Pulp Realities Through Tattoo Stories

By Eric Brown

It’s hard to think about my work with the Children’s Defense Fund, without thinking about the stories I hear from high school students. I learned in my church’s “Youth Round Up,” that my teens would not open up to me until I opened up to them. I open up to my teens the best way I know—my tattoos.

Because of my tattoos, I receive stares from people who assume negative stereotypes. Far from popular belief, my tattoos were not scars of a violent past of gang affiliation. All of my tattoos were acquired post-ministry calling.  When people ask me, “Why would you do that to your body,” this is an opportunity for me to tell the complexities of my personal narrative and my struggle of keeping my faith. Afterwards, their eyes are open and they see me in a different light, wanting to know more and willing to let go of preconceived notions.

When I tell my story through my tattoos to teens, they never look down on me. They take my tattoo story telling as an invitation to tell their own narrative. My faith and my work to dismantle a cradle to prison pipeline, a pipeline that devours the lives of 1 out of every 3 black males born after 2001 and transforms them from student to prisoner, is etched into my brain like the ink in my skin.

I could not do this work of going in and out of the identical twins— high schools and prisons—if it were not for the fact I believe we are made in the image of Hope that many know as God. My hope does not come in the form of white angelic heavens with gold paved streets.

My hope is found in the stories of teens who once were eight year old kids left with guns in bedrooms accidentally shooting themselves to the beat of bass-driven parties downstairs.  My hope is found in black boys that watched cops kick in their door with the permission of a No Knock Warrant, as cops looked in the house for drugs and exile parent from child.  These black boys become teens who are reminded that their family history is a premonition of their own future.  These kids are put down for having dreams as disbelieving adults asks, “Can anything good come from Nazareth… I mean North Nashville?”

Because I am an addict of a Hope that runs through my veins, I say yes. I say yes because of the Afrofuturistic art that comes from a black male teen that show the systemic forces that affect and infect his everyday reality. Those same pictures give him and others the chance to receive training and scholarships for a future brighter than the negative prophecies already told about them. Their lives matter because the humanity that Hope created turns victims into victors, offenders into officials, and so called “thugs” into trustees.

I continue to raise awareness of black teens in North Nashville because they should never be seen as only survivors who barely escaped a struggle. They should be regarded as human beings created in the image of God tearing down despairing expectations and transforming them into positive expected outcomes. I look at my tattoos no longer as my story, but a part of the human story that says, “Yes, God created us to do miraculous things too.” So let’s get back to work. 

From Nashville, TN, Rev. Eric Brown is the Lead Organizer of the Children’s Defense Fund’s Nashville Team. He is also the Assistant to the Pastor of Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church. He graduated from American Baptist College, and earned master degrees in Theological Studies and Ethics from Vanderbilt University. Follow Eric on Twitter @ConsiderEso