I recently finished a tattoo on my forearm (thanks to Tim at Irezumi for the great ink work!). In total, I spent about 18 months working through the design and I get a lot of questions about what it means, so I thought I’d put together a quick blog post explaining some of the details.
Tattoo as Gospel
The tattoo blends traditional Christian symbols and personal spiritual reflection in a minimalistic way that I think is pretty unique to me, and I’m pretty proud of how it all came out. It is a permanent reminder, etched onto my arm, of the gospel message of Christ, and it has already proven to be a wonderful conversation starter with the people I encounter in my day-to-day life.
This is the complete tattoo: a symbolic depiction of the presence of God and the practice of the kingdom of God. The top part is a representation of the trinitarian God, connected with a reference to Revelation 22:13 and Micah 4:3 to the bottom part, which describes the method of human participation in God’s kingdom.
The numbers in my design are encoded references to passages of Scripture corresponding to the Protestant Bible. The first two numbers indicate a book of the Bible, the second two numbers indicate a chapter, and the third two numbers indicate a verse. So the “662213” is Revelation 22:13, and the “330403” is Micah 4:3.
I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. (Revelation 22:13, NRSV)
The Christian symbol at the top of the tattoo is the most visually complex part of the whole thing. It’s composed of three elements: a Chi Rho, the Greek letters Alpha and Omega, and a circle binding them together. Each of these elements correspond to a Person of the Trinity.
The Chi Rho is a symbol for Jesus Christ formed from the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ (ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ). Jesus, the embodiment of God in human flesh, reveals to us the image of God within each of us. Through his life, Jesus taught us what it means to be human and how we are to live our faith, participating in the kingdom of God today.
One of the first significant uses of the Chi Rho was by Constantine – he used it as a military standard during his Christian conquests in hopes that the invocation of the name of Christ would lead his army to military success in warfare. This history of the Chi Rho is important in my tattoo, as you’ll see when we get into the bottom part of the design.
The second element here is the inclusion of the Greek Alpha (Α) and Omega (Ω). Pulled directly from the text in Revelation, these letters signify the transcendence of God the Creator, who is before all, just as Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet, and after all, just as Omega is the last letter of the Greek alphabet. God is greater than humanity, higher than creation, over and beyond anything we can see or imagine.
The third element is the circle surrounding the Chi Rho and the Alpha and Omega. This circle represents the Holy Spirit, the substance of God that connects the Creator and the Son, the Comforter that speaks into our hearts and lives on a daily basis.
The Nonviolence of the Cross
He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Micah 4:3, NRSV)
The bottom part of my tattoo design represents the way we Christians are called to live out the kingdom of God. It is meant to evoke two competing and complementary concepts: it is a sword, a tool of war like that used in the conquests of Constantine, but the blade has been broken to turn it into a cross. Micah talks about the kingdom of God as a place where swords will be unnecessary and will be beaten into gardening tools (a metaphor for a return to the Garden of Eden). This picture of eternal peace is one of my favorite images in Scripture, and is mirrored in passages of Isaiah, where the prophet describes a time when the wolf will lie next to the lamb in tranquility. Yet those verses are merely descriptive – they don’t tell us how this peaceful kingdom of God is to come about.
For that, we look to the teachings of Jesus, who tells us in all three of the synoptic Gospels that any of us who want to follow his way must take up our crosses daily (see Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34, and Luke 9:23). I know that many Christians interpret this teaching metaphorically as a call to give up our personal ambitions in pursuit of Christ, but I think Jesus meant this far more literally.
At the time of Jesus, the cross was a Roman tool of death; in the Roman world, convicted criminals submitted to their punishment by carrying their crosses to the place of their execution. For Jesus to tell his disciples to take up their crosses was to tell them that, when they were face-to-face with death, their faith demanded that they face it boldly and willingly. They should break their swords and turn them into crosses. By doing so – by refusing to bow to the Roman god of warfare and violence – they would see the kingdom of God on earth.
The two parts of my tattoo, top and bottom, are not distinct units. As I describe the elements, the concepts overlap and mingle with one another in a sort of open dance. Together they represent the fullness of God’s character and our God-given responsibility as humans to respond to the darkness of violence and hate in and around us.
The placement of this tattoo is on my right arm is no accident. Since that is my dominant hand, any time I begin to raise my fist in violence, it is there to remind me that the way of Christ is not one of warfare, but of self-denial and grace – that is the way of Christ, the path to the kingdom of God.