When you think of tattoos, what do you think of? Matching infinity signs for best friends? Large skulls on a guitarist’s back? What about a father-daughter tattoo to mark a unifying moment in their lives?

On my 19th birthday, my parents took me to get my first tattoo. I sat on the leather table and described in detail to the artist what I wanted. I had taken the last two and half years to research, design and pinpoint exactly what I wanted my first tattoo to be. It’s permanent, of course, so there would be no room for mistakes — it had to be perfect. For my first tattoo, I choose to get a miniature bear paw print to match my dad’s big one. My dad graduated from Baylor University in 1998, and it was always his dream that his little “bear cub” would go to Baylor, too. After I survived my freshman year, I found it only appropriate that I signify the occasion with something permanent.

After the artist had all the sketch details and loaded the ink, it was time for the needle. With my parents by my side, I laid down on my stomach with my hands under my head keeping my shoulder bare. When the artist put the loud, vibrating needle to my skin, the pain I felt can only be described as prickly. Imagine someone taking a safety pin and puncturing your skin over and over again.. I laid there for 20 minutes in pain while my parents streamed live to Facebook and laughed it up with Mark, the tattoo artist.

After what felt like forever, he was done and I was a new woman. Really, I was. My bear paw was perfect, absolutely flawless. What wasn’t so satisfying was the backlash I received from some of my Christian friends and family.

In many cultures, tattoos are a symbol of an important moment in one’s life or a lifelong career or passion.

In Samoa, a little collection of islands off the shore of Australia, the native’s tattoo tradition goes back more than 2000 years. Their tattoo, or tatau, is a grand, painful affair that lasts for days after they come of age (at around 16.) It symbolizes their transition into adulthood. One traditional tattoo artist’s song says, “Your necklace may break, the fau tree may burst, but my tattooing is indestructible. It is an everlasting gem that you will take into your grave.”

However, in Christian society, tattoos are taboo. Leviticus 19:28 says, “You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead, nor make any tattoo marks on yourselves; I am the Lord.” When I read this I thought, “Okay, cool! Don’t put anything on my body attached to the dead. Sorry Auntie, no upper arm memorial for you!” When arguing my point, I explained that nothing I had or would put on my body would disgrace God. I believed that what tattoos symbolized were beautiful. My second tattoo became a small arrow on my rib under the bear paw. My best friend Victoria got a matching one on the opposite side. The arrow with feathers and ribbon signified our friendship.

Through both experiences, I learned something important about myself and about the world.

What I learned about myself was that I love nothing more than my friends and family. If you look through my phone’s camera roll, you’ll see hundreds of photos of tattoos I want: lotus flowers, book quotes, complicated nerd figures and scriptures.

But the first two tattoos I got were for my loved ones, and I don’t regret that. I believe that our purpose is to love people. Simple as that.

Photo Credit: Michaela Schirra