Allan Dayhoff was in line at Starbucks when he noticed the tattoo on the arm of the man in front of him — an image of a fisherman reeling in a catch.
“I like your tattoo,” Dayhoff said.
No reply.
“Does it have a story?”
The man turned slightly and, in a tone that indicated he didn’t want to be bothered, said, “I like fishing.”
The line was moving slowly. Dayhoff gently persisted.
“You like fishing?”
The man replied, “Well, my dad likes fishing.”
Dayhoff, a fisherman himself, kept angling for more: “So your dad likes fishing?”
“My dad just died.”
“I’m so sorry.”
The two stood in silence as the line moved forward. When the man got to the front he suddenly wheeled around, looked Dayhoff in the eye, and blurted, “The (bleep) never took me fishing.”
He turned back, got his drink, and was gone. Conversation over.

For Dayhoff, it was just another day at the office, so to speak. In fact, it was part of an ongoing research project … about tattoos, and what they say about the self and the soul.

Dayhoff believes tattoos go deeper than even the wearer might realize, that the skin art is tapping into something
 buried inside.

Dayhoff interviewed 300 people and visited several tattoo parlors, all to learn more about what it means — almost literally — to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve. Or in this case, one’s art on one’s skin.

He’s written about it in a new self-published book, “God & Tattoos: Why Are People Writing on Themselves?”

Dayhoff, 55, had been a PCA pastor in Chantilly, Virginia, where he planted Grace Fellowship Church. It had grown steadily for two decades and in 2012 built a new $5 million building. The sanctuary was filled on that first Sunday. But when he finished preaching that day, Dayhoff walked out … and never looked back.

“The tipping point was realizing that I had become so disconnected from the non-Christian world. I love pastoring. I love children. I love the marrying and burying. But, I’d been walking on Christian carpet and drinking Christian coffee all those years; I suddenly felt an element of despair. But I didn’t know what to do next.”

The answer, or at least part of it, lay about halfway between the church and his home — at a local blues bar. Dayhoff started hanging out there and making friends, “even after they outed me as a minister.” He began inviting his new friends to his home, but when he invited them to an Easter service at a local church, “Every one of them said, ‘No, we do not go in buildings like that. If you want to do church, do it in the blues bar.’”

So he did. Dayhoff chronicled that adventure in another book, “Church in a Blues Bar: Listening to Hear.” And along the way, he started taking notice of people’s tattoos. Not just in the pub, but also at conferences and seminars. As he began asking people for the stories behind their tattoos, he came to regard the ink as more than mere images, more than just skin deep.

The Live Canvas of the Skin

“Tattoos are a whole language,” he says. “The inside is writing on the outside, telling its secrets and stories on the live canvas of the skin.”

40 percent of U.S. adults 26 – 40 have at least one tattoo.
– Statistics Brain

Dayhoff uses other metaphors to describe tattoos — stained glass windows, totems, and poetry, for example. He even likens them to a form of “social media,” in which people publicly proclaim their identity … and even their ideology.

But whatever the metaphor, he believes tattoos go deeper than even the wearer might realize, that the skin art is tapping into something buried inside. For example, a woman with red roses tattooed on her arm said she didn’t know why she’d chosen that motif, until years later when looking through an old photo album — and she noticed that her grandmother, now deceased, always had red roses around the house.

Dayhoff believes that “the subconscious, or the image of God, is speaking through the tattoo. The human soul asks three questions: Where did I come from? Why am I here? And what happens after I die? Tattoos are asking those things.”

Many people wear tats as memorials. Dayhoff has met people with art remembering:

a childhood best friend who died in fourth grade
a mother who had been taken by breast cancer
a baby lost to sudden infant death syndrome
a fellow soldier who was killed in Desert Storm

And many more. But the one that pierced Dayhoff’s heart was a 20ish woman whose tattoo depicted a little girl skipping. The woman had gotten pregnant as a teen, and her boyfriend convinced her to get an abortion. “She’d be 2 and a half years old now,” the woman said, wistfully. “I put her on my skin to always remember her.”

For many, such tattoos are living tombstones. “People are putting the dead all over their skin,” Dayhoff explains.

From Chick Magnets 
to Slave Markers

One woman had a tattoo “of me and the moon. The moon keeps me company when I’m lonely.” One young woman had a picture of a message in a bottle, “for my soul mate, so he can find his way to me.”

One man simply said, “Tattoos are chick magnets.” Another woman explained that her tattoo of a crown was put there by her pimp, “who lets me work for him, and we make money together. We all gotta do what we all gotta do, right?” Her tat meant that she’d been marked for the slave trade.

Christians Need to Engage

Dayhoff encourages Christians to engage with people who have tattoos, to ask about them and the stories behind them. Such conversations can lead to new friendships and even opportunities to evangelize — though many with tats are also Christians.

Dayhoff himself doesn’t have a tattoo. He admits this has “hurt my credibility” with the tattoo crowd. When one of them recently asked what kind of tattoo he would get should he choose so, Dayhoff surprised himself with his reply: “I would write over my heart to my grandchildren: I cannot love you more than I already love you.”

Mark Moring is a freelance writer 
in Atlanta.