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Last updated: Thu. Apr. 17, 2014 - 03:21 pm EDT

Religious tattoos a mark of faith

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Jes Farris says it happens two or three times a day. Someone walks into Studio 13, a local tattoo shop he owns with his brother, Jake, and inquires about getting a religious tattoo.

Usually, he says, the potential customer is an 18- or 19-year-old male dipping into ink for the first time.

“It’s easier to justify a faith-based tattoo to parents than a tattoo of something else,” he says, adding that’s how he and his much-inked brother started.

Of course, that was about a decade ago, when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were still fresh and tats with Christian images and Scripture were frequently requested by enlistees before military deployment.

Today, that craze has calmed somewhat. But religious images – crosses, the Virgin Mary, Jesus and angels, especially the sword-wielding St. Michael the Archangel – remain an enduring part of the business.

“Right now it’s very popular to get the word ‘faith’ incorporated into the Jesus fish,” Farris says, referring to a symbol of early Christians. “We get that more than probably anything right now.”

Another popular motif is the words of Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” as the verse is rendered in the New King James Version of the New Testament.

“That became popular after UFC fighters got it,” he says, referring to an organization of top mixed-martial-arts competitors. “It just boomed on the Internet.”

St. Michael, patron saint of seafarers, paratroopers and police, as well as the members of the military, is popular with people in those professions, he says.

Chad Bedwell, 34, is a youth minister at Sonrise United Methodist Church in Aboite Township. He has about a half-dozen faith-inspired tattoos.

He says he likes participating in their design. He adds that their meaning isn’t always immediately obvious – the better to use the markings as an opportunity to tell others about his faith.

On each of his arms he has images of a nail wrapped in ribbon. On one arm, the inscription reads “Tougher.” The other arm has the words “Than Nails.”

“I’m kind of a big guy, and I work out, so people think that’s what it refers to. People call me out about it – ‘Oh, so you think you’re tough, huh?’

“I tell them, ‘No, I’m referring to the nails of Christ on the cross. It’s not me.’ ”

Bedwell also has a tattoo of what he calls “a shadow cross” – one that’s hard to see – on one wrist.

The word “Zombie” is etched on his other wrist. That tattoo refers to how he’s felt “reborn from the dead” after accepting Christ, while the other refers to living his life now “in the shadow of the cross,” he says.

“I’m probably explaining them to people on a weekly basis,” he says, adding: “When they hear, ‘Oh, he’s a youth pastor,’ they want to look a little closer.”

Still, tattoos have the potential to arouse controversy within Christian circles, says Mike Mueller, 26, who, with his friend Erik Knopf, 31, started Armed with Truth, a Colorado-based Internet company that markets temporary tattoos featuring collections of Scripture verses.

Mueller says the idea originally was to have the tattoos aid people in memorizing Scripture, and the market has included not only young people but teachers, coaches and youth ministers trying to influence their charges in a positive way.

“People get tattoos because of emotions – there’s always a story behind them. They want to get something so they’ll never forget,” Mueller says. “I think it comes from a deep spiritual place – ‘This is important to me, and I’m going to keep it in front of me.’ ”

But, Mueller says, even the temporary tattoos got pushback from people who saw them as blasphemous.

When Christians object to tattoos, they usually point to Leviticus 19:28, which proscribes cutting into one’s body in memory of the dead or placing marks on the body. Many believe the New Testament writings about the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit reinforce the message.

“We thought no one would complain, because they were only temporary, but we were wrong. People were very vocal. One woman said we were paving the way for the mark of the beast,” Mueller says, referring to a symbol of evil in the New Testament’s prophetic book of Revelation.

“To me, that’s just silly.”

Bedwell says that, for him, it’s important not to encourage the underage young people with whom he works to get tattoos.

One girl in his group keeps asking him to pick out a tattoo for her, he says, but he has refused.

“I don’t want to do that. I told her, ‘You don’t really want a tattoo until you know what you want to get,’ ” he says.

“I always tell them how bad they hurt, and that they don’t go away, and getting tattooed, it’s like being stung by a bee for two or three hours at a time.”

Farris says his shop also gets requests for tattoos of imagery from other religions.

“We’ve probably done more tattoos of Buddha than we have of Jesus in the last three years,” he says. Some people have also asked for Hindu imagery, though not, he says, for religious reasons.

Lately, he says, he’s also seen an increasing number of people who want religious images changed or covered.

He and his brother are now undergoing laser removal of some of their religious images because they no longer reflect their beliefs, he notes. And removal is no picnic.

“Laser removal is probably one of the most painful processes I’ve ever done,” he says.

While many people get tattoos out of sincere religious conviction, Farris thinks that when he got tattooed as a teen, it was because he was struggling to hold on to his faith.

“It’s a scary thing, to waver with the faith of your grandparents and your parents,” he says. “You tried to lock it in with tattoos.”

But, he adds: “The popularity of faith tattoos isn’t going anywhere. As long as there is faith, people will want to make it a permanent part of themselves.”

rsalter@jg.net


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