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Rev. Michele Rowe of St. Andrew’s United Church & Centre for Peace in Golden, B.C., shows a tattoo that reads, “God has been this way before, God will be this way again.” Photo by A Barrett Photography

What their tats tell

You’d be surprised by the number of United Church ministers with tattoos these days. Here's the meaning behind all that ink.

By Trisha Elliott

Within six short hours of inviting colleagues to share their tattoo stories in a Facebook group for clergy, over 60 responses and messages saturated my feed. Turtles, trees, scripture passages, crosses — turns out that a lot of United Church ministers have ink. That shouldn’t be surprising. Tattoos have gone mainstream. A study from the Washington-based Pew Research Center concludes that nearly four in 10 millennials have a tattoo, and about half of those with tattoos have two to five.

Aside from the immediate volume of responses, what most surprised me were the many thoughtful and life-affirming reasons behind them. Getting a tattoo wasn’t about being trendy or counter-cultural. Ministers described getting inked as a spiritual act, a way to remember, heal, bond with others, grow in faith or evangelize. Some sniffed back tears as they told me the stories of their tattoos. For the first time, I began to understand why people opt to painfully and permanently mark their bodies. My colleagues are literally wearing their spirit on their skin, allowing themselves to be positively stained with their deepest beliefs, moments, heartaches and loves.

“I have 1 Corinthians 13:13 on my chest above my heart,” explains Greg Simpson, a designated lay minister serving Calvary United in Rodney, Ont., referring to the biblical passage, “And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” “That verse got me through marital separation, in that it became easy to feel unloved or unlovable and wonder where love is. . . .
Whether I felt love from her or not, I was still loved. God loved me. And other people around me were loving me even when things were going upside down for me.” The reminder that “love is still the greatest thing” was a spiritual anchor for Simpson. A prompt to deeper devotion. A touchstone in the day. “It’s not just that the passage meant a lot to me before I had it tattooed but after, the passage kind of came to me more frequently because of that reminder.”

For Kristin Wood Burke, a diaconal minister serving Neepawa and Area Pastoral Charge in Manitoba, the alligator tattoo on her calf isn’t just a reminder; it’s a source of healing. Burke’s tat is a memorial to her father who died of cancer in his 50s and was a fun-loving fan of alligators. After he died, Wood Burke, her brother and stepmother each got a variation of the same alligator tattoo, and on her father’s gravestone, they etched the same graphic as well as the catchphrase “See you later, alligator.” “It was something that reminded us that the three of us were really joined together in this loss. Then to put it on his tombstone as well. Even though he’s gone, the four of us have this connection,” reflects Wood Burke.

Soon to be ordained, Lesley Hamilton of Cole Harbour Woodside United in Dartmouth, N.S., has tattoos on her wrists. One is of Eve, upside down in the Garden of Eden, paired with the inscription, “God bless the freaks.” The other is of a nude woman with butterfly wings and the words, “Back to normal.” Photo by Peter Parsons
Soon to be ordained, Lesley Hamilton of Cole Harbour Woodside United in Dartmouth, N.S., has tattoos on her wrists. One is of Eve, upside down in the Garden of Eden, paired with the inscription, “God bless the freaks.” The other is of a nude woman with butterfly wings and the words, “Back to normal.” Photo by Peter Parsons

Rev. Sue Breisch turned her skin into a canvas to rebrand her self-image. On her 45th birthday, Breisch, a minister based in Regina, tattooed the inside of her wrists with the words “Beloved” and “Beautiful.”

“Getting the tattoos was my way of naming my primary spiritual journey. I had decided very early in my life that bad things happen to bad people and since bad things happened to me, I must be bad. That set of broken beliefs was [the] foundation to addiction in my life. . . . I spent my life telling myself that I’m sad, ugly and stupid. To even be willing to say, ‘No, I’m beloved and beautiful,’ was a huge shift.” Breisch says that on the days when she doesn’t feel beloved or beautiful, she can’t avoid her tattoos. “When I pray, I look at them. When I’m doing the dishes, I look at them. They are always there. They are a significant part of my journey from self-loathing to opening to love that is available to me.”

Tattoos used to have a stigma — associated with the aftermath of a drunken night out or nefarious associations. But the ministers I spoke to described a slow and intentional decision, not only in choosing the design but where to carve it. Some preferred a private placement, like a secret that only they would know about. Others wear their tats out loud — an expression of theology, even an evangelistic tool.

Lesley Hamilton has “cuffs” blatantly tattooed on her wrists. One portrays Eve upside down in the garden with an apple and a serpent; inside of her wrist, it reads “God bless the freaks.” It’s a comment on how the Genesis portrayal of Eve feeds misogyny and that Eve is the Bible’s first “freak” or marginalized person. On her other wrist is a nude woman from the back with a purple butterfly; the inside reads “Back to normal.” “In the 1980s, we were taught that we could have a husband and a million kids, and we could still have a fancy career. I spent a lot of years trying to get it right. I finally got it right by becoming myself. The statement ‘back to normal’ is the idea that you will certainly be back to normal when you turn your back on normal,” says Hamilton, who is soon-to-be ordained and on internship at Cole Harbour Woodside United near Halifax.

The overt placement of Hamilton’s cuffs reveal her personality. “There are so many days of the week [in gowned ministry] where your shoes are the only thing that has any personality of you whatsoever.’” Hamilton says her tattoos also are an icebreaker, a way of challenging perceptions. “I find that I get an extra 30 seconds of people’s time. People are curious about body art. I get more time to make my point in the world. [The tattoos] are very helpful to me.”

Rev. Michele Rowe, minister of St. Andrew’s United in Golden, B.C., concurs. Rowe says her nine tattoos capture the attention of the unchurched. “As a Christian, unlike other religions, you can effectively hide your faith. It’s not like you are a Muslim who is wearing a hijab or a Sikh person wearing a turban. When you tattoo overtly religiously spiritual stuff on your body, you are publicly declaring, ‘This is who I am, and this is what is important to me.’ When I tattooed Jesus on my arm, I thought, ‘I guess I’m not going to convert to Judaism now.’”

I’ll never look at body art the same way again. Tattoos aren’t just about being hip. The people who have them are often wearing their heart on their sleeve — or somewhere else. Tattoos draw people together, facilitate healing, are a conduit for sharing philosophy and blur the boundaries between the physical and spiritual. There’s a well of spirit beneath the ink.

Rev. Trisha Elliott is a minister at City View United in Ottawa.

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