Touched by a tattoo

Personal religious beliefs are expressed through skin art
Sunday, June 20, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:46 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Seated comfortably at his station as doorman at Columbia’s Eastside Tavern, Josh Windle lifts the sleeve of his black shirt to reveal an image of an agonized Jesus tattooed upon his right upper arm. The Christian savior’s hair tangles around a gnarled crown of thorns from which blood drops to a wreath of roses around his neck.

Windle’s arm is so large, his skin is so white and Christ’s face so anguished that the effect is stark, even startling.

For Windle, the tattoo serves as a permanent expression of his Christian beliefs.

“It is a faith thing,” he said of his decision to get his tattoos. “But I’m not going to lie — I also just wanted to get tattoos.”

Windle, known affectionately by coworkers and bar patrons as “Big Pants,” concedes that his job at Eastside — a bar often host to unabashedly loud and raucous live acts — is associated with a subculture linked to drugs, booze and rock ’n’ roll. Not exactly the holy trinity of Christianity.

“I get (flack) from both sides,” said Windle. “Christians give me (flack) for not living the Christian lifestyle, while people here give me (flack)...”

“Because Jesus sucks!” One of Windle’s coworkers jumped in, obviously joking as he patted Windle’s shoulder and smiled.

Windle is hardly an anomaly in his choice of tattooing to display his faith. In the 21st century, tattoos have become a means of personal expression — as commonplace in some circles as jewelry — rather than a brazen statement of subversion. And what some people choose to express is their Christian faith.

Windle endures the teasing with an attitude of stoicism and wry humor that demonstrates his Christian faith. Over the loud guitar riffs emanating from Eastside’s speakers, Windle explained the meanings behind two other tattoos.

“This one,” he said, pulling up his sleeve and pointing to the overlapping letters “p” and “x” on his left upper arm, “was the symbol marked on martyrs for Christ.”

“And this,” he said. He tugged down the neck of his T-shirt to reveal an intricate mural spanning his upper chest. It portrays the sacred heart flanked on each side by bright orange flames of the phoenix, a mythical bird that symbolizes resurrection and rebirth.

“It’s people who look at the outside,” said Steve Bensinger, president of the Christian Tattoo Association based in Kalamazoo, Mich. “The Bible says that God only looks at the heart.”

Bensinger is a pastor at the Come As You Are church in Kalamazoo, the very name of which evokes the brand of evangelical liberalism that Bensinger said he hopes to spread. His affinity for tattoos, piercings and motorcycles often belies his strong Christian faith, he said.

“People already think I look like a freak when they meet me,” said Bensinger, who has multiple tattoos and piercings. “So I just ask them to call me Pastor Freak.”

Bensinger said he is accustomed to being shunned by more conservative Christians who find his body art offensive.

However, he said, he is always open to discussing his tattoos and faith with anyone. He considers his tattoos a physical manifestation of the covenant he has with Jesus, which he refers to as the “eternal ink.”

A graphic depiction of the crucifixion covers Bensinger’s forearm, an image that he describes as “intentionally gruesome.”

“People need to know how it really happened,” he said. “People ask about it all the time, and I’m happy to take the time to explain it to them.”

An equally disturbing image, illustrating a passage from the first chapter of Ezekiel, in which angels flay and behead the demons ascending from hell, is inked upon Bensinger’s upper arm and wraps around his shoulder.

Bensinger assumed leadership of the Christian Tattoo Association, an international organization with a membership of more than 100 tattoo parlors, in April 2003. He said the organization does not exist to necessarily endorse tattooing.

“We just want people to know that God doesn’t have issues with tattooing,” Bensinger said. “If people think tattooing is wrong, they just haven’t done their research.”

Bensinger said that people often erroneously refer to Old Testament passages to justify their objections to tattooing. “We don’t live under the Old Testament anymore,” he said. “Although we can study and learn from it, we don’t live by it.”

Jason Fancher, a tattoo artist and proprietor of the Hollywood Rebels tattoo parlor in Columbia, said devout Christians aren’t the only people who choose to get religious tattoos.

“Some people just like the sacred heart or crosses,” said Fancher, who said he thinks admiration for religious, particularly Catholic, iconography compels some atheistic or agnostic people to get religious tattoos. In terms of Christian imagery, Fancher said he tattoos “more crosses than anything else.”

“About half the people who get crosses get them because they are Christian, and about half get them as a memorial to someone who has died,” he said. The most elaborate religious designs Fancher has done are what he described as a “huge arm piece” of the Virgin of Guadalupe and two large back tattoos of crosses.

Fancher said that faith-based body art has more of a historical context than many people may suspect.

“These designs,” he said, gesturing to a frame of tattoo drawings on the wall, “go back to the 1920s.”

Fancher’s parlor offers a variety of religious designs, including crosses, sacred hearts and praying hands, but he said most designs are customized for each person.

Fancher has worked on Windle’s tattoos incrementally for the past three years, gradually creating a colorful testament of faith on the canvas of Windle’s arms and chest.

At his job at Eastside, Windle rarely wears anything other than black pants and a black T-shirt, which cover the tattoos on his arms. That includes a gray skull and crossbones traditionally associated with either poison, pirates or, contemporarily, a brand of postured toughness usually reserved for greaser culture.

Below it is the dictum “Dead to the world.”

“It just means that I answer to a higher power,” Windle said.

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