Bodhi art: reclaiming the body with Buddhist tattoos

Buddhist Marcus Hartsfield, showing the Buddha tattoo covering his entire back

People often ask me why I get tattooed and why I have so many. I have 40 tattoos, including one that covers my entire back. I have also been branded and pierced in various locations on my body. I started out with a small tattoo paid for by my best friend as a 25th birthday present. He said, “I want to give you something that you can never get rid of!” I continued to get tattoos regularly, a couple times a year and at one point every six weeks. For many years, I was not conscious of any particular reason for being continually tattooed. I liked how they looked; I actually liked the pain and the feeling of being tattooed. When I was first tattooed, they were not so trendy and I guess I was trying to look like a “bad ass.” Some of my tattoos have deep personal meaning and some are meant to be funny or merely decorative. All of them have been done by Tex at Authentic Tattoo in San Francisco.

I later discovered, in the course of my own personal psychotherapy and introspection, that there were reasons why I modifying my body to such an extreme. It would take hours to go into these, but to summarize, I was subjected to various forms of abuse as a child, was bullied in junior high school, survived cancer with two surgeries and six months of chemotherapy and struggled with drug and alcohol addiction for many years. These factors, particularly the abuse and the cancer treatments, caused me to feel that my body was not my own. Being tattooed has helped bring me back to my body: to quite literally mark it as my own and take ownership of it. It no longer belongs to those who abused me or to the doctors and surgeons. Being tattooed is certainly not the only way I truly inhabit my body; Zen Buddhist practice — especially zazen — and yoga, certainly help me in this regard.

Several of my tattoos are what you’d call “Buddhist tattoos,” though I get the impression that tattoos are generally frowned upon in Zen. I once asked my teacher what he thought of so-called “Buddhist tattoos.” He furrowed his brow disdainfully (or so it seemed to me) and said, “What about invoking Bodhi-mind?” Well, that stopped the conversation before it even began. I got all of the Buddhist tattoos I will discuss after I got into recovery from drug and alcohol addiction and re-committed myself to Zen practice. The top half of my body is devoted to more serious or sacred themes, the bottom half to more profane or irreverent subjects. I don’t remember doing this consciously, that’s the way it turned out.

I have two koi, in a Japanese style, on my forearms. They are not exactly Buddhist, but they were the first tattoos I got when I got sober. I have a Dharma wheel, a Tibetan “Knot of Eternity,” a Daruma and several texts: pieces of Buddhist scripture and a Buddhist poem.

The text tattoos are:

1. A poem:

Don’t think
That it will be glorious:
That momentary burst
Of radiance
Illuming all.
It is more like
Losing your mother
In a large Department Store forever.

I have always loved this poem yet I do not know wrote it.

2. Dharma Hall Discourse #53 “Nothing is Hidden,” from the Eihei Koroku (Extensive Record) by Eihei Dogen Zenji, the founder of Soto Zen:

“Directly it is said that not a single thing exists, and yet we see in the entire universe nothing has ever been hidden.”

When I first read this piece, I had the most incredible sensation and had to sit down. I could barely speak for half a day.

3. An important quote from the Genjo Koan by Dogen.

“Here is the place; here the way unfolds.”

Another one of those “gob-smacked” moments.

4. A verse repeated several times during the Full Moon Ceremony in which we Zen practitioners repeat our Bodhisattva vows:

“All my ancient twisted karma,
from beginningless greed, hate and delusion,
born through body, speech, and mind,
I now fully avow.”

I get chills just thinking about saying that verse, and I usually weep at that point in the ceremony. This helps me free myself from the incredible amount of guilt and shame I carry at times — my “ancient twisted karma.”

5. The Robe Chant from the morning ceremony after the first period of zazen at Zen Center — the point at which the Priests put on their okesa and the lay people put on their rakasu:

“Great robe of liberation.
Field far beyond form and emptiness.
Wearing the Tathagata’s teaching,
Saving all beings.”

The Daruma tattoo is especially dear to me. Daruma is a wobbly Japanese toy, a version of Bodhidharma, the mythic founder of Zen. The image is that of someone who keeps getting up when knocked over. While struggling to get sober, I would fail like most addicts and alcoholics tend to do. My teacher would repeat the Japanese Proverb, “Fall down seven times, get up eight. Like the Daruma.” Once, during an evening at Zen Center, my legs had fallen asleep while in half-lotus position. I was probably hung-over or had taken a few pills, and I did not notice. I stood up for the ceremony, staggered, and started to topple over — right there in the Buddha Hall. My teacher leapt over, cat-like, and caught me. He held me until my legs woke up and I could stand on my own. Everyone was staring at me, and I was deeply mortified. My teacher said, “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” The zendo erupted in loving laughter and my shame faded quickly.

Other Buddhist tattoos are the lotus and Bodhi leaves on my chest. The symbolism of the lotus, flowering beautifully from muddy water (although perhaps it’s even more beautiful to think of it growing from sewage), holds special meaning for me, given my life experience and background.

While it’s definitely not Buddhist, I have Oscar Wilde’s prison number, “C.3.3.” tattooed on my arm. When I was a very lonely, bullied, and abused teenager struggling with my sexual orientation in rural Tennessee, a kindly retired schoolteacher gave me “The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde.” Wilde got me through those dark days. Reading about Wilde’s trials for “gross indecency” and his subsequent imprisonment and ruin, began in me an interest in social justice and political activism, especially for LGBT rights. To me, one of the worst aspects of the legal action against Wilde was the way his writings were used against him at his trial. I could never fathom the gross indecency of using an artist’s own art against him. The Prosecutor famously said, “There could be no worse thing [than Wilde’s homosexuality]”. Really? Really??? But, I digress…

My back is covered by an exact rendering of the Buddha on the main altar of San Francisco Zen Center. The statue is a priceless and ancient Gandhara Buddha from a formerly Buddhist region in Afghanistan. This statue has very deep meaning for me. It is not an Asian Buddha at all; it is Western, with a European face, done in the Greco-Roman style because Gandhara was a Greek outpost at the time the statue was carved. For years, this fact was lost on me as I sat in the Buddha Hall and struggled with the idea of this “Asian” religion, feeling like one of the people I would criticize when in a dark and hateful frame of mind: “…silly white cultural vampires and spiritual materialists, trying to adopt some Asian religion because Asians are superior to us and more spiritual than us Westerners….” (pretty harsh judgments, no?). But, it hit me one day that this Buddha I was sitting in front of was Western, like me, and that Buddhism is not about race or culture, but about something universal that is in all of us.

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26 Comments. Leave new

  • I really enjoyed your piece this morning.. I too am heavily tattooed and feel similar to you that the process can be very cleansing to the soul.. I feel it helps expend the excess adrenaline in my body and brings me calm and peace in the end.. I too started out not very conscience of what I was putting on my body not really sure why I got what I would get.. but as I have gotten older, wiser, more at peace in my own body and mind, as I continue to search and study.. drawn to the Buddha, My art has evolved on my body to reflect my evolving story that is me.. I have about 50 percent of my body covered thus far and am continuing to get more as time and money allow. I just wanted to say that I find your work beautiful and it tell a wonderful story of the suffering we all endure.. it speaks to getting back up. I like that, I too get back up, and will continue to every time I fall..

  • Marcus, what a beautiful and personal piece. My spiritual path is written over my body, and will continue to be so until I no longer have a body. I love the text pieces you chose. Since my back isn’t quite done, that will get finished up, then I have a Jizo, and some text pieces I want done. Deep Bows of gratitude and love Daigan

  • Marcus, this is wonderful. While I’ve admired your tattoos, I’ve wondered Why so many? And in fact I’ve thought this about all the many-tattooed people I see on the streets. Your writing gives me a useful insight. And of course I love your choices — the picture I took of the statement on Satori that’s on your left inner arm is on my wall!

  • Thank you for sharing your body art journey, Marcus. Beautifully expressed… The photos and your tattoos are really stunning. I love that there is a story for every one. I have always been curious about the dark circles on your shoulders, though?
    Gassho, Julia

  • Loved the article. For some reason it makes me smile. Maybe because the notion of tattoos freaks me out a bit – I simply can’t imagine what it is like to want to have one yet so many other people do. But I must say yours to look great and I very much appreciate your words.

    There is definitely a teaching in tattoos being ‘permanent’ yet skin saying so much about our impermanence and fragility.

  • Great article. I love that you’ve found healing through the dharma and body art. As someone who has several large tattoos and wishes to ordain, this really inspires me. I too shared many of your same problems growing up.

  • Thanks for your insights into tattoos, Marcus.

    Because of my prominent Buddhist Calligraphy website I’m regularly asked to design tattoos, but usually refuse as my impression is that people don’t really understand what they’re asking for – a mantra they don’t chant, in a language they don’t speak, in a script they can’t read. I’m very doubtful about tattoos in general. But sometimes I relent if the person seems to have a good idea of what they are doing it for, and what the symbols actually symbolise. My opinion, for what it is worth, is that most people would be better off spending money on a Dharma book, or going on retreat, than getting a tattoo.

    I like the fact that Marcus has some self-knowledge, and is able to articulate the variety of ways he relates to his tattoos. Like the tattoos themselves the reasons for getting them vary, and some, but not all, resonate with me. I hope any Buddhists thinking about getting tattoos will reflect on Marcus’s story and find their own reasons for having a tattoo if they choose to get one.

    I’m struck by the sheer number of people sporting tattoos these days, and the way that people who have them dress, or undress to show them off. So often the tattoo seems to simply be an extension of the ego. It’s as though the symbol or the idea can be reified and possessed through the tattoo. But it only goes skin deep, eh. Interestingly Buddhist friends with tattoos tend to be a little more circumspect and most seem to keep them covered up.

    Last year, after a flood of emails requesting help with tattoos, I wrote on my mantra blog that a Buddhist wanting to get a tattoo should have “I am going to die” in large Roman capitals, somewhere they could read it. This provoked a minor flurry of disapproval and some hostility, but one or two enjoyed the idea. I like the idea of a permanent reminder of impermanence! But then I see so many reminders of impermanence around me that I don’t feel the need for a tattoo.

  • Shannen Wright
    April 27, 2011 12:45 pm

    That was nice to read and peaceful. Thank you.

  • kia ora kotou

    In many cases a tattoo can be an expression of ego, however-it can also be an expression of culture and family-it is so with Ta moko in Aotearoa (New Zealand) which are often blessed and have profound meaning. so what then is the Sangha, if not a family?

    Perhaps a tattoo of this nature merely expresses the ‘ego’ of the culture, but not if its done with humility and meaning. Of course the need to express oneself in general may be a subtle expression of the ego-but why would you knock that Jayarava-is it not true you see Calligraphy as expression?

    In terms of writing “I am going to die” to me this is not far off the mark, for me a large part of tattoo is demonstrating the immediacy of death, the impermanence. We are marking a body that is in constant decay, and for me at least it seems to say ‘do not be linked in a state of un- awareness to this physical form’. And without doubt the ‘insight’ of this is far more important then a mere token gesture-and undoubtedly money spent on adding such gestures may be better spent promoting dharma knowledge or even being given away to less fortunate. However…it is my belief that it can be a useful tool, a stage to progress through, once through that stage the idea of a tattoo at all might be quite meaningless, but it does not matter that you have them, for worrying about marks on a body is just as meaningless.

    For example I has always considered myself a good listener, but I wanted to remind myself to really listen to others, as part of my practice I got a conch piercing in each ear. I never forget them and I never forget my goal-its an aid to help focus. Such things can be applied in tattoo to help us say stay in a state of correct speech action and mind. No they are not necessary-but yes they can be a useful tool and a beautiful form of inner expression displayed outwardly.

    thanks for sharing Marcus-keep up the good work!

    peace and aroha

  • marcus, thank you for your service in this piece! i feel like you told part of my own story. your art is beautiful and your interpretation of why you tattooed yourself has really made me reflect on my own body art. reading your story and having the opportunity to view your tattoos was wonderful.

    be well,
    britt – friend of bill w.

  • I read your story and cried. So many times I have felt like I was the only one out there. I suffered abuse as a child and now I have tattoos of a dragon and a tiger on each shoulder, like they are draped over each one and their faces are on my chest in full roar. I didn’t plan it, but now they are my protectors. I also have Green Tara sitting on my upper left arm. I am currently in Social Work and my goal is to help other women get through what I’ve been through. I will continue to tattoo my body (I’ve lost count as to how many I have), because it is my body and I am claiming it back.
    Thank you so much for your story. Thank you for your pictures. May you continue to inspire others and help all who need your assistance.

  • Hello Marcus,

    I just saw you this past Saturday at Kabuki Hot Springs and was very intrigued by what your tattoos meant to you. I love when serendipity sends gifts such as this article in my path.

    I was the guy with many tattoos as well, including a dharma wheel on my back and a chest tattoo of thai flames, by Tex! I too am lay ordained at SFZC with many of the same views on tattooing as a strategy towards healing…its a small, wonderful world.

  • Laurie Baccash
    May 17, 2011 10:02 am

    Thank you Marcus, Dharma friend.

  • Yup yup! I have 12 tats so far, and am designing a thirteenth. If someone looking at them understands the symbolism behind each, they could pretty much glean my life story. Tattoos- well thought out, meaningful tattoos- have incredible power, in my opinion!

  • Caroline Tarbett
    November 17, 2011 11:38 am

    I loved this article – I am just in the process of designing my own first Buddhist tattoo to symbolise my spiritual awakening as I start my Buddhist studies. This has inspired me, given me a few ideas and helped reassure me that this is an important record of life’s challenges and triumphs. Of your struggles, and your overcoming them, I have only complete admiration. You are an example to us all.

  • RIP, Marcus.

  • denise Vigil
    May 22, 2013 3:36 am

    This article was very insiteful regarding You, Marcus, who I have just found out today that you have passed to the next realm. I do not know why this has happened @ this time; I always felt so comfortable speaking with you, you have such a peace about you.
    if anyone reading; feels comfortable to share what has happened; it is a piece to this story I do not have. denise

  • Marcus was an amazing person and my closest friend, if anyone has any information on how he died I would be so grateful. I can’t believe he’s gone.

  • as a tattoo’d meditation facilitator who also survived cancer…

    HIGH FIVE BRO!!!!!!!

  • I had known Marcus for 10 years. Can someone please tell me how he died??!!

  • Cassie, after over a year of mourning for him and gradually finding ways to not feel the pain of thinking of him all the time – I was floored to get an email notification for your comment. I had totally forgot I’d asked people here for information on how he’d died.

    I managed to find out a little while after my last post that he’d committed suicide. I can’t find anything to confirm it, I just have the word of a mutual friend and my own experience of seeing his mental state in the weeks/months before he passed. I spoke to him almost every day except for a couple of weeks before his death because i was overwhelmed and couldn’t support him in his time of need in the midst of mourning my own father’s suicide that happened just over month before. To not feel guilty about dropping contact with him has been the hardest struggle but I know he wouldn’t blame me.

    Marcus affected my life in so many ways and taught me how to feel and think deeper than I ever had before. I knew that he was a rare friend when he was alive but but I never expected the lessons I’d learn from him to continue in such a tragic way. His and my dad’s difficulties with depression and alcoholism and subsequent suicides have been the most painful and important learning curve in my life so far.

    I expect it’s been difficult for many people to process his death with so little information available. I really hope everyone else who knew him finds some kind of peace. I’m sorry you went so long without knowing why or how your friend had passed. x

    • I’m sad to hear that Marcus took his life, although it’s what I’d suspected. He must have been under enormous strain because of the charges he faced. Thank you for this (albeit second-hand) news.

  • Isaac. I am Marcus’ mother. I need to talk to you. I need answers other than the ones I got from his wife, I have a problem with the death certificate. I can buy a throw away phone and give you the number…here on line…..please answer

    • Linda, I am clearly not Isaac but we are in the same boat. Marcus and I talked daily for over a year. My first tattoo is dedicated to him. He was one of the most important people in my life.
      my number is 5eight5 2zero8 029zero
      please call me

  • Thank you for this sharing. A fantastic choice of quotes.

    The story of your teacher holding you as you fell was very touching, and then the comedy that came after with the Zen saying, and everyone dropping everything in one communal laugh, so wonderful ?

    I am fascinated by religious tattoos in any tradition, but especially find the tangle of self and identity mixed in with Buddhist tattoos even more fascinating. Where Buddhist tattoos (as any tattoos) simultaneously shout look at “me” and work to establish a sense of self, yet at the same time all the Buddhist symbolism or texts undermine that, and remind us to drop all that guff.

    Sending a smile to you all.
    And thank you once again for this wonderful sharing.


    Oh, dear friends, I only just read that the author, Marcus, has transitioned. I see many here are friends and family, my condolences. Sending love and strength.

    It seems his love and his story will echo on for years to come, as this article evidences.



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