“My parents were pretty firm about me not getting tattoos, but when I turned 18, I was out with some friends, and we decided to get tattoos. For fifty bucks I got, ‘Faith, hope, and love,’ in the language from Star Wars called the Aurebesh on my ribcage. I hid it from my parents for over a year, maybe two.
“Then I went to college. The spring semester of freshmen year, I went with a friend who got back from study abroad to get tattoos and I got an owl. It’s pretty large. So later on in the spring when I went home, my parents found out I had tattoos because I couldn’t really hide the owl. They said, ‘You made this choice, we’re writing you out of the will.’” Phil laughed a little. “Maybe that’s changed and they haven’t told me but that was the initial response. I don’t know, they were really calm about it. I’m not sure what weird extension of grace that is.”
I asked if having tattoos still caused strife when Philip went home. “No,” he answered. “I got one in April; before then my mom said, ‘No more.’ And then I got another one and she said, ‘Ok, ok now no more.’ I guess that’s the response now.
“This one says ‘Prototypical Nonconformist.’ It’s a Say Anything lyric, which is a movie and also a band. It’s from their song ‘Admit It.’ It’s all about going against the dogmas of society. I got it because it’s a reminder to be different. As Christians, we’re all doing the same thing, but that doesn’t mean we can’t stick out, you know?
“And then I have ‘Imago deI’ here. That one is pretty self-explanatory; it means the image of God in Latin. Although, for the dei, the ‘d’ is not capitalized but the ‘i’ is. I got that after I worked on campus for admissions. I went to eight different states and it was really cool to see how a church in Portland may function differently from a church in Oklahoma, but all are made in God’s image. In Latin the ‘d’ is capitalized but I felt really uncomfortable with that on myself since I am not God. Even though we are made in His image, we’re not on the same level. So I got the ‘i’ capitalized to focus on the fact that I am the image. I’m not God, I’m not close to God. I am just an image. I’m just reflecting who God is, I’m just reflecting His love instead of claiming to be Him.
“I have Africa on my ankle down here. My brother got that for me as a birthday present. I went to Africa in December of 2015 and the experience there really changed my life even though I was only there for two weeks. The tattoo is a reminder to pray for those people and remember the experiences there.
“And then there’s the barn owl taking flight like I talked about earlier. That’s like a tribute to home. My mom’s side of the family has always collected owls. Not real owls,” he clarified. “Like little figurines.
“I made a lot of stupid decisions in high school so the owl is taking flight away from that and since owls stand for wisdom, it symbolizes moving towards wisdom. When I came to college I was determined to not fall into the same habits or routines.
“Freshmen year of college is pretty normal, nobody shows the weird side of them. But I became aware that just being at a Christian college doesn’t mean that temptations don’t exist. That fall, the guys on my hall and I were pretty close, but one of our hallmates got caught up into drugs and actually hung himself in our hall. We were all very shaken, a few of us went home for a little while. Lipscomb has done a good job at forgetting about it. We came together as a hall but it was crazy. His name was Isaac and he was this happy guy. But he got in an oppressive mindset and he used drugs and it skyrocketed, I guess. After seeing that I realized I didn’t want to be in that lifestyle ever again. So that was in the back of mind as I finished the semester. I went into spring, the hall was back to normal, and I was thinking about what I could get to remind myself and stand for symbolically stepping away.
“That’s when I decided on the owl. Owls are solemn and rare. I liked the idea of the rarity and the wisdom that is associated with the bird. I started to really miss my family and feel guilty for all the things I had done in high school and kept from them. So when I went home, after my parents found out about it, we had a really good conversation just talking about what the tattoo meant to me and why it should matter to them. I wanted them to know that it was a reminder that I was moving forward.
“That started a new season with my parents and being honest and more open about things. Once that guilt and the initial shame of my parents finding out I had a tattoo had worn off, it was comforting to know that they were fully involved. So I guess this tattoo was a really cool gateway to getting closer to my parents,” he paused. “Even though they kind of hate it. It’s really cool to see how something that should’ve torn us apart, God used to draw us together. They may not respect it, but it did unify us.”
I asked Philip if he had any closing thoughts to add. “I just think it’s really easy for us as millennials to find meaning in things and immediately put it on our body. Through the unsteadiness in interactions I’ve had with my family about tattoos, I’ve realized you need to be sure that the tattoo you get is valuable to you. I think that’s it.”
Thanks to Philip Grimsley for sharing his story.
Thanks to Andrew Nelson for photographing.