Marked by Faith: The Spirituality of Tattoos

Last summer, while attending my first Wild Goose Festival -- the annual gathering of progressive Christians in the North Carolina mountains -- I saw more tattooed skin than not. It was a paradigm shift toward a new normal: religious words and symbols draped the arms, legs, shoulders, backs, calves, and wrists of the faithful.

"The Goose," as it's lovingly referred to by veteran participants, is the type of place where you'd find such an apparent oxymoron of the religiously tattooed. Barefoot Christians with unapologetically inclusive views dance to drum circles, parse sensitive theological issues, and pray on the banks of the French Broad River.

Image courtesy of Faithmarks.

Last year's festival featured a "Faithmarks" exhibit, a gallery of photos and testimonies revealing why and how folks were tattooed in the name of spirituality. Carl Greene and Anna Golladay, founders of the project, knew that "that the story behind the tattoo was as instrumental as the ink used to apply it."

Faithmarks hosted their own "tattoo" opportunity during the weekend so festival attendees could experiment with their own faith marks using temporary Jagua ink, a black, earth-based substance that emerges from puff-paint bottles reminiscent of the 1990s. In line to get my (temporary) tattoo -- a cross with an om at its center, a sign of dedication to my Christian-Hindu interfaith marriage, I chatted with a Baby Boomer whose voice was melodic and familiar. As we passed a sign-in sheet, I caught her name.

"Are you the Vanna Fox?" I stuttered.

"Vanna Fox, Mix 101.5 on-time traffic!"

Her voice chimed, just as it had so many mornings from my car radio, and the prudish stereotype of what I had pictured the lady behind the Southern accent to be was shattered.

Vanna, on the cusp of early retirement from the radio business to answer a vocational call to missionary work, wanted a trial-run of what would become her third tattoo: a wild goose-dove combination, signifying both the Biblical and Celtic representation of the Spirit. A tree of life already resides below her belly button.

"The Wild Goose is a reminder that the Spirit of God cannot be contained or tamed. Geese make a lot of noise, and have a habit of biting those who try to contain them. This speaks to so much of my Christian journey."

Vanna's theology, later permanently inked on her wrist after the festival, echoes that of many contemporary Christians: uncontained and frustrated with the Church's old ways that breed hurt and exclusion.

According to a 2010 Pew Research Center study, nearly 40 percent of Millennials are inked, and half of those tattooed have two to five marks. While Millennials are the least overtly religious generation in modern times, (one in four are unaffiliated with any religion), they are not less spiritual. They pray as often was their elders did at their age, and yet, like Vanna's wild goose-dove, they remain unconfined from the construct of formal religion.

Churches are feeling the pinch of the tattooed and uncontained. Marketing efforts like the "Jesus Tattoo" ad campaign demonstrate an urgent need to stay relevant. Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor and author of Pastrix. Her spiritual body art covers her CrossFit physique, and she reminds her parish that Christian theology is both incarnational and narrative. Bodies --skin included -- tell a story.

KrsnaNamaFaithmark

Christians aren't the only ones tattooing themselves in the name of spirituality. Krnsa-nama, a tattoo artist at Ron's Tattoos in Elizabeth, NJ, is a practicing Hindu who estimates that one in five of his clients receive faith marks. Requests include Buddhist symbols, language characters representing different qualities outlined in various scriptures, as well as the typical crosses, rosary beads, praying hands, Bible verses, angels, doves, and portraits of Christ.