Marks of faith: Tattoos as testimony

Leon Bloder hopes his tattoos open a connection with others.

It’s very personal, why people choose to get tattoos and the stories behind the images they select. For some people, their faith journey is part of the story they want to tell on their bodies.

Kurt Esslinger, a mission co-worker for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in South Korea and co-coordinator of a Young Adult Volunteer site there, chose the tree of life as his tattoo. “It spoke to my spiritual understanding that everything is connected, life and death, the secular and the divine.” (His tattoo story is here.)

Several years ago, Andrew William Smith — a Presbyterian ruling elder, college instructor at Tennessee Technological University and Vanderbilt Divinity School graduate — got a tattoo of the PC(USA) seal on his left bicep.

Andrew Smith's tattoos symbolize his return to the Christian faith
Andrew Smith’s tattoos symbolize his return to the Christian faith

Smith grew up Presbyterian, but in his 20s started to tilt in other directions, including earth-based neo-paganism and New Age practices. He’s now 48, and says in his early 40s he had a “rededication or reconversion” to Christianity, “a road to Damascus experience.”

The PC(USA) tattoo is one of a series of tattoos Smith has accumulated over more than 20 years — including a cross on that same arm, a cross he used to alter and partially cover a previous tattoo he got a decade earlier of man, snake, dolphin and bird.

In a 2011 blog post, Smith wrote, “With neotribal artwork decorating my deltoids, I’m marked as part of the tattooed subculture. For years, I identified with the hippy-punk wing of American rebellion. But the statement my arms make is more spiritual than sociological, and the evolution of my religious journey gets narrated on my skin.”

The cross symbolizes his commitment to Jesus and a return to belief in the Christian faith. Adding the PC(USA) seal was a nod in part to his parents, Kenneth and Barbara Smith, who raised him in the Presbyterian church; who prayed for him unceasingly when he struggled with alcoholism; and who welcomed him back with grace from his prodigal ways.

For Christians with tattoos, “there’s something about being marked in our bodies, that we are incarnational to the extreme,” Smith said. “We lean into our spirituality at the level of the body.”

More and more, young adults are embracing tattoos — in some circles, they’ve become mainstream.

A Pew Research Center survey from 2010 found that nearly 4 in 10 millennials and almost a third of Gen Xers have tattoos (compared to just 15 percent of Baby Boomers). Of millennials with tattoos, just under a third have only one, while half have from two to five tattoos, and 18 percent have six or more.

The last two years at the Wild Goose Festival — a gathering in North Carolina celebrating justice, spirituality and art — a photographic display called Faithmarks featured the images of tattoos and told the stories behind them. And people who wanted a tattoo (permanent or temporary) could get that too.

Some of the images featured by Faithworks were taken on the campus of St. Mark’s Church, a Methodist congregation in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The stories of the tattoos tell the stories of life’s complexities and transformations and connections — emblems of where they had been and where they belonged. “My tattoos are my testimony,” one man said.

  • For a woman struggling with depression and anxiety, a tattoo with the words “this too shall pass” became “my constant reminder that anything rough in my life wouldn’t last forever.”
  • A woman who cared for her late mother for four years following a stroke got a butterfly tattoo, a reminder that now her mother “was free — free to be her true self and unrestrained in the wind. As the butterflies would pass by, I felt a grateful wave from my loving mother.”
  • A man wrote, “my sleeve is every religion plus atheism, science and evolution. For me, it is like a co-exist tattoo.”
  • A woman who felt teased for being different got a tattoo with the words her grandmother would tell her every night, giving her a big hug: “You are loved.”

Leon Bloder, a Presbyterian minister from Florida, has three tattoos (one of which is his church’s logo — which he got after challenging his congregation to break the attendance record at Easter), and is considering a fourth.

Leon Bloder hopes his tattoos open a connection with others.
Leon Bloder hopes his tattoos open a connection with others.

What he has in mind for the next one: a casket with a tree growing up from it, and doves holding a banner saying: “He is not here.” Bloder estimates he’s presided over at least a funeral a month for the past seven years, and his favorite part of the service is that line from the 24th chapter of Luke: Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 

“That is my favorite part of the sermon — the hope of the resurrection,” Bloder said.

Do tattoos open up doors for a pastor? Some decry tattoos as being unbiblical — citing Leviticus 19:28: You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the Lord. 

Bloder, however, has found that sharing the stories of tattoos opens a connection with others who are inked. He contends that for younger people particularly, “tattoos are ubiquitous.”

But it’s not just young folks: A woman from his congregation got a tattoo when she was 75. Her life story continues to unfold.