Christian Tattoo: The Needle for the Nail
Omar Edmison bought a cheap, gold-framed picture of Jesus from a man whose pickup truck was parked on a Texas back road. That purchase now hangs on the wall of his All-American Tattoo Shop in Salem, Ore. in concert with a bevy of classic tattoo stencils that customers eagerly pick to have cut into their body.
“It started out as a regular old street tattoo shop,” he said. “But then I got saved and it has become my ministry.”
“I always wanted to be the burning bush. I wanted God to talk to me like I was Moses,” Edmison said. “I kept my dog chained up so he wouldn’t be crushed by the tablets when they fell in my yard.”
But, it wasn’t until the iron-fisted grandfather he despised was dying in the basement of a hospital that Edmison said he recognized his own selfishness.
He believes God finally spoke to him.
“There was this body, this shell of a man who had caused me a lot of grief and heartache over the years,” he said. As he watched his mother stroke the brow of the fading man, Edmison grasped that lying before him was someone who had once bounced his mom on a knee and taught her to tie her shoes.
The tattooist hastily sought the building’s chapel, found it and fell to his knees. Surrounded by cut-rate stained glass and a single plug-in candle, Edmison said he heard God.
“I found I wasn’t praying for [my grandfather],” he said. “I was praying for me.”
Edmison and the tattoos on his body are signs of an alternative Christian movement, especially among youth, embracing ink and reanalyzing their faith. Many younger Christians, whose attendance at traditional churches is waning, are now turning inward and toward churches willing to stray from old-fashioned creeds and inch more towards a contemporary interpretation of the Bible.
Once thought taboo in Christianity, tattoos reflect a widening gap among groups of Generation Xs and Ys who are intent on cementing self-sustaining beliefs even as their elders uphold the established faith where a pastor’s word is bond.
Christian tattoo parlors are sprouting up from the West Coast to the Bible Belt. While, many Christian tattooists are unwilling to profess their faith for fear that business may lag, of those who do openly display their faith many think twice before they load the needle with ink. Forget that pentagram on the forearm or the demon on the shoulder. These artists won’t tattoo anything of that sort.
“I used to go by the motto: ‘Anything on anybody at any time’,” Edmison said. “But at this juncture, I don’t do anything I deem detrimental to anybody’s future.”
For 24 years, Cornerstone, a gathering of Christian bands, has attracted the type of worshipper that seems an unlikely poster boy for faith. For five days nary a soul dons their Sunday best and the more than 300 musical acts perform varying brands of Christian song ranging from calm to raucous. Campers pitch tents on the cramped 500-acre plot to soak in the music, mosh pits and ministry.
But the festival isn’t simply a showcase for bands with a religious bent. The ink emblazoned by fringe followers of Christianity is telling of an alternative Christian set that symbolizes a cultural shift among the younger faithful in America.
Whitaker, a self-described “wild man” at one point in his life, took the helm of the CTA last year to help guide its ever-expanding membership. Since its inception nearly nine years ago in Willmar, Minn., the group has experienced staggering growth. At its height in 2001, the CTA boasted a sponsorship of more than 250 tattoo parlors worldwide along with more than 2,000 members.
Today, Whitaker, is revamping the CTA. The Atlanta-based Christian tattooist is preparing to launch a new Web site focusing on Christian body art education while also providing a support network for Christian tattoo artists struggling in an inked community known more for its prisoners than its preachers.
“We live and operate behind enemy lines,” said Whitaker, whose body is 90 percent covered in tattoos, he said. “Finding a Christian tattoo booth at a tattoo convention is like trying to find water in hell. You’re in no man’s land.”
And in this “very lucrative” industry, branding yourself a Christian tattoo artist may be the kiss of death, Whitaker said. That label may drive away business and subsequently an artist’s livelihood of up to $2,000 a week, he added.
“I can show you six guys who have been fired for saying they’re a Christian,” Whitaker said. “Being a Christian tattoo artist, you are walking into a wasteland.”
In Chicago, tattoo artists and shop owners seemingly recognize the stigma of the Christian branding. Of the 47 tattoo parlors in Chicago, none are labeled Christian.
On the whole, however, the tattoo industry is as hot as brimstone.
Nearly one in four people ages 18 to 50 have at least one tattoo, according to a study done last year by the American Academy of Dermatology. But pinning down the number of tattoo shops and artists nationwide is difficult. Each state is responsible for the laws regulating their own body art purveyors so finding any sort of national figures poses a tough task, especially in a community where tattoo parlors and their artists are typically closed-shop, Whitaker said.
“There really is no governing body over the tattoo industry,” Whitaker said. The tight-knit community has long been based on unwritten codes, like artist apprenticeships, with only some organizations occasionally working alongside the government on quality control issues, he added. “Yet, I would say for the most part, we tattoo artists are rogues.”
In both circles, as a Christian and as an inked person, Whitaker has experienced discrimination associated with being a tatted man of God. The Christian community, he said, at times has discounted his faith because of his markings. The ever-rebellious tattoo community, on the other hand, has often mistaken Whitaker’s fidelity as a sign of feebleness. The CTA is trying to shatter those stereotypes by extending seals of approval to individual tattoo artists -- or “artistic ministers” as Whitaker calls them -- rather than to loosely-monitored parlors.
“We’re stepping away from sponsoring tattoo shops because at any given time we can’t monitor what’s going on in those shops,” he said, explaining why no current count of such sponsorships exists.
Instead, Whitaker, a regular church-goer, established a Web site where 1,000 to 2,500 people interact daily regarding faith and tattooing, he said. The CTA will look to expand thorough a variety of sponsorships and appearance including at next year’s Cornerstone.
“It’s like an outward symbol of the inward truth,” Gerwig said.
“For years tattoos were considered wrong. It was considered sinful,” he added. “There’s obviously been a big shift in the culture. This generation, I believe, is asking more questions than prior ones.”
But the question remains how effective practices like these will be. Only 33 percent of Christians aged 23 and younger attended church on any given Sunday last year, according to a survey by the Barna Group Ltd., a Ventura-Calif.-based Christian research firm studying American religious beliefs and behaviors. For those ranging in age from 24 to 42, like Whitaker, attendance was better at 43 percent, the study says.
Both age groups’ attendance was bettered by those 62 or older with 53 percent showing up on Sundays.
Take Ronnie Dissler, a 22-year-old musician from Lancaster, Penn. The long-haired, soft-spoken rocker acknowledges the generational gap in his family as he describes the scene tattooed on his upper-left arm depicting the angels being cast out of Heaven.
“People who don’t want [tattoos], then that’s cool, I won’t tell them they are bad,” said Dissler as he prepared for a gig at Cornerstone. “I haven’t really met anyone that’s turned me down yet, except my Grandma. My Grandma thinks they’re stupid.”
Of people Dissler’s age and younger, 65 percent pray as do 82 percent of 24- to 42-year olds, the survey reported, suggesting some sort of individual faith separate from the traditional church. And tattooing, it seems clear, is a fast growing component of that religious expression. But while most of the followers of this developing tradition are young, the art is cutting across age groups.
Dissler’s grandmother, then, would be aghast at both the young and middle-aged sporting ink at the punk-heavy Cornerstone. Gerwig sees this as a natural progression of the church.
Gerwig personifies the evolving landscape of what it means to be a Christian in the U.S.
“I am not an anomaly in America anymore,” he said regarding his tattoos. “I would have been 30 years ago.”
Loyal Thurman, another inked youth pastor on the East Coast, wouldn’t be an anomaly either.
“In our culture, especially in the underground culture, the idea of wearing your beliefs on your sleeve is very prevalent,” Thurman said.
“It’s kind of this idea of the permanency of the faith,” he added. “It can’t be erased.”
Inking such an indelible faith expression resonates with young people looking more towards emergent churches, like Gerwig’s Elevation program, that reevaluate dogmatic Christian traditions and place them within a modern framework. He sees this trend playing out at Santa Cruz Bible Church with followers ranging in age from 18 to 40.
“You just find a ton of those people tattooed,” he said. “I have people e-mailing me all the time asking where they can find a Christian [tattoo] shop or artist.”
Thurman is noticing a similar trend in the groups he ministers in Maryland.
“What I’m finding is that the people who are getting the tattoos are both your fringes,” he said. “Your orthodox are getting them and the more emergent, independent church people are getting them,”
But the culture of ink has yet to permeate the heart of American Christianity.
“The Bible Belt churches are the ones that are fighting it,” he added.
To Thurman, those traditional churches are resistant due to years of a rigid belief structure that focuses more on ancient views of the scripture. To him, that type of analysis does not mesh with the current thinking of many parishioners.
“I think that a lot of it comes back to people trying to fit Christ into a box,” Thurman said. “Christ doesn’t fit in a box and the church doesn’t either.”
For Edmison, the Oregon tattoo shop owner, his experience with mainstream Christianity caused him to look inward to find faith, even though he still attends church.
“When I was young growing up in the church, I had the Bible pointed at me like a gun,” he said. “So I ran.”
Edmison’s inner journey mirrors that of Whitaker’s and both now express that religious trek outwardly on their flesh. Seemingly, many American Christians -- especially the young -- are doing the same.
“God is making Himself known inside the tattoo community,” Whitaker said. “I think tattooed people are beautiful and are God’s kind of people.”