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 with baitcasting reel.”
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”, these are the same kind of women that use facial serums for aging and other beauty products like the best charcoal face mask to keep their skin amazing and to define their self-image.

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.

12 Responses to PCA Pastor Explores What Tattoos Say About the Self and the Soul

  1. Raine Thompson says:

    What a great testimony, build a church to the honour of God and then go and share His word in a Bar! Thank you for the insight into people with Tattoos. I come from the demographic that find Tattos uncomfortable and literally I just close my eyes so as not see them and be disgusted. You have given me inspiration to look at the person-just as Jesus did. Thank you from Canberra, the capital of Australia.

  2. James A Smith says:

    I often wondered why people wanted to write on their bodies. My sons have them and they are both committed believers. I am now 65 and got my first tattoo last year. It matches a gothic cross necklace I gave to my wife that she wears daily. To me my tattoo honors my God and my wife. I will always be His (and hers) forever.

  3. William Thomas says:

    I always felt it was their righteousness. Tattoos are what makes people feel special, unique. In today’s world, where we make up our own identity, we need to have something that tells us that that identity is valid. However, our made up identities are very fragile. They need constant reinforcing. Tattoos accomplish that in some measure. They say, “this is who I am” and their permanence cements that thought. It may not have the permanence of our identities in Christ, but it’s something.

  4. Connice Dyar says:

    My son has numerous tattoos and they all tell a story. I’ve grown to love every one of them and like you, ask others about theirs. You learn a lot about other people.
    My son has a beautiful one in my honor with a great story behind it. He told me he got his ‘mom’ tattoo to always be reminded how much I love him and he loves me.
    Love your idea of a church in a blues bar. You have to love people enough to want to go where they are. Jesus went where the people were…
    I work with a Nascar team….these are people that for many of them, they will never want to step inside a church but they’ll play golf with you or have a beer with you. Just find a way to be with people and step outside the ‘bubble’.
    Thanks for your words!

  5. Atwood Brooks says:

    God decorated me just the way He wants me. I don’t think I should put graffiti on His work. But I know I don’t honor in Him as I should in other ways and that’s what I pray for help with.

  6. This is a helpful lesson in the course of loving people. Why we do is often more important than what we do. Thanks for redeeming tatoos, Mark and Allen!

  7. John Monroe says:

    Our son asked what the Bible said about tattoos. A pastor came up with this. He is still tattoo free!

    Leviticus 19:28 You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead nor make any tattoo marks on yourselves: I am the Lord.

  8. Beth M. says:

    I got my first tattoo a year after my husband was killed in a car accident…i was 36 years old. An anchor representing Hebrews 6:19 to remind me that God is my hope and my anchor every single day and with him I can do anything and persevere through all trials.

  9. I’m with John Monroe’s response, the Holy Bible’s answer

  10. Lee Ferguson says:

    It is interesting that John and Mary’s response references Lev 19:28. This same chapter forbids the following:planting two types of seed in the same field, wearing a garment made with two fabrics (example you could not wear a cotton/linen blend), harvesting fruit off of new fruit trees for 3 years, not trimming the edges of your beard. It seems unlikely that anyone in the PCA would hold that those prohibition hold for today. So why the tattoos? It seems in the context that the prohibition is about tattoos and cuttings that were related to the false worship of the Canaanites and so does not seem to apply outside of that same context to believers today.

  11. Allen Baldwin says:

    Should we get them or not is a different question. One worth asking of course. But why we have them is this topic and there is much to learn.

    We seem to be struggling deeply with promoting righteousness and loving sinners simultaneously. I know I am! I have more trouble with the latter and I want to improve but I don’t want to forget the former.

  12. Rachel Redfield says:

    Over 40 years ago, as a missionary teacher on the island of Taiwan, I met an indigenous elderly man in the remote mountains of the island with numerous stripes tattooed on his face. An itinerant evangelist, he shared his story with me through a fellow missionary who interpreted for him. As a young man, the evangelist had practiced head-hunting as was the custom of his people. Each stripe represented a head he had taken. When he heard the good news of Jesus, he responded to his love and forgiveness, and committed his life to sharing the gospel among his people. His tattooed stripes were a reminder of the blood he had shed, yet he had a Savior whose shed blood covered all his sin and redeemed him as his own.