The tattoo artist gave me a look that said he didn’t understand my question.
“So, you’re looking for someone who has a religious tattoo?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Or any artist who has one or knows someone who has one, who also belongs to a Catholic parish.”
Tattoo shops employees likely don’t expect a reporter from the Catholic Herald to walk into their shop – shops displaying artwork of skulls and half-naked women on the walls – wanting to talk about ink.
I explained that I just wanted to talk to people who have religious tattoos or are planning to get them, and why: Why that design? Why that body part? What does it mean to them?
The artist nodded his head; he understood why I was there.
“I’ll see what I can do,” he said, and I handed him my card with my contact information and walked out the door.
The world of tattoos, in general, is typically dominated by young people, and the perception of individuals with tattoos has moved from the “thug” and “gangster” mentality to one a bit more lax and dismissive.
I found it more difficult than I thought it would be to find Catholics with religious tattoos.
When I first thought of this idea, the only Catholics I knew with tattoos were my friends. One has St. Michael the Archangel on his shoulder; he likes to tell people he “has an angel on his shoulder.” The other friend has an image of Jesus holding a man with a hammer on his ribcage, signifying Jesus’ forgiveness to those who nailed him to the cross and forgiveness in general; he likes to say he has “Jesus on my side.”
As a journalist I can’t interview my friends so I roamed Milwaukee looking for Catholics with ink.
The first trip was to St. Martin of Tours, Franklin, where they were having a “bike blessing.” I’d been to the Harley-Davidson Festival and I knew tattoos were common among bikers, but I wasn’t guaranteed I would find someone there.
I went anyway to see if there would be anyone with interest in tattoos. I wore my leather jacket because I didn’t want to stand out in the crowd. My instincts were correct.
I approached the organizers and told them why I was there. At first they weren’t sure if they could help me. I thought this story was done, until I met John Hulman, parish member and biker who said he was going to be getting some tattoos with a faith-based message.
After talking with John 45 minutes about tattoos, faith and motorcycles, this story had some life.
For the next few weeks I would drive around Milwaukee going into various tattoo shops asking if they could help me. I found Ink Addictions on my way home from work when I decided not to take the freeway.
Heavy metal music blasted over the speakers as I entered the shop. It was full with mostly college-aged adults either waiting to get their tattoo or supporting someone who was. I walked up to the artist at the counter.
“I’m looking for someone who has a religious tattoo or maybe some artists who have them and have tatted someone with a religious tattoo,” I said.
The artist looked at me and said, “You can talk to me.”
That was Adrian Castaneda. We went outside where rush hour traffic was quieter than the inside of the shop. He told me about his experience being a tattoo artist, his love for tattoos, and some of the struggles that come with having a lot of tattoos. I gave him my card.
I have talked to Adrian a few times over the phone and visited the shop to talk to more people about tattoos.
People were intrigued about the story. They’d ask me about the people I talked too and what I found. Even some of the priests in the Cousins Center were interested in story.
I’ve thought about getting a tattoo to honor my deceased grandfather. My grandmother, an old school devout Catholic who prays the rosary every day, would hate the idea of one of her grandchildren having a tattoo. So for right now it’s just a thought.
After talking to other Catholics with, or willing to get, religious tattoos I confirmed what I already felt: Despite people’s preferences on religious tattoos, those who have them are deeply spiritual and devoted to God. Their expression of faith may differ from that of previous generations, but only God can judge them.