When photographer-artist Brooke McPhate Byars put out the call for her “Diversity of Tattoos” show in Cookeville, Tennessee earlier this year, I knew I wanted to participate. When the show opened not long after she shot images of me for it, I was relieved to see that I wasn’t the only Tennessee Tech professor whose inked and naked arm adorned the wall at Sweet Sallies on the town’s funky West Side.
Research cited at The Vanishing Tattoo website suggests that about 15% of Americans have tattoos, with the percentage spiking significantly higher among people 18-40. It’s no wonder, then, that tattoos have been a topic of some interest among my students over the years. After seeing a tattoo-based photo essay in a composition textbook and when the possibility of a tattoo-inspired “anti-essay” became an assignment idea in the English 1020 course I taught this summer, I decided to respond as well by writing this piece.
This isn’t the first time tattoos have been a part of a class I taught at Tech. About two years ago, a team in a writing class did primary research by visiting various establishments around town that provide tattoos and piercings. To make a video component of their final assignment, one of the team members decided to get a tattoo while his classmates filmed him. Earlier this year, a student was so inspired by a Saul Williams poem that we read in class that he got some lines from it tattooed on his leg.
With neotribal artwork decorating my deltoids, I’m marked as part of the tattooed subculture. For years, I identified with the hippy-punk wing of American rebellion. But the statement my arms make is more spiritual than sociological, and the evolution of my religious journey gets narrated on my skin.
Back in 1994, just a few weeks before the birth of my daughter, her mom took me to get my first tat on my 27th birthday. The decision to go with a “sunfrog” was an easy one, since Sunfrog had been my poetic pen name, performance art moniker, and partier’s nom de plume for some time. The meaning of this nickname has evolved since I first encountered it when it came to me in a poem that I wrote in early 1988.
Combining the celestial and terrestrial, from elements of fire and air, water and earth, the “solar amphibian” first symbolized for me an earthy and horizontal take on spirituality in contrast to the more vertical and hierarchical notions of God that are more popular among mainstream folks. The idea of a frog who could survive on water or land also embraced a “both/and” logic in relation to identity. As a new parent, I was excited to learn about the mythological and maternal significance of a midwife toad.
I didn’t add the tattoo to my left arm until 2002. At the time, I’d been experimenting for many years with various earth-based spiritual practices most easily dubbed as New Age or neopagan, so the tattoo as “tribal shield” of man, snake, dolphin, and bird boasted a deep connection with the wild and a more pantheistic perspective. Although too artsy to be entirely vulgar, the art at the center of this pantheon denoted the man’s genitals, which despite my generally immodest disposition at the time, still made me a little self-conscious to show the art in public.
In 2010, a year after my reconversion to Christ at age 41, I altered the second tattoo by adding a cross. The placement of the cross not only covered—or “put some pants on”—part of the man, it created a truly interspiritual symbol and statement; this new tattoo created from a previous one hopefully connects me to the green threads within Christianity. We are stewards of our home and advocates of “creation care,” readers of a “green letter” Bible and part of a movement for compassionate planet protection that unites many contemporary Jesus-followers. This tradition has always existed and includes St. Francis, Hildegard of Bingen, Celtic mystics among many others who see God as alive in the cosmos, integrated and interconnected and “panentheistic” (God in everything as opposed to the God as everything of pantheism). Today, I like to think of the frog as “fully relying on God” and still dream of adding more art to my body at a future time.