The Inspiring Tattoo Connection

Body art taught her to trust her kids—and God—in a whole new way.

Posted in , Jul 26, 2017

Shelby Spear and her two kids sharing a moment.

This is a slightly revised version of a story that originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Guideposts.

My son and I were in the kitchen after school. Kyle was 16, a straight-A sophomore in high school and an all-around great kid. Which is why I was completely unprepared for the conversation that followed. “How do you like this one, Mom?” he asked, showing me a picture of a cross with angel wings, flanked by the alpha and omega symbols. “Nice,” I said distractedly. Kyle was always showing me pictures.

He was my artistic son, one of those kids who built fantastical Lego creations when he was little and moved on to piano and guitar as a teen. “Glad you like it,” Kyle said. “I’m thinking about getting it as a tattoo.” He pointed to his forearm. “Right here.” “You what?” I sputtered. “It’s no big deal,” he said. “Other guys at school have them. Plus, the design is all about God.” “No way, Kyle. You are not getting a tattoo.” “Why not?” My mind raced. My husband, John, and I had an open-door policy with our kids.

As in, they could talk to us about anything—and they did. But I was at a loss for words on this subject. Kyle was a faith-filled kid and hung out with a great group of friends. He was not the sort of boy who got a tattoo. We were not a tattoo family! “Well, because you’re too young,” I finally said, knowing it sounded like a stock parent answer.

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I scrambled for something more substantive. “The Bible has passages against tattoos. Your body is God’s temple, Kyle. You shouldn’t deface it. When you’re 18, you can do what you want. Right now the answer is no.” I made a mental note to look for those Bible passages. Kyle, as always, remained sunny and unperturbed—and unpersuaded. “Okay, Mom,” he said. “I’ll wait to see if you change your mind.”

I needed some backup. I held my tongue until John got home from work that evening. Our older son, Johnny, now in college, had had his share of teenage episodes. But nothing like this. Our daughter, Kahrin, was 14 and—I hoped!—too young to think about such things. “I know lots of people are getting tattoos,” John said. “But Kyle’s too young. I’m sure it’s just a phase. He’ll drop it.”

Kyle didn’t drop it. He kept showing me new designs. Each one reflected his faith in some way. I couldn’t deny they were beautiful, creative and heartfelt. But I also couldn’t envision my son with one of them inked on his skin. “Tattoos are permanent,” I said. “Once you get one, it’s on you forever, even if you change your mind about it later.”

“That’s why I’m searching for the perfect design,” Kyle replied. “No matter how beautiful you make it, it’s still a tattoo. I know they’re trendy now, but think ahead. What would a potential employer say?” “Maybe they’ll have one too,” Kyle replied. “Besides, I’d get it someplace you wouldn’t be able to see it when I’m dressed for work.” Finally I fell back on my first argument: “You have to wait until you’re 18.” “I can wait,” Kyle said.

I decided to talk to Father Tim Kalista, a priest and a friend of ours. No doubt he had dealt with the topic before and would point me to a passage in Leviticus in which God prohibits the Israelites from putting marks on their skin. “Actually,” Father Tim said, “tattoos in themselves are not bad.” I frowned. “There are many passages in Scripture about the body being God’s creation and about modesty,” Father Tim went on.

“But the church doesn’t consider tattoos in and of themselves a sin. Tattoos are quite common—indeed honored by some cultures in the world. I think the real issue is what kind of tattoo a person gets.” A violent or explicit or blasphemous image obviously would be a problem. But a more positive image? I don’t think I could categorically object to it.” Kyle grinned when I told him about this conversation.

“Don’t get any ideas,” I said. “The answer is still no.” “Sure, Mom,” he said. This is just a phase, I told myself. But every so often, Kyle would show me yet another batch of designs. As he turned 17, he showed no indication of dropping the idea. To my horror, Kahrin began making noises about getting one of her own someday. Why would my happy, wholesome kids even consider such a thing? Actually, now that I thought about it, I’d done something sort of similar many years before, when the kids were young.

A high school girlfriend and I flew alone to California for a friend’s wedding. Freedom! I came home with a henna tattoo—a ring of barbed wire around my bicep, a joke really. I even fooled John, telling him it was permanent. He was horrified and only sort of laughed when I said it would fade in a few weeks. I felt foolish.

But it was a fun weekend! That was a long time ago. I was now in my forties, an accountant taking time off work to be home with the kids. John was the CFO at a medium size company. We lived in a quiet suburb. The main event of our week was church. I did not do crazy things like get a tattoo, even a temporary one. And neither did my kids!

Kyle’s eighteenth birthday came. To my surprise, he did not rush out to get a tattoo. “Still searching for the right design,” he said as he left for college. But Kahrin picked up right where her older brother had left off. She not only still embraced the idea but even asked me to go get a tattoo with her. “Are you out of your mind?” I replied. “That is the last thing I would ever do. And it’s the last thing you’re going to do.

The same rule applies to you as your brother. Until you are 18, the answer is no.” “Please think about it, Mom,” Kahrin said. “It would be a way for us to bond before I go to college. We’d always have that symbol of our relationship.” It was true that Kahrin and I were close. I was dreading the day she moved out. Getting a tattoo, however, was not the solution. I was getting desperate. God, I can’t get the kids to drop this tattoo idea, I prayed that night. Can’t you help me out here?

No answer came. But somehow I knew God would take care of this. Kyle came home on break from college. I found him and Kahrin in the kitchen doodling potential tattoo designs. Her eighteenth birthday was coming up fast. I marched over, determined to tell them to cut it out once and for all. But I was brought up short by the beauty of Kyle’s drawings. He was experimenting with various flowers. Some seemed to be turning into dragonflies. Others incorporated religious words in Latin.

All were lovely. “We could each get one of these,” Kahrin said. “I like this one.” She pointed to an intricate rose with Angelus Custos—“guardian angel” in Latin—in script beneath the petals. “I wish you’d at least consider it, Mom.” I opened my mouth, then closed it. The words What a cool idea almost came out. Then I let myself say them anyway. “So you’ll get one?” Kahrin said hopefully. “I’ll…think and pray about it,” I said.

I talked to John that evening. To my surprise, he didn’t outright object. He didn’t love the idea. But he agreed that the kids had been persistent and thoughtful about it. “But why would you even consider getting one yourself?” he said. “I guess for the reason you just said,” I replied. “The kids have been persistent and thoughtful. It would mean so much to Kahrin. And it would mean a lot to me to share something she’s so passionate about.”

“Go for it,” John said. After more prayer and discernment, I felt a sense of peace from God. Next thing I knew, I was asking Kyle to design my tattoo. He created something beautiful for me, and shortly after Kahrin turned 18, she and I sat together in a tattoo parlor owned by a friend of the family. Kahrin went first, getting the rose Kyle had drawn with the Latin words around it.

The tattoo was on her hip, where no one would see it. I watched her carefully to see how painful it was. She hardly flinched. Kahrin must have a high pain tolerance. The minute the needle touched my skin, I wanted to cry. It really, really hurt. But then I looked down and saw the design emerging—a rose turning into a dragonfly with the words Authentic, Joy, Love and Inspire inscribed on the wings. It was beautiful.

And after it was done, I felt more connected to Kahrin than ever. We grinned at each other and rushed home to show Kyle. Ironically, Kyle hasn’t gotten his own tattoo yet. He’s still pondering that perfect design. As for me, I guess you could say body art taught me to trust my kids—and God—in a whole new way. That trust is more than skin-deep. Recently I’ve found myself contemplating another tattoo.

A small one on the inside of my wrist—Be love. That’s what parenting is all about, right?

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