I’ve pondered for some time on the psychology of tattoos. Why do people feel they must go through a certain amount of real pain to make permanent changes to their bodies? What is it with tattoos?

I’m not sure I know the answer, but I think it is not disconnected with the current phenomenon of gender re-assignment and gender choice. What is lurking behind the behaviors?

I believe it is an identity issue. For lots of reasons people are rootless and lack a real sense of who they are. Broken families, increased mobility, sexual promiscuity, unemployment, the decline of religion, fear of commitment, delayed or denial of marriage–all these social factors lead to a lack of social cohesion in which our identity is formed.

Our identity is formed through relationships. Other people affirm or deny our identity. We are not isolated units. Other people make us who we are. Therefore, in a quest to establish an identity we devise one for ourselves. The individualists believe they are crafting their own unique identity, but they are really putting together a package that they think will win them approval of someone who matters to them.

The current wave of transgenderism among teens has been shown to be connected to strong peer pressure, for example. Whatever manufactured identities are out there, they are invariably created to impress someone somewhere.

Which brings me to tattoos. Why would anyone wish to get a tattoo and so alter their bodies painfully and permanently? It is because they want to show off to someone. What is a tattoo except an outward mark of identity in order to show it to others? You don’t get tattoos to cover them, and even tattoos in intimate areas are put there so someone can see it during a moment of intimacy.

The people who are supposed to be impressed are invariably members of a particular tribe and the tattoo is a self imposed initiation rite. It says, “I am here. I am part of this tribe. I am wearing the badge.” This is the meaning of tattoos in primitive tribal settings and it is no different despite our modern techno-fancy world. Human psychology doesn’t change that much.

Is there anything wrong with this behavior? Not really, except that the need to belong to the tribe may indicate a weak character formation. The person hasn’t enough authentic identity of his own so he or she needs to belong to the tribe.

The paradox is that the folks who work so hard at their individualism do so in order to be accepted by the tribe of inividualists who just happen to look remarkably alike. They all have the same weird haircuts, the same grungy clothes and the same wacky ideas…and the same extreme tats.

Critics might say the same of church goers–“You Christians all look alike. You have joined a tribe just like everyone else.” Certainly church communities can fall into tribal like behaviors, but the true Christian spirituality calls for each individual to find his or her identity in Christ. In the call to be saints each of us is summoned to “grow up into the full humanity of Christ Jesus”–to become unique icons of Christ in the world, and anybody who has learned about the saints can remark with wonder at the uniqueness of each of them. They are not members of a tribe.

They are members of a family.