Lenten tattoos catch on at Montrose church

February 23, 2012 10:13:44 AM PST
Asking his congregation to get permanent tattoos as a part of their Lenten observances may be one of the craziest things Ecclesia pastor Chris Seay has done at his artsy, pop-culture-savvy Montrose church.

Seay and Ecclesia's artist-in-residence, Scott Erickson, initially hoped to find 10 people to get inked with designs representing the Stations of the Cross, 10 moments that illustrate the story of Jesus' death.

The idea wasn't so crazy to the Ecclesia community, because about 50 of them answered Seay's call and have been tattooed with Erickson's custom-designed images of birds, hands, roses, trees and short phrases written in the traditional, Sailor Jerry-style tattoo text.

The tattoos will comprise an art exhibit for Lent, Stations on Skin, which opens at the church's Xnihilo Gallery on Saturday.

"Being in Montrose, which is considered basically the artist capital of Houston, it makes sense to represent (the story of Jesus) visually," said Ecclesia staff member Wayne Brown, who got his first tattoo, a black-and-gray open palm with the words "We are healed," to represent the seventh station, when Jesus is nailed to the cross.

The designs use new typical religious images -- no giant wooden crosses or depictions of Jesus' face. Instead, Erickson used Russian prison tattoos and Sailor Jerry tattoos as inspiration, hoping the designs would prompt questions and give Christians the opportunity to explain the meaning behind the artwork on their arms, shoulders, feet and backs.

"I totally think the cross is important, but as a symbol, it doesn't inspire thought anymore. It's become decorative," said Erickson. Instead, he incorporated more subtle Christian symbols -- such as the goldfinch, which traditionally represents Christ at the Passion -- and Latin phrases.

"Protestantism has a very undeveloped visual culture," he said. "The Stations of the Cross, that's a really intense story. There's no room for fluffy lambs and shininess there."

Like some other Baptist and evangelical churches that have adapted traditionally Catholic practices for Lent -- which began on Wednesday -- and Easter, Ecclesia has put on interactive, experiential and art-driven Stations of the Cross exhibits for the past few years. (They do 10 stations instead of the traditional 14, with multiple instances of "Jesus falls" represented at a single station.)

With Stations on Skin, the church tells the timeless story in a new medium and a different style.

"We're going to have a lot of people who don't go to a church and who are in the tattoo culture," said Seay. "We hope that as you pause and look at this art, God will speak to you about who he is and what he's done for us. I want to declare to them, `Hey, you're welcome here.'?"

His tattoo -- a tree on his upper arm representing the Resurrection of Jesus, with initials of friends and family members who have recently died in its leaves -- prompted conversations about Jesus within the first few days, and his inbox continues to fill with pictures of church members' tattoos and their stories of sitting in tattoo parlors and explaining their unusual ink.

"I had wanted to get a tattoo for a long time. Most of my ideas were text or song lyrics that had a similar message: Support and care for one another," said Audrey Omenson, 26. "When I saw station five, it just struck me."

The tattoo, on the top of her foot, comes from Simon helping Jesus carry the cross as he walked to Calvary. It features two birds with a banner reading "Carry One Another" and below it, "Non Omnis Moriar" -- Latin for "I shall not wholly die."

"This is a fascinating, creative, and provocative project," said S. Brent Plate, who teaches a course on religion and pop culture at Hamilton College in New York. "The Stations as tattoos is clearly a product that fits in well with the so-called `emerging church" movement. Among other things, the emerging church is thoroughly embedded in contemporary pop culture, generally remains theologically conservative, but is somewhat left-leaning in issues of social justice."

Seay estimates half the Ecclesia community has a tattoo. They're more popular than ever among young people, with about 40 percent of Americans under 30 sporting ink, according to the Pew Research Center.

In Christian communities, religious-themed tattoos are relatively common. Christian satire blog Stuff Christians Like lists "tattoos for God" among contemporary Christian trends, noting the use of body art as a tool for evangelism. There is still a debate, often cultural and generational, about whether it is appropriate for Christians to get tattoos.

"There are definitely some Old Testament passages that have something to say about (tattooing), but we don't think they have weight in this contemporary circumstance," said Seay, a Christian author, Baylor grad and third-generation pastor. "If we thought the Scriptures were prohibiting it, we wouldn't be doing it."