Bible teachings were supposed to regulate our behaviour, and there too it became more about what we couldn’t do than about what we could. We were supposed to be spending all our time working for the glory of God rather than our own petty needs and desires.
We were supposed to be separate from the world. There was to be no involvement in the politics of the day, including voting, since we were supposed to be citizens of heaven, looking to the future. Serving in the army or the police was forbidden, and related things were viewed with suspicion (for example: Interest in weapons, or in martial arts, or in computer games with too much violence).
Alcohol was fine in some parts of the wider community, but frowned on in my family. Drugs and smoking were definitely forbidden, as was swearing (particularly the dreaded OMG).
Close friendships outside the community were discouraged, and romantic relationships even more so. We were expected to marry fellow Christadelphians, and, while there was the possibility of meeting someone “from outside”, converting them, and then marrying them, it was considered a dangerous path. After all, if the target failed to convert as required it was likely to lead to heartbreak or a disapproved marriage. I am sure this affected my friendships in high school and Uni.
Speaking of relationships and marriage, there was to be no sex before marriage, nor were dating couples meant to experiment to see how far they could safely go. Nor was this limited to actual sex - pornography was bad, of course, but so were books, artworks, or films that were too explicit (in case you’re wondering, yes, the Bible was exempt from this rule, because it was the inspired word of God).
Nakedness itself was considered dangerous, and modest clothing was much talked about (particularly for girls). I have personally looked away from film scenes that were too explicit, and even destroyed books which had too many such scenes (though I may possibly have read those scenes several times before destroying them…).
I’ve mentioned that we needed to be separate from the world - but only in certain approved ways. In my family, I remember the arts world in particular being looked on with suspicion as far too rebellious and non-conformist, as well as being far too loose sexually. But even for 100% virtuous artists, I think any time we spent appreciating the arts and human creativity would have been considered time better spent praising and serving God.
All this leads directly to tattoos: People with tattoos were generally considered to be rebelling against society and somehow inferior as a result. I think they were almost universally assumed to be men (though I believe women get tattoos too…), and so were probably doing other disapproved things like wearing long hair, fashionably torn clothing, and various piercings.
There were some obscure verses dredged up to try and ban tattoos, but I don’t think they really carried weight. The real point was that we were dealing with people who, like us, didn’t fit the mold - but they did it in a worldly way, not in a spiritual way like us chosen few. Put all this together, and attending a tattoo exhibition to appreciate tattoos as art could feel very serious.
So what has all this to do with the tattoo I saw? Well, the exhibition said it was kurikaraken: the dragon-wrapped sword of Fudo Myo-o, which some say represents seeking truth. The dragon is said to represent the rope used to pull people to enlightenment.
I was brought up to see seeking truth as an important value. I even developed Bible software to try and help me find that truth. However, I was also given a pre-made set of teachings called The Truth that I was meant to uphold no matter what problems I found with them.
So what do you do when you slowly discover problems with the truths that your community and your life is based on? Well, if my example is anything to go on, you start by compartmentalising. The community was valuable to me, so I tried to accept the good bits and ignore the bad bits. In fact, I tried so hard that it nearly broke me.
However, it couldn’t last forever. I had once genuinely believed these things to be true, and couldn’t in good conscience continue to declare they were true given the problems I’d found with them. Perhaps one of the advantages of an upbringing valuing non-conformity was that it allowed me to question conformity to that tradition as well.
The exhibition was originally developed in Los Angeles. One of the tattoo artists commented that Americans are more likely to choose a tattoo for its aesthetic value, while Japanese are more likely to choose it for its meaning. And I was exactly the same as the Americans - I chose that tattoo as my favourite because it looked cool, nothing more.
However, I came to realise that its symbolism also meant something to me. After all, the quest for truth had caused me to turn my life upside down.
How things have changed
Back when I was religious, I would only rarely have had the time and inclination to attend exhibitions like this. All my Sundays and many of my Saturdays were taken up with church activities. And even outside of those church activities there were plenty of talks to prepare and duties to fulfil.
However, even if I had taken the time to go to an exhibition, this one would have set off so many alarm bells. Not only were there works of art on display, but pictures of tattoos. Not just any tattoos, either: Since they were full body tattoos, the subjects had to be near-naked to display them. What’s more, the tattoos included myths and legends from Japan and Samoa, which I would have seen as rivals to Christianity. If I had wanted enlightenment, I would have consulted the Bible, our sword of the spirit - not the dragon-wrapped sword of Fudo Myo-o.
Now, everything has changed. My search for truth led me to throw off the control of a god that was never there. I came to realise that life is short and I’m the only one responsible for how I use mine.
At first, that was a painful realisation. However, it has allowed me to connect with my own wants and desires at a much deeper level. I no longer have a god restricting what I’m allowed to look at or dictating the correct way to react to it. I’ve discovered that I value the sciences and I value the arts.
But more than that, I’ve discovered that I value humanity. I appreciate how much we have achieved as a species, working together without any god pulling the strings. That is shown in both art and science. I’m also able to feel a much greater sense of beauty and of wonder in the universe than I ever felt as a Christian.
I didn’t know that in following truth I would find me.
Why this exhibition?
So why did I attend this particular exhibition? Quite simply because it looked interesting and I was already in the area. This isn’t an isolated incident - over the last few years I’ve been able to see many sides of my world (and Melbourne in particular) that religious me didn’t have the time or mental space to appreciate. I’m pleased to say that this encounter is now business as usual, not the first sudden epiphany where I throw off my chains and dance in the streets with joy that I’m finally free of religion.
Personally, I think it’s an indictment of the culture that I was brought up in that I would have viewed this beautiful exhibition with such suspicious. Yes, it’s got myths and tattoos and naked bodies. So what? I don’t even know how much I would have noticed these things without my upbringing. Calling normal things a sin can just make them a guilty pleasure. It does mean I can’t share it with my family, but otherwise it just seems pretty normal.
Maybe some people get tattoos to rebel, but I think they are now far too mainstream for the mere presence of a tattoo to show rebellion against society. The curator cited US numbers saying 26% in the 18 - 34 age group in the US had a tattoo in 2011, and I’ve heard the numbers are even higher now. He wanted the exhibition to help break the stigma and show people how artistic tattoos can be.
The percentages seem to be lower in Australia, but not low enough to make tattoos a rebellion. One of the other exhibits at the museum showcased Australians who specifically chose tattoo designs that connected them with their heritage, rather than rebelling against it.
In some ways, Christadelphians seem to me far more threatening to the society they live in: They actually set themselves up as citizens of another country, and claim to follow a ruler with the right to forcibly take over the world. Is that not rebellion against society? It was only after I quit that I could truly be comfortable with being an Australian citizen.
But that’s not True Christianity!
It’s sometimes difficult for me to disentangle how much of the background I’ve described was due to my religion, how much was due to my family, and how much was just me. For most of the things I’ve described, I can find other Christian groups and individuals online presenting similar rules - it’s not just the Christadelphians. And yet it’s possible that many Christadelphians will look at my list and say “We never had restrictions like that - are you sure you’re not exaggerating?”.
However, that’s not really the point: I’m not interested in debating whether True Christianity outlaws nakedness, or tattoos, or sex before marriage, or any of the other things I’ve discussed. The point is that this is the effect that my upbringing and my religion had on me, whether it was intended or not. As part of my search for truth I walked away from these rules and restrictions, and I now consider them actively harmful.
Many Christians, including former me, focus so much on purity that they can be quite judgemental of the life choices of those around them. I personally don’t have any tattoos, nor do I have any plans to get tattoos. I don’t need a tattoo as an act of rebellion, nor do I particularly want to mark my body permanently given how much my views have changed in the last five years (and indeed continue to change). However, what I gained was that I no longer need to judge others for making different decisions from me. As far as I’m concerned, if anyone else wants to get a tattoo, go for it, and wear it with pride.
I find the symbol I started this article with, the dragon-wrapped sword, both beautiful and deeply symbolic of my own journey out of religion. But whether or not it appeals to you, I would strongly recommend following truth over conformity. Find the symbols and the ideals that resonate with you.
Of course, I can’t just stop at truth. I will need other symbols for other things that I value - for diverse traits like love, beauty, curiousity, and avoiding harm to others. And those symbols are there in the Japanese tradition, as they are in traditions closer to home. I’m sure my views and ideals will continue to change, but seeking consistently to ground them on truth feels like a great start.
And if you need a Bible verse to convince you, I know the perfect one:
You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.
All the better if that freedom involves the odd dragon or two!