Hearing Voices from the Alternative Culture

By Heather Webb

Copyright © 2000 Mars Hill Review 16 Winter/Spring 2000 · Issue 16: pgs 49-54.

"But if the servant declares, 'I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,' then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life." --Exodus 21:5-6

"Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but my ears you have pierced; burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require. . . . I desire to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart." --Psalm 40:6,8

My first day of teaching in Seattle, I stepped into Noah's Bagel and was greeted by a salesgirl with rings and studs around both ears, eyebrows, and nose. At that time, it was the most elaborate piercing I had come across. Being an easterner, from what is traditional, historic, and rooted, moving west has brought numerous discoveries. There is a rejection of tradition and social strata, which once was based on money, or the length of time one's family has lived in the state. Rank and file seems abandoned. In our North American culture, the west has been emblematic of freedom, expansion, and escape. This is not necessarily everyone's story in the west, certainly not that of Native Americans. However, for many migrants over the past 100 years, coming west meant opportunity.

How are the young people of today living out those unspoken expectations of yesteryear? In our internet-access global neighborhoods, Seattle's culture may not be that dissimilar from Nashville, Des Moines, Richmond, or Jacksonville. Two elements, which stand out in Seattle's Gen X culture, are body-piercing and tattooing. These people, who communicate in an unspoken language, are addressing the rest of culture. It is a language of design, description, and confrontation. You hear it because you see it. "In case you might miss it, we'll put it on our face, around our eyes, on our lip, in our nose, you won't miss it." In attempting to understand this culture, what has intrigued me most is the issue of pain. These young people are saying something about what they do with their own pain and the world's pain. What are they attempting to communicate to the rest of us?

I am grateful for two friends, Tim and Jason, who have spent time educating me on the issues at stake for them as they participate in and minister to this alternative culture. These two men are seminary students, one in his mid-twenties and the other in his early thirties. As one of the faculty, I enjoyed hearing them wrestle with what they learn in school and applying it to the context of their ministry and "home." Tim described his current street ministry in Seattle having done "work with motorcycle gangs and rock 'n roll kids in the past." Both men felt that they were more comfortable with the people they encountered in a tattoo shop than they were with those in a traditional church. There is a sense of disenfranchisement with the former places of Christian encounter and fellowship and a new self-identification with a group that thinks, looks, and talks as they do. The only difference they saw in themselves and others around them in the tattoo shop was their religious affiliation. They saw their presence in the shop as one of sharing what they believe in the context of being known and knowing the people around them.

Seattle is known not only for its alternative "grunge" culture but also for its plentiful coffee shops. Here, there is a subculture of coffee shops that rivals any local church on a Sunday morning. Interestingly, Jason described the content of what is discussed at a tattoo shop, as "we talk about things people would never talk about in a coffee shop." They believe there is more honesty about who people are and are not. It is this authenticity that drew my friends and kept them there. They had not experienced that in other arenas. My friends were also encouraged by the fact that it was not uncommon for the artwork to reflect theological themes.

What these young people are acting out, whether or not it is acknowledged, is the pursuit of a ritual that will add meaning to their lives. As Tom Driver put it, "freedom cannot survive in conditions of moral chaos. One of the functions of ritual is to mark the pathways for morality to follow."{1} These acts performed by and in community are organizing events for living together. Ritual shapes their involvement and interactions. It identifies them with their group. Ritual is the place where people "make known to each other the often veiled truths of their existence." There is power in the performance.

Movement towards Beauty

Although to many outside the alternative culture the body modifications of piercing, tattooing, and scarring may not seem "beautiful," within the tattoo culture it can be. As my friend Tim put it, "for many it is a work of art which represents something. They are looking to put something on their body that is a representation of some part of them . . . and what they've experienced." It is a portable scrapbook of significant moments, shaping images and reflecting their taste in art. This objective work can enhance their sense of attractiveness. The tattoo artists have a collection of photos showing off their abilities and past "work" so that prospective buyers can review their work and determine which is the right artist to illustrate their image. The artist's work may also suggest an image for a potential tattoo buyer.

Tattoo art is beautiful in that it captures a moment or metaphor that the person wishes to incorporate into who they see themselves to be and who they see themselves becoming. The symbols speak not only to the wearer but also to the world at large. These men told stories of people who chose to deal with struggle and pain from the past through decorative artwork. The art reflected their sense of being healed and accomplishment. Tim put it this way, "getting this done is very important to who they are, a milestone in their lives. They can't escape the transcendence of it." It offers a new perspective on the future because of a past that has been overcome.

This idea of showing a story is significant not just on a personal level but a spiritual one as well. Driver writes, "the mutilations of the garments and even of the body, all these are the appropriate ritual that not only expresses but produces the emotion . . . think of circumcisions, scarifications, elaborate body decorations--the body is dedicated to the service of display. It is offered as the vehicle of communication on the account of which it may be irrevocably changed."{2} There is emotion stirred and a permanent change in one's status. This represents the participant's seriousness to enter the meaning of the ritual.

This move towards a different kind of beauty comes at a cost. For many in the alternative culture, they are paying the price to be included in a group or lifestyle. They are comfortable seeing the alternative culture as "home." However, they are also aware that by "buying in" they are signing out of acceptance in the eyes of a broader cut of society. There is inclusion in their community, but it is also an exclusion from the wider social body. At times that can encompass family, friends, and employers. They can feel treated like outcasts.

Pain: What Is It Good For?

My friends were hesitant to describe the presence of pain in the act of being pierced or tattooed. They were aware that it is this element that raises the most eyebrows in terms of social acceptance. "Isn't that just sadistic or masochistic?" The pain can be so strong that it is not uncommon for people to go into convulsions. Depending on where the tattoo is, the pain can be excruciating. People may choose to get a tattoo in a painful place to symbolize a painful event they survived.

When asked, "If there were a pill to take which could remove the pain so that you did not feel anything, would you take it?" Both men told me they would definitely not take it. For them, the pain is part of the experience. There is a sense of pride for having gone through it. It is a form of suffering which they see as valuable in and of itself. In a response to the book Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X, one reviewer put it this way; "suffering is seen as spiritual by many in this generation and provides a common starting point for all."{3} Tim said, "I equate it with the sufferings Jesus went through . . . pain helps us relate to what is going on around us." Jason described this as, "the pain and the product [tattoo] are a gift." There is something in the pain that awakens their sense of aliveness and offers them something which felt lacking.

Both men agreed there were excesses of seeking pain in their community. Jason described sadomasochism as "a pursuit of hedonism because their pleasure is pain." At times this unusual form of pleasure can also have sexual overtones. This could be, in part, because in our culture sexuality is no longer taboo. As Jason commented, "perversion is a lot more public . . . they've lost the sense of pain." Pain may be the next frontier because we've lost sensation of our bodies. It keeps taking more pain to feel anything.

This idea of pain commingled with sexuality is evident as well in the symbolism of some of the body piercing. One tattooed woman wrote, "The pain? It's a very embraceable pain. It's odd. It feels like you're being scratched by a cat while you're being massaged by magic fingers. The area that is being worked on is hot. Add that to the vibrations of the machine and the pain is transformed into a strange, sexual sensation."{4} They informed me that many head-piercers travel to tribal cultures where they still pierce to learn about their religions and why they are doing what they do. One of the labels for the current tattoo culture is "neo-tribal." People can connect with these acts in their own piercing on whatever level they choose. So it can have a spiritual significance but may not in every case. It is significant that this form of body decoration continues in premodern cultures, for us to return is to return to our own roots. In a review of the past, "there are historic and psychological links between ritual and violence."{5} Although it may appear new, what is going on with the youth of our culture has deep historical roots.

Pain is an attempt to feel something, is against shallow living, and helps us see appearances "more to life." Pain is an effort at sensory stimulation, heightened awareness. What comes after drugs and sex are things accepted and available--what's left to rebel with that is new and different? Garrison Keillor put it this way; "young people pierce their bodies so they can see what pain actually feels like."{6}

Seeking pain can be an indication that something is wrong that needs to be paid for, justified, or made right. It can also be seen as an attempt to "feel" anything at all. Could it be our youth are saying, "I'm too numb to feel anything short of pain"? Instead of going off to war we have survival stories of the places of pain where we submitted our flesh to the tattoo artist's tools. It requires a new form of bravery and courage. To feel is a human desire. Some say our feelings make us human. In our cyberworld it is helpful to recall, computers don't have them. In terms of community dealing with their feelings, "blood-letting and love are two aspects of one event in religious rituals therefore ritual directs aggressive impulses in ways that are beneficial to the group."{7} Rituals create space for feelings to be relieved, experienced, and transformed for the good of the larger community.

Gen X--What Are They Saying to Us?

As we talked it became clear that the notion of pain-seeking was another form of the Gen X tendency to "do more extreme stuff"--popular "extreme" sports as representing the adventurous spirit of their generation. Tim said his generation enjoys "taking something to a new level that has a lot of risk and pleasure." And they are willing to endure a great deal of pain to get there.

When asked what is the message the younger generation is trying to tell the rest of us in those activities of piercing and tattooing, my friends did not hesitate in their response. They both believed the message is "we are asking to be accepted for who we are not for what we look like . . . let me display who I am." That doesn't sound radically different from the message of the previous youth cultures to the broader audience. Looks may change but the desire remains the same.

In essence, I heard their request as, "Do you see me? Am I given the chance to be human and known before you dismiss me because of what is on the surface that may startle, surprise, or even offend you." Those words make an answer to the question, "How do I respond?" rather self-evident. I have an opportunity to encounter others who are different from me and who may not expect to receive my recognition, interest, and curiosity. What might it be like to enter their world versus standing outside it with doubt and fear? They might even welcome me in, tell me their stories, and I might leave changed in the process. That was my experience. Instead of finding only an angry voice of rebellion behind these new forms of personal expression, I heard a more mature, thoughtful, critical yet hopeful voice. I found richness to their perspective that convicted and challenged my own presuppositions and prejudgments.

This is what my friends do. They live among these people and attempt to model a very different Christianity than that which the people at the tattoo shop have encountered. One tattoo artist has a bumper sticker on her wall that reads, "Jesus protect me from your followers." Unfortunately, she had numerous stories to tell of why that protection was needed. I am grieved by the track record that others need protection from Christians. My friends work at identifying with these people and are honest with them about their own struggles and doubts. Their hope is that in the process their culture may be transformed and redeemed. Although, my friends said, "don't expect them to look like you do."

In seeking a painful experience, some may be attempting to fulfill a sense of justice. This controlled pain experiment can provide us temporary relief from our burden of being broken, wounded people in a dark world. If part of what this culture is saying is more than thrill-seeking adventure, perhaps there is something they are asking for. Maybe the question is something like, "Is there someone out there big enough to handle my struggles to live in a land of broken homes, nuclear threat, broken dreams?" These ritual acts for them have the power "to restore order when it is lost."{8} As the psalmist wrote, "sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but my ears you have pierced, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require . . . I desire to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart" (Psalm 40:6). Ears were pierced as a sign of slavery and belonging to another in service. In the biblical witness, the act of piercing was also associated with knowing who God is and what God desires of his people. This outward expression became a symbol of a desire to be a servant of God for life. It paints a picture that restores spiritual order. It is interesting that this symbol still lives on.

Ours is a culture that refutes innocence and shortens childhood. Today's youth ask, "Can you see me and respond without judging me only for my appearance?" In my moments of being the alien and outsider I have found acceptance in Christ. Perhaps the embrace I received is wide enough to extend it to those who feel abandoned and scared. Christ's work centered on reconciling the world to God. Will they experience reconciliation through my treatment, curiosity, and desire to connect? Can I get to the point in relationship with these brothers and sisters to love them enough to hear their questions?

I wish to extend my thanks to Jason Peterson and Tim Knox who were gracious teachers to their teacher. I enjoyed being your student.

{1} Tom F. Driver, The Magic of Ritual (San Francisco: Harper, 1991), p. 119.

{2} Driver, p. 88.

{3} Tom Beaudoin, Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999). Reviewed by Duncan MacLeod in Crumbs Journal (Winter 1999).

{4} Amy Krakow, The Total Tattoo Book (New York: Warner Books, 1994), p. 86.

{5} Driver, p. 46.

{6} Garrison Keillor, "Lake Wobegon Days," Monologue, (National Public Radio, August 7, 1999).

{7} Driver, p. 155.

{8} Driver, p. 137.