Cruciformity: Stations on Skin – the designs and invite

This year for our yearly Stations of the Cross show that we host in our gallery, we have decided to do a Stations on Skin show. That’s right… tattoos.  Now, this is probably not the right fit for a lot of church communities. But for Ecclesia, in the heart of the city of Houston, in the Montrose neighborhood, and considering our congregation, we feel like this is an appropriate response to the season of Lent for the context in which we live.


Chris gave me this idea in December last year and I have spent two months working away on designs that can represent the story of the cross, the history of christian symbolism, and a maturely developed tattoo culture. This was no easy task… and in fact I scraped two full design ideas. It wasn’t until I was led by a friend to the story of Russian prison tattoos that everything came together.

I don’t know if you know much about Russian prison tattoos but here’s some enlightening paragraphs from this website:

According to the book of Genesis, God placed a mark on the world’s first murderer before sending him into exile. The mark of Cain indelibly branded its bearer as a criminal and social outcast.
It is not known when tattooing first became a common practice in Russian prisons and Stalinist Gulags. Soviet researchers first discovered and studied this underground activity in the 1920s; photographs of prisoners from that period suggest an already elaborate and highly developed subculture. More than simple decoration, the images symbolically proclaim the wearer’s background and rank within the complex social system of the jailed.
The Russian prison population is one of the largest in the world. From the mid-1960’s to the 1980’s, thirty-five million people were incarcerated, and of those, twenty to thirty million were tattooed. The tattoos display inmates’ contempt for official justice and retribution– phrases and images directly mock the political system and the absence of any possibility for “reform” within the jails. “For a convict, prison is a crime college,” reads one typical statement. Convicted female gang members sometimes prefer the simple declaration, “People are wild animals.”

This also from Wikipedia:

Russian criminal tattoos have a complex system of symbols which can give quite detailed information about the wearer. Not only do the symbols carry meaning but the area of the body on which they are placed may be meaningful too…
Tattoos done in a Russian prison have a distinct bluish color and usually appear somewhat blurred because of the lack of instruments to draw fine lines. The ink is often created from burning the heel of a shoe and mixing the soot with urine, and injected into the skin utilizing a sharpened guitar string attached to an electric shaver.
In addition to voluntary tattooing, tattoos are used to stigmatize and punish individuals within the criminal society. They may be placed on an individual who fails to pay debts in card games, or otherwise breaks the criminal code, and often have very blatant sexual images, embarrassing the wearer. Tattoos on the forehead are usually forcibly applied, and designed both to humiliate the bearer and warn others about him or her. They frequently consist of slurs about the bearer’s ethnicity, sexual orientation, or perceived collusion with the prison authorities. They can indicate that the bearer is a member of a political groupconsidered offensive by other prisoners (e.g. Vlasovite), or has been convicted of a crime (such as child rape) which is disapproved of by other criminals.

What strikes me about the prison tattoos is that you are visually branded with your crimes whether you decide to or not… and it’s for everyone to see.

So back to the Stations project…. In my opinion the Protestant visual culture is very under developed. Mostly it’s cute-sy lambs and shiney gold things (just go to a christian bookstore). But when you look at the story of Jesus going to the cross… its a very hardcore story. It’s the story of an innocent man convicted in an empirical justice system, tortured and brutalized, publicly shamed and mocked, and then mercilessly slowly murdered. This is not a cute-sy shimery story. This hits at the core of our beastly human condition.

And yet the good news of the story is that Jesus allowed this to happen to him. He went through it all: from shaming, to torture, to death, to hell…. and came out on the other end victorious over our greatest fear…. our ever impending death. But it’s not just the victory over death that gets me…. it’s that Jesus shared in some of the worst human experiences. Now I know there are people in our community with criminal records. He’s shared in that. I know there have people been abused. He’s experienced that. I know in our community there have been people publicly shamed and embarrased. He’s known that… more than probably any of us. His journey to the cross was not just to get to dying… but He took on some of the worst parts of being human.

And He over came those things. It’s no longer His story. And it’s no longer our story either.

These tattoos, to me, symbolize the marks of Him. They lay over the crimes and shame I could have all over me… telling everyone who I really am. But instead, I have Jesus’ markings instead. His story covers mine. It’s called grace and mercy. That’s the story of the Stations that I think we forget. He has gone before us in these things. He has overcome them. He brings healing.


The Stations of the Cross are typically figurative and contain two essential things – Jesus and a cross. To be in honest, in considering getting a tattoo, I personally don’t want either.

I’ve spent my whole 20’s deconstructing the white scandinavian Jesus that hung in my Lutheran Church and I didn’t want to add to the overwhelming caucasian Jesus imagery out there. And crosses…. Although I think hugely important and very sacred,  I think symbolically in our culture it’s lost it’s impact. It’s become more of a decoration and a stigmatized religious symbol than an epic icon of reconciliation between God and man.

So I had to look elsewhere to find the symbology that I think depicted what the stations could mean. I needed to represent tattoo culture honorably and to also give a head nod to the historical religious symbols that were out there. My main inspirations then came from Russian prison tattoos, Jerry Sailor tattoos, art by Stephan Doitschinoff, and designs by Eric Gill.


Here are the 10 station designs. Descriptions are below.


Prayerfully allowing Himself to be the sacrificial atonement for all of humanities crimes


This a nod to a well know christian image about the sacrificial lamb. In this design, I’ve tweaked it a bit… having the cross that He is being given piercing him…. pouring out His blood into the cup that He has been given. The tear where the eye is stands for murder. The image is also a nod to the vision John saw of Jesus on the island of Patmos where he sees Him as “a Lamb standing, as if slain.”  And then TOLLE CRUCEM TUAM means “take up your cross”.


There are 3 Jesus Falls in the traditional Stations of the Cross. I decided to combine them into one station. A – Alpha, O – Omega. B – Beginning, E – End. The infinite sharing in our finiteness.


This tattoo is all about the pain of parenthood… of seeing your kids suffer. It’s about Mary meeting Jesus in the midst of his torturous journey. the crown, the dove, the tear, the heart…. all symbols of parenthood.


Simon the Cyrene was taken out of the crowd and forced to carry Jesus’ instrument of death. He shared some of the temporary weight of the cross… the cross which would inevitably be a symbol for his own salvation. To me, this image represents the burden of carrying one another through death. We all expereince it – death of family and friends. It’s a basic human experience. We make it through in community… in bearing one another’s burdens and pain. But death is not the end for us…. “NON OMNIS MORIAR” – I SHALL NOT WHOLLY DIE.

Also, the goldfinch traditionally is a Christ symbol.



INRI stands for King of the Jews… a mocking joke.


this design was inspired by the passage in Isaiah 53:

 Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed. 


I don’t know why it hit me so hard this time around, but Jesus died. Not kind of died. But really died. Died like we’ll all die.

Inspired by Day Of The Dead art, this image came out. The cup is the cup of death… the cup Jesus was given to drink. The tear is for murder and sorrow. the 3 shot crow is for Peter’s denial… being abandoned by your friends and family. TETELESTAI is “it is finished“… the last thing Jesus said on the cross.


There is a song by Glen Hansard (the Frames, the Swell Season) called LAY ME DOWN. He tells a story of being a teenager in Ireland and being in love with a girl. He bought a cemetary plot for a christmas present and took her there Christmas Eve and said “would you be buried with me?”

This image is reflective of that story.


I think you get it.


So here’s the invite. If you would like to respond to the story of Christ’s crucifixion this lenten season by taking on a station, then feel free to use any one of these images. People from the Ecclesia community will be getting these tattoos before Ash Wednesday and participating in our Cruciformity: Stations on Skin opening on Saturday , February 25th at 7pm at Xnihilo Gallery (2115 Taft St, Houston, TX 77006). There will be all kinds of art and photos of tattoos on the walls in the gallery for the month long show… but for the actual opening the stations will be the real tattoos themselves – real tattoos on real people.

If you do not live in Houston but would like to have your picture displayed, please email a pic of your tattoo to me, Scott Erickson, and I will print it off and put it up with the station.

Any other questions or comments can also be directed to me as well.


The reason why we are doing this is because we believe in our context this is an appropriate contextual expression of our faith.

We had 126 people intially sign up to get tattoos out of our community. I had a conversation after one of the services with a young woman who had many tattoos. I wanted to find out if she had gotten the inking done locally (cause I was putting together a list of tattoo artists I could steer people too… support your local tattoo artist community!) but she told me she had gotten most of her work down in New York.

She’s only been in Houston for a couple months. She has a young daughter and going through a painful divorce. She explained to me what her tattoos meant. All of them had deeply personal stories. I asked her what she thought of this show and she said that she thought it was amazing. She went on to explain to me how most of the time when she attends a church that she feels like she needs to hide her tattoos… that they are inappropriate somehow. But to her, they explain who she is… so she feels like she has to hide who she is. (Sound familiar at church?) She then expressed how grateful she is to have found a community where she can be who she really is.

That’s it for us.

That’s the contextualizing we are striving for…. that there is a place for all who desire to know Christ and His resurrecting grace…. no matter how they are marked.

About scotterickson

curator of awesomeness
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20 Responses to Cruciformity: Stations on Skin – the designs and invite

  1. Pingback: We knew they were artsy « The Yearnal

  2. Sheri Tuttle says:

    This is amazing, and wonderful – and I mean that in the truest sense of the words, not just as everyday adjectives. Thank you.

  3. Stephen says:

    what do you think about a Death Be Not Proud resurrection design? I love that poem and have thought about a design for a while. grace and peace.

  4. Adrienne says:

    This is ridiculous….I soooooo want to get one, but I’ve been working up the courage and planning to get my first tattoo for years…there’s not very much time to do this!!

  5. Pingback: The Confused History of Prison Tattoos | Tattoo Information and Free Article Resources l Read before you decide to make a tattoo l

  6. This is one of the most crazy and beautiful ideas I’ve heard about. Elizabeth Korver-Glenn is a friend of mine (through a mutual friend, the phone and the internet!) and we talked about this a few days ago. My husband and I are Brooks Brothers-style dressers, I have what I call librarian glasses. But after we read this and saw all the images, we are very, very seriously considered getting one of these. I shouldn’t perhaps be surprised, because one of my favorite Flannery O’Connor stories is “Revelation.” If you haven’t read it, I think it would be helpful before this stations opens. Thanks again for your moving and stunning work. To God be the glory!

    • scotterickson says:

      i hope this is up your alley. but no pressure. we think the perfect candidates for participation are people who have tattoos already or had been planning to get a tattoo.
      but if you live in houston you should definitely come to the opening!

  7. I cannot believe that a “Church” is promoting trashy tattoos,as they are PROHIBITED BY GOD HIMSELF!!! (Leviticus 19:28). Also,you’re body is considered the Temple of God,and anything of this sort,including cuttings,piercings,etc. is considered defilement and vandalism of said temple!!! I am not a minister myself,but my cousin is,and has been for years (Church Of The Brethren),attended seminary at Ashland,Ohio so I’m not just “blowing smoke”. The inside cover of my King James Bible contains a glossary of Bible truths,and the prohibition of tattoos happens to be listed there as well.I haven’t heard of God changing his ruling in all the centuries since it was originally written! I wouldn’t even date,let alone marry anyone who would adore themselves with such Garbage!!!

    • scotterickson says:

      i would love to see a picture of you to see if you cut your hair or trim your beard since you are a man following the scriptures so intently.

      27 “‘Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.

      28 “‘Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.
      Leviticus 19:27-28

      ….or maybe this passage has something to do about the cultural context the people of israel were living in thousands of years ago. An elder of our church, one of the top biblical scholars in our country, wrote a response to a person in our community who had a similar question (although they posed it a lot more lovingly). here’s what Dr. David Capes wrote:

      “For the record I won’t be getting a tattoo—for lots of reasons—but I understand how some want to and others find it strange. People over 45 often associate tattoos with bad behavior. When they were growing up the only people to get tattoos were those who went off, got drunk and came back all inked up. Even Scott last week in his sermon talked about being afraid of a rough fellow who was “all tatted up”. Today though I imagine most Ecclesians under 35 have at least one tattoo. It is understood like a rite of passage into adulthood, a way of expressing their individuality and yet ironically going along with the crowd (since most their age have them). It is an interesting cultural phenomenon.

      Now specifically to your question about the Old Testament Scripture. It is true and undeniable that Leviticus instructs the people of God not to cut their bodies or get tattoos. But we must ask what function those laws had. There are 613 laws in the Old Testament that make up—and this is key—God’s covenant-agreement with the people known as Israel. Some laws are universal (no murder, no stealing, no adultery), but the majority are specific to that people. Christians today, for example, don’t remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy by doing no work on the Sabbath. The Sabbath is the 7th day of the week, Saturday, not Sunday. Christian women today don’t follow the laws of what to do during their menstrual cycles. The majority of Christians eat pork, shrimp and catfish despite God’s clear instruction to Israel not to eat these things (Leviticus 11). Christians today don’t celebrate Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. Now why don’t Christians follow these laws? They are part of the Bible. True, they are, but these are laws God gave to establish the people we know today as Israel. These laws set them apart from their pagan neighbors. They are written, according to Paul, for our instruction but they do not apply to us. Paul, you remember, did not insist that Gentile men be circumcised in order to follow Christ even though circumcision was central to the Abrahamic covenant. Circumcision is the mark/cutting of the body that set the men of Israel apart from their pagan neighbors. Today many Jews still follow these laws and practices.

      Informed by the Old Testament, Christians are to be formed by a different set of teachings (the Sermon on the Mount, law of Christ—Galatians 6), practices (Sunday worship, Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, hospitality), and beliefs (incarnation, trinity, resurrection, etc).

      Now to the question of our bodies as the temple of God. This is true and a central part of the church’s teaching. However, temples were not blank buildings. If you read the description of the tabernacle in Exodus and Leviticus you will see that the temple was an ornate, decorated, beautiful place. It was probably the most ornate building they would ever see. The walls were covered with tapestries that had images of angels on them. The columns were covered with images and designs. The furnishings were of gold and silver. This was, after all, God’s house and it was meant to be grand. You could not look in any direction in the temple and not see some image crafted by an artist on the walls and columns.

      For centuries, the church has struggled to tell the story of the Gospel well. They mined culture around them to do so. The halo around the heads of saints on paintings and icons is an image of the sun drawn from pagan culture and stories of Apollo. The catacomb paintings are not unlike paintings in pagan burial chambers (they just tell part of the Christian story). When Martin Luther wrote hymns, his hymn tunes were inspired by folk songs he heard in his day. Contemporary Christian music is drawn on the various art forms you can hear on the radio. The stations of the cross tattoos are probably most like the stain glass windows of churches. For most of Christian history, the majority of Christians could not read. So church leaders put art work in their churches to tell the story. Stained glass windows are a celebrated art form which depict key moments in the drama of redemption. Even today we are fascinated and instructed by their images. I suspect that this tattoo project is a moment when we have the opportunity to tell the story again to a different group of people. For these people tattoos are a manner of self-impression mixed with a bit of social conformity.

      I hope this helps. I suspect it will for some, not for others. People often have a visceral response to tattoo culture. If I can help in any way, please let me know.”


      David B. Capes
      Thomas Nelson Research Professor
      School of Theology
      Houston Baptist University

  8. Pingback: Celebrating Lent: Tattoos, Art, and Jesus @EcclesiaHouston @PastorChrisSeay @ScottThePainter » Margaret Feinberg

  9. Regina says:

    This is amazing and beautiful. At 43, I’ve found myself with more questions and dilemmas than I have ever had in my life. And strangely enough for many years I’ve wanted a tattoo but wasn’t really moved enough by anything to have it on my body forever, until today. Jesus Meets His Mother speaks to the way I’ve identified myself since the age of 18. I am a mother. I mother those around me. A friend’s mother said once I was born to be a mother. The other, Simon Carries Jesus’ Cross, speaks to my mostly firmly held belief that we are all responsible for our fellow man. I haven’t found a church or a minister that has reached me in many many years. I wish I could attend a church that is as loving and accepting as yours.

  10. Pingback: Cruciformity « Creative Theology

  11. babykrishna says:

    these designs should be also sold on t-shirts, and posters, perhaps with a percentage donation going to a church etc. – great work, but I feel these powerful images aren’t being used to their potential! and mail me if ur in LA, i’d love most of these images on me esp by the designer.

  12. stacey says:

    i am so impressed, and absolutely enamored by the concept and the designs… a beautiful and inspiring experiment in contextualisation! kudos. wish i was in texas to check out the display itself!

  13. Scott says:

    I’m a little confused by #12. In other readings, this is the 12th or the 14th station of the cross, but yours is 10? Also, is there a biblical reference to the tree coming from the casket? It’s awesome, just trying to understand!

  14. Pingback: » Blog Archive » Lent and Easter, in blood, sweat and ink

  15. Pingback: Stations of the Cross | Pineapple Parable

  16. Pingback: Celebrating Lent: Tattoos, Art, and Jesus | Margaret Feinberg

  17. Wil says:

    What is the underlying idea behind the roots and trunk in Humility? I tried to follow the link but it was dead.

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