May 30, 2012

The Dreaming Skin

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

New Wave

It has taken years and you have learned
To dream with your skin. A master now, you
Discard useless pieces of this growing brain;
Crumbs for the followers who stay behind.

You marvel at the effect of the moon as it
Guides your fluids, nourishing the ever
Changing parts of your new dream skin.
Your arms wither. Your bones melt together.

With the dolphins you swim the oceans of
Fantasy planets. But even this is a just an
Initiation; a preparation for your journey
To kiss the boundless belly of their sea god.
And then to join the throne of a new nation.

~ Neno Perrotta

The poem comes from The Penguin Review,Youngstown State's literary magazine. It's one that I've never been able to quite dislodge from memory. It sprang to mind this evening as I read this wonderful article on the spiritual power of tattooing.

Photographer Chris Ranier has contributed more than any to our understanding of tattoos as art in the truest sense -- as a medium of cultural communication. In the documentary culminating his two-decades of photographing tattoos in indigenous cultures, "Tattoo Odyssey," Ranier contends that tattoos in all cultures arise from "that basic human desire to belong, to be appreciated, and to go through some initiation process that gains an altered state of mind that says, 'I am who I am.'" In other words, tattoos often signify one's relationships, one's movement beyond her daily existence to another plane of reality, and a new awareness of a person's being-in-the-world. Tattooing, as art on the body, presents the bearer with several experiences that are rarely matched in the world, particularly the Western world.

. . .

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When a tattoo is affixed to a significant spiritual, relational or existential moment, the indelible ink is even more profound and can be powerful enough to return one to that state of spirituality. Like most significant experiences in one's life, the event of tattooing retains a place in our memory. We remember where we were and when the event occurred. Unlike these other experiences, however, tattoos retain their significance as visible reminders of an important, spiritual experience in our lives -- like footprints unaffected by the tides of time. Tattoos are fixed in living memory and thus they can serve as monuments, allowing one to retrace one's spiritual and existential pilgrimage.

. . .

It is in vogue to be "spiritual, not religious." Spirituality tends toward the immanent, the inward-focused experience of seeking enlightenment or communing with the Spirit. Religion tends toward the transcendent, the outward extension of oneself to God and neighbor. The irony of tattooing is that ink can erase this distinction. Just as art has always conjoined the spiritual and the religious, tattoos can combine the inward and outward expressions of a spiritual or significant experience, literally, as art on the body.

Ink has been on my mind of late. That may be due to recent discussions about the Biblical prohibition against tattooing and the fierce irony of an anti-gay activist sporting a Leviticus 18:22 tattoo.

"Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the Lord." ~ Leviticus 19:28

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What occurs to me this evening as I read about the role of tattoos in initiation and transformation rituals, is that in that little slice of scripture is another insidious tool to prevent people from experiencing a personal interface with the divine. As I wrote here on the second commandment and the iconoclast movements, suppression of religious art closes a key gateway to the ecstatic experience of the numinous.

Art is one of the most powerful and immediate ways to depict core mythologies and archetypes. And myth has the ability to, as Joseph Campbell put it, make us "transparent to the transcendent."

. . .

This, at least, is how I experience spiritual artwork. I have always had a certain fondness for religious art and iconography. But as my spiritual path has deepened, so has my love for images of angels, gods, goddesses, the Buddha, and, well, many other things in heaven above and on the earth below.

Me? I have no tattoos. I have my reasons. But I do have piercings and while those cuts were not for the dead, they are emblems of significant death/rebirth transitions. They marked dramatic eruptions of self-hood. There is much power in body modification; even the temporary acts of hair cuts and color changes. Those are rituals I've performed many times -- ecstatic moments that felt like shedding skins. But there is something marvelously brave about permanent markings.

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