Culture At Large

T-shirts as temporary tattoos

Bill VanGroningen

During a recent visit to New Orleans, I wondered what I might notice about its culture. After a devastating hurricane, a Super Bowl celebration and all the national attention that attends such things, I wondered what might arrest my attention or catch my curiosity. As it turned out, it wasn’t any of the usual suspects.

The beignets were covered in sugar, jazz of all kinds could be heard most everywhere, the edgy dereliction of licentious living was on full display, the Cajun cuisine did not disappoint and the street artists invariably tickled the fancy of the passing tourists. Yet what arrested my attention and caught my curiosity were the t-shirts.

It is perhaps a bit of an overstatement, but not by much, to suggest that every establishment in the French Quarter and over in the downtown area of New Orleans sold t-shirts. Bars sold them. Drug stores stocked them. Curio shops displayed them. There were several stalls laden with them at the open-air market. Shops catering to Mardi Gras masks and other festival occasions were festooned with them.  They were everywhere.

And that’s when I realized that they are pretty much everywhere else too. Wherever we live and work and play, we sell t-shirts imprinted with this or that as a fund-raiser; we buy them as remembrances; we use them to identify support staff at a public event, or to proclaim that we are part of a group, a movement, a charity, whatever.

What are we to make of this cultural phenomenon? Perhaps we wear t-shirts as markers - they mark places, events, roles, experiences that we’ve enjoyed. Could it be that t-shirts function in our culture as a form of temporary tattoos?

Body art in general and tattoos in particular are a form of personal expression. Most of the time, these expressions become an enduring part of our body. Piercings may eventually heal and some tattoo ink can be removed, but mostly they are there for the duration. Tattoos often commemorate something of significance to the wearer - a design with the word ‘mother’ or a remembrance like ‘beloved’ or ‘forgiven.' But whatever the manner, or the commemoration, body art lasts a long time and is indelibly transcribed into our skin.

So it seems that t-shirts may indeed function in our culture as a form of tattoo-lite. In a fast-food culture focused on convenience, personal expression and acclaiming the next new experience, t -shirts are great. They are cheap, disposable markers that can help satisfy our desire for personal expression. But perhaps it would also be prudent for us to be discerning in our use of them.

In what ways do we best mark ourselves as Christ followers who are free to enjoy all of creation’s gifts? Could it be that some of our methods of marking ourselves get in the way of a publicly faithful and enduring commitment to the kingdom of God? Can something as seemingly insignificant as a t-shirt help or hurt the cause of Christ in our world?

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