Inked in faith: Tattoos hold meaning deeper than skin

By Nicki Gorny - The Blade (TNS)

TOLEDO — Superheroes. The Munsters. Michael Jackson in “Thriller.”

There’s a reason that Toledoan Amanda King chose these images for the tattoos that cover significant parts of her body.

“These are things that I love,” she said.

So perhaps it’s natural that she opted to represent her faith, as well, in her body art. Peeking out from her sleeve, on her forearm, is an illustration of the face of Jesus. It’s a way for Ms. King, a Christian, to indicate that she also identifies by a love for God.

Religious iconography is perennially popular in the chairs and tables of local tattoo shops like Ink and Iron Tattoo Parlour on Adams Street in Uptown Toledo, where Ms. King works as a receptionist and where artists describe a wide range of religious imagery among the most consistent requests they field.

Often clients want simple symbols that are easily tucked away: Think crosses, crescent moons and Stars of David. Others ask for attention-grabbing depictions of biblical passages or elaborate portraits of figures like Buddha, Jesus or the Virgin Mary.

Michael Klein is the owner of Ink and Iron. He’s a Christian who himself sports prominent religious ink, including a gothic-lettered reminder to “PRAY BOLD” across his knuckles.

“There’s not a lot that I haven’t done, as far as religions go,” he said, ticking off examples of tattoos he’s done tied to Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Wicca.

At Infinite Art Tattoo Studio on Secor Road, religious fare is similarly common. Artist Michael Fairman estimated that any tattoo artist at the shop handles at least one such tattoo in a given week.

Simply drawn “stick” crosses are particularly trendy of late; Mr. Fairman’s lost count of how many he’s inked on customers.

Likewise at Studio 13 Tattoo on Monroe Street, where, in addition to quick-appointment crosses, the latest examples of religious ink include an illustration of the Garden of Eden that artist Bradley Atherton has been filling out on the bicep of Matt McCormick over multiple sessions.

Jake Farris, who co-owns Studio 13 with his brother, Jes, said said he’s seen a consistent demand for religious imagery since he and his brother entered the field in Fort Wayne, Ind., in 1999. He himself has a tattooed sleeve featuring, in part, an illustration of the Annunciation.

Indeed, according to the business research website, Americans spent $2 billion on tattoos in 2017, a large segment of that work representing their faith.

“Tattooing isn’t going anywhere,” he said. “Religion isn’t going anywhere. It only makes sense that they have this happy marriage and have found each other.”

A history that runs deep

The subtle symbols, scrawled scriptural references and artistic illustrations that customers request today continue a rich history of religious tattooing that Chicago-based historian Anna Felicity Friedman said some would argue is as old as the history of religion itself.

In Christianity, certainly, the documented roots of bodily adornment run deep: Ms. Friedman said the earliest adherents of the faith are believed to have identified themselves and each other with tattoos.

“As early as 528 CE, Procopius of Gaza wrote of Christians tattooed on their arms and shoulders with crosses, Christ’s name, the acronym INRI, and other Christian symbols, including fishes and lambs,” she wrote in The World Atlas of Tattoo. “These marks, in addition to expressing devotion to their faith, may also have helped confirm the identification of one Christian to another.”

This tradition of tattooing in Christianity has remained largely consistent throughout history, Ms. Friedman said in an interview with The Blade; it continued, in part, with pilgrims who would memorialize trips to the Holy Land with tattoos — a practice that continues to thrive in Jerusalem at Razzouk Tattoo, a family-run shop that boasts of being established in 1300 A.D.

And, even into the mid- the late 18th century, Ms. Friedman said, crosses are among the most frequently identified tattoos on various historical registries.

While some detractors argue that tattoos go against the faith, typically interpreting Leviticus 19:28 to support this view, Ms. Friedman said that, historically, marking oneself as a Christian has long been an accepted practice.

There is not a comparably consistent precedent for tattooing in Islam and Judaism, Ms. Friedman said, and, in practice, local artists said they receive requests affiliated with these faiths far less frequently than they do for Christianity or even Buddhism.

That’s not to say that Islam or Judaism forbids tattooing, according to academics Yonatan Miller and Fatima Al-Hayani. It’s particularly a misconception within Judaism, Mr. Miller said, pointing to the long-standing and inaccurate belief that a tattooed individual cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

Endless interpretations

Several local artists said they frequently see clients lean into their faith especially when picking out a first-time tattoo. Mr. Farris of Studio 13 can relate: He recalled that he turned to Christianity for inspiration in his earliest tattoos, in part, because he found the imagery to be more palatable to family and friends than some alternatives.

“I think a lot of it, for me, was that it was easier to convince the people around me that it was OK for me to be a heavily tattooed person,” he said.

Religious imagery can also make a lot of sense in light of the permanence of tattoos, he said.

“Most people would never want to get something tattooed on them that they’re not going to be happy with a year from now or 10 years from now or 20 years from now,” Mr. Farris said. “I think most people feel like their faith isn’t going anywhere, so it’s easy to capture with a tattoo.”

It’s a pattern Michael Klein also sees at Ink and Iron.

“It’s that linear thought process,” he said. “I’ve grown up with religion my whole life, and it’s comfortable and familiar and it’s not something that’s going to change drastically.”

It might, of course. But that’s OK, too: Mr. Farris and Scott Biddle, a tattoo artist at Ink and Iron, each said their relationship with religion has changed since they began to plan tattoo sleeves with imagery that, at the time they selected it, reflected the central role that faith played in their lives. Rather than regret the work, they said they see it as a reminder of a different point in their lives.

“It’s a part of me. It’s a part of who I was,” Mr. Farris said. “That’s one of the best things about tattooing. Every tattoo takes you back to a time and a place.”

Religious ink today serves a variety of purposes: It can be a subtle faith reminder to oneself, a public affirmation of beliefs to others, or, in some cases, a sort-of protective talisman, as with the tattoos of St. Michael the Archangel that Mr. Fairman said he frequently tattoos on police officers, firefighters and other first-responders.

Some tattoos are religious at face value but that don’t carry any real spiritual significance: An individual might be drawn to the cultural connotations of a three-leaf shamrock or a Celtic cross, for example, or perhaps the aesthetic appeal of a gnarly barbed-wire-entwined crucifix.

While people have used tattoos “to show a million different things over time,” Mr. Farris said he sees devotion as one the primary motivators to go for a tattoo. That devotion could be directed toward anything: a spouse, a sports team, a television show.

Or, of course, to God.

“I don’t think religious iconography will ever stop being probably one of the most frequently designed tattoos,” Mr. Biddle said.

By Nicki Gorny

The Blade (TNS)

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