Features

Permanent marker

"Permanent marker" Continued...

Issue: "Inside the wire," March 22, 2014

Photo by Sophia Lee
When Stankovits first started tattooing professionally 18 years ago, few tattoo artists were Christians. Today, the attitude toward tattoos among Christians has “completely changed,” he told me, especially in California. He’s tattooed numerous priests and pastors and says the market for Christian tattoos is growing and giving rise to niche groups such as the Alliance of Christian Tattooers, a fellowship of Christian tattoo artists. Tattoos are sometimes even becoming a tool for missions.

I visited five other Los Angeles tattoo artists to get a sense of who gets tattoos. Despite infamous stories about people stumbling drunk into tattoo parlors and waking up with the wrong name inscribed forever on their skin, all the tattoo artists I talked to said they turn away people who act intoxicated or are under 18. They also told me that most customers want something personalized and sentimental, not trashy or clichéd, even if it costs more to get custom tattoos. “Nobody wants to meet a stranger in the streets with the same tattoo,” one artist said.

Most customers do their research before getting a tattoo. They know precisely what design they want, and they choose their artist carefully. After all, tattoos last to the grave, and they aren’t cheap—prices typically start at $80 and go up, depending on the size and intricacy of the design. Finding the “right” tattoo artist is like finding a personal hairdresser: You want someone you personally like, who isn’t pushy about your choices, whose artistic style matches yours, and who uses clean, high-quality tools. 

Stankovits said his tattoos have often “opened doors to witnessing the gospel,” and spoke of Japanese interviewers who asked about the Christian meanings behind his tattoos: “They were asking me, ‘Who is Jesus and why the cross?’ I’m like, raising eyebrows, going, ‘Oh, really? You want to listen? OK.’ And I was kind of laying out what the gospel meant. They probably would not have had this conversation if not for the tattoo.” 

But tattoos understandably don’t meet with approval everywhere. Cat Brown, with her band of vibrant tattoos—many Christian-themed—circling both upper arms, wishes she could start more conversations about her tattoos, but the school where she teaches isn’t thrilled about them, so she often slips on a long-sleeved cardigan. She remembered the first time a tattoo needle pricked her skin and shot a sensation similar to “a butter knife digging in.” She panicked, thinking, “Oh my God, what did I do?” But once she stepped off the chair with a freshly inked, raw-pink arm, she decided, “Well, that wasn’t so bad! I think I can do that again.”

Then there are people like Sylvia Hur, 26, who left the tattoo parlor still thinking, “Oh no, what did I do?” Hur got a 3-inch inscription of the word “Remnant” on the arch of her upper back—a reminder to be a faithful Christian in a secular world. The moment the needle pierced her skin, Hur regretted her decision. “It was so painful, I thought I was going to die,” she told me, adding, “Don’t ever get a tattoo!” Today she doesn’t wear anything that reveals her tattoo, but makes a reluctant exception for the beach.

Luke Tse, a psychology professor at Cedarville University, published a study on Christian college students’ perception toward tattoos in 2008, after a female student approached him with the idea. That student had several Christian friends who have tattoos or were considering getting a tattoo but didn’t want to disobey God. Tse’s survey (limited to white, evangelical students) revealed that many young Christians find no theological objections to tattoos, though few consulted their pastors or spiritual mentors beforehand. Many students he interviewed went ahead and got one after a parent forbade it. “Even if tattooing is not a sin, the fact that they acted out of disobedience, that is introducing a fault, a sin,” Tse said.

Tse said he’s met ministers who get tattoos with a clear missional purpose, such as a couple in a punk-rock Christian band whose ministry targets “people in the punk world who can’t find an easy acceptance in typical churches.” The wife told Tse that without her numerous tattoos, she would have a tough time reaching that punk-rock demographic. But is it necessary to take such extreme, permanent measures for the sake of evangelism? I asked Tse whether he would allow his daughter to get a tattoo, and he laughed. “My wife would say no, absolutely no. I don’t care to have a tattoo myself. I don’t think I personally need to carry my testimony on my skin.”

Sophia Lee
Sophia Lee

Sophia is a features reporter for WORLD. She graduated from the University of Southern California with degrees in print journalism and East Asian language and culture. She lives in Los Angeles with her cat, Shalom. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.

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