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.
1.JESUS IS CONDEMNED
Prayerfully allowing Himself to be the sacrificial atonement for all of humanities crimes
2. JESUS IS GIVEN HIS CROSS
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”.
3. JESUS FALLS
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.
4. JESUS MEETS HIS MOTHER
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.
5. SIMON CARRIES JESUS’ CROSS
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.
6. JESUS IS STRIPPED OF HIS CLOTHING
INRI stands for King of the Jews… a mocking joke.
7. JESUS IS NAILED TO THE CROSS
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.
8. JESUS DIES ON THE CROSS
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.
9. JESUS IS LAID IN THE TOMB
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.
10. JESUS RISES FROM THE DEAD
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.