TWIN FALLS, Idaho — If you're lucky, George Friel Jr. will lift up the back of his shirt and show you his well-crafted body art.
But be prepared. The intense tattoo depicts Jesus Christ's crucifixion, with blood dripping out of Christ's wounds.
Friel isn't trying to shock anyone, nor is he trying to make a statement. For him, the unfinished tattoo is a testament to his faith.
"It shows people exactly what he went through for us," Friel said.
Friel is one of many Christians who sport tattoos. Whether the tattoos are religious pieces of art or just happen to grace the body of a believer, they're on the rise.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, 45 million Americans have at least one tattoo. And with 77 percent of Americans identifying themselves as Christians, there's bound to be some overlap. Religious tattoo sites pepper the Internet, and Christian tattoo shops are opening across the country, including Vivid Ink Custom Art & Tattoo in Twin Falls, Idaho, where Friel got inked.
In March, Anthony Raffaelli Jr. opened Vivid Ink, a Christian tattoo shop on Hansen Street. The walls are decorated with pictures of Christ and ichthys (Christian fish symbols). Business is steady, he said. Many people are interested in sporting their faith on their sleeve.
But how does that jibe with Christianity?
The most commonly cited passage against tattoos is Leviticus 19:28, which, according to the online Bible in Basic English, says: "You may not make cuts in your flesh in respect for the dead, or have marks printed on your bodies: I am the Lord."
But in a March 2007 sermon, Pastor Greg Fadness of Twin Falls' Lighthouse Christian Fellowship argued that the only black-and-white rules in the Bible are the Ten Commandments. He calls other laws, such as the ones found in Leviticus, gray areas. People must decide for themselves what is right, he said.
"It used to be that tattoos were taboo," Fadness said in the sermon.
Today, celebrities and athletes glamorize body modification, making it mainstream for young people.
"It's normative now. It's culturally acceptable," he said. He noted his two daughters both have tattoos. "In those areas, we have to figure out: Is it OK for me to do or not?"
Fadness says his congregation received the sermon well.
It was "controversial, but really, nobody was mad," he said. "Nobody was upset or anything like that."
If anything, it encouraged people to get tattoos, he joked.
Terry McCurdy, spokesman for southern Idaho The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said the church discourages its members from getting tattoos or excessive piercings. Latter-day Saints believe the body is a temple of God, he said, and tattoos would deface that temple. However, the church has no official stance on it.
"People make their own choices," McCurdy said. "We try not to make choices for them."
The Rev. Phil Price of First Presbyterian Church in Twin Falls said the Presbyterian denomination also has no official position on tattoos. Some of the church elders have body art, he said.
"One of my favorite quotes about the Presbyterian church is we take the Bible seriously, but not literally," Price said.
He would counsel church members against getting offensive tattoos, he said, but generally, he views them like other hobbies and cultural influences: They're only dangerous if they get in the way of a Christian's relationship with God.
As for Raffaelli, he refuses to tattoo racist or demonic symbols on his clients. He even offered to cover up one woman's Aryan Nations tattoos for free. She refused and promptly left the shop, he said.
"It's on my conscience what I tattoo," he said while working on Friel's design. "One day, I'm going to face the Lord."
Not all of his art is religious, but he often finds himself in religious discussions with his clients, asking if they have a relationship with Christ.
It scares some people away, but many are attracted to his business because of its strong Christian ties.
"Most people come in, and they love our shop," Raffaelli said. "It's comfortable. They can kick it."
Later, during a break from the tattoo session, Friel opened up about his faith, pulling out his wallet and flipping it open to a photo of his smiling children, who are at the center of a custody battle between him and his estranged wife.
"I don't think I could get through it without Jesus," he said.
And once his tattoo is finished, he said, Jesus will literally have his back.