I wish I could have attended the event organized by Artists 4 Israel who tattooed wounded soldiers and survivors of terrorism. In some cases, they covered scars with beautiful new graphics, in other cases, people chose to place their body art elsewhere. The special event took place last week at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
Tattooing in a museum?!
It may sound weird but it is actually the most profound kind of performance art possible. Maybe art imitates life, or life imitates art but in this case, art was used to celebrate life.
People who have survived terrorism and war have scars. Sometimes they are the physical scars of wounds. Other times they are the emotional scars caused by being exposed to things people should not see. Often they carry both types of scars.
The problem with scars is that they do not go away. Wounds heal and scars can even fade but they don’t disappear. This is true for both kinds of scars. Survivors go on with their lives, they can live and be happy but the scars remain.
Imagine that every time you get dressed you see a vivid reminder of the most terrible experience of your life. Imagine looking in the mirror and seeing evidence of horror someone else chose to inflict on you. Now imagine it is not something you see on yourself that throws you back to the moment of horror, it is something external that triggers the memory. A sound, a smell that reminds you… something no one else understands but never fails to bring back the trauma.
Sometimes it is easier to deal with physical scars than emotional scars. At least the physical others can see and understand a little. In both cases, it is not the scar itself that is the real issue rather what it symbolizes.
Choice makes all the difference in the world. Defining your own experience is a matter of empowerment. When someone else chooses to inflict horror on you it is devastating. You didn’t choose to carry the scars of their brutality. Trauma can steal away emotional control. Imagine that you are having a positive experience and suddenly something triggers the memory of a terrible experience, suddenly you are not in the here and now, you are back in the horror of what was done to you. Just carrying the knowledge in the back of your head that there is the possibility that suddenly, something else will control your experience can be terrifying.
Tattooing survivors is a way to turn ugly physical scars into beautiful images. More importantly, it is a way to choose. The tattoo is a reminder of a different experience or thought, something that inspires the individual. It is the symbol of an idea to latch on to. A new memory. It is an indelible reminder that the survivor may not have been free to choose his or her experience but they are free to choose their reaction to it.
It’s a symbol that anyone can ‘paint their own way” – this is not to say that this is easy but it is a matter of choice.
The courageous Kay Wilson was one of the people tattooed at the event (if you are not yet familiar with her story, you can read about her here). Her choice is deeply moving: the words of a Jewish prayer said every morning upon awakening, giving thanks to God for restoring the soul to the body after sleep. It gives thanks for life, with the acknowledgment that each day is a gift, not to be taken for granted. In a way, it is also a statement of choice, that God could have chosen not to restore life.
These are Kay’s words. I dare you to read this and remain unmoved.
I wasn’t going to write about this, but seeing as this event is already in the national news, I might as well share it here. This is me at the Israel Museum at an event organized by Artists 4 Israel who tattooed wounded soldiers and survivors of terrorism.
One man had a tattoo of the signature of his murdered son which I thought was extremely powerful. I decided to get a small wristband with the Jewish prayer “I give thanks to you O living and eternal King, that in your compassion you have restored my very breath. Great is your faithfulness.”
In Hebrew, this prayer is called “Moda Ani.” It is the first words that Jewish people say upon waking up. Well, I say this prayer 1000’s times a day because I am thankful that I am still alive.
“Moda” not only means gratitude it carries the same root letters of the word “Jew.” So, as a grateful Jewish person, I am going to carry on bearing witness to the life and death of my friend, continue to do all that I can to expose and defund the incitement in the Palestinian Authority and continue to be thankful for the goodness of my people Israel.
To the minority who may object because of “religious” reasons, I am aware that the Torah prohibits tattoos. It also prohibits anti-Torah and anti-Jewish traits such as unkindness, judgment, self-righteousness, prejudice and many other things that I personally find so easy to do.
Now to the best part.
It was none other than an Arab artist who tattooed the Jewish Hebrew prayer on my wrist. I love the BW photo (courtesy Mandy Detwiler) not only because his face is just so very kind, but because of the magnificence of an Arab marking me with tenderness and hope.
Think about this. Remember it.
Next time you experience something difficult, the next time you start to feel sorry for yourself, remember Kay’s choice. She could have chosen bitterness and hate. Instead, she chose love and life.
Instead of “Why me?” she chose to say “Moda ani” – “I thank you.”
Do you see how powerful choice is?
And if Kay can paint her own way, you can too.