The sacred symbolism of religious tattoos

Marked for Christ

The Catholic Church does not forbid body art. In fact, at the Catholic Council of Northumberland in 786, a Christian bearing a tattoo “for the sake of God” was deemed worthy of praise. The tradition of Christian tattoos goes back hundreds of years in the Egyptian Coptic church but is relatively new in the West. Yet a generation of young Catholics has found that the symbols of Catholicism —crosses, icons, rosaries, paintings and medals — easily translate into tattoo art.

 - America

Gabe Wells wears glasses and a button-down shirt, is built like a tank and has several large, Catholic-themed tattoos. He got his first when he was doing a year of service after high school. It is an angel surrounded by ivy on his upper arm, a reproduction of a 15th-century illuminated manuscript. The angel on the other arm quickly followed.

He was 19, traveling the country, helping to lead confirmation retreats for students from Catholic high schools and doing a lot of thinking. College was not for him; he grew up in a blue-collar family and wanted to work with his hands, but he also loved to read and spent hours in the library learning about medieval art, the great books and the lives of the saints. Within a year he had two more Catholic tattoos: a full-color illustration of a dove on one side of his chest and the reverse of the medal of St Benedict across his abdomen.

Wells was raised in the South and was culturally Catholic, but not religious, until he went on a retreat in high school. “I enjoyed the experience,” he says. “I also enjoyed punk and heavy metal. It was hard to reconcile the two, but I liked the freedom among Christians, the ability to discuss faith, truth, love—things that mattered more than materialism and looking cool...and being Catholic became a priority in my life.” Over time, Wells tried to find a balance.

He has worked offshore, installing pipeline for oil companies in the middle of the ocean and is now a machinist in Houston, Tex., where he is a fixture on the hardcore music scene. And he proudly wears his angel-loving heart on either sleeve.

The back side of the medal of St. Benedict is his largest tattoo. It is a black cross, surrounded by a circle. On the arms of the cross are the initial letters of a Latin prayer of exorcism, which reads: “May the holy cross be my light! May the dragon never be my guide.”

Around the margin of the back of the medal, another prayer of exorcism: “Begone Satan! Never tempt me with your vanities! What you offer me is evil. Drink the poison yourself!” The tattoo took six hours and felt “like surgery” or penance. Why choose these prayers, rather than something more reassuring? “Being alive, being a human being,” he says, “is not an easy thing.”

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