John Hulman is willing to wear his faith on his sleeve, literally. He’s planning on getting a tattoo on his arm to express his devotion to his Catholic faith. He picked out his artist, a man by the street name of “Tatter” out of a shop in Burlington.
He first explained that his tattoos will be on the left arm, “left is always personal.”
On his forearm he plans on putting “John 3:16.”
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
“One of my big reasons for doing that is I’m going head to head with what I would consider the popular figures in the world, taking 3:16 and using it for what I would consider the wrong things, like (Stone Cold) Steve Austin the (professional) wrestler,” Hulman said. “The Bible verse as itself, I think to put it on, to make that permanent, shows people where I stand.”
Tattoos are gaining popularity as the sight of individuals with them becomes more acceptable. According to a Pew Research Center study published in 2010, 38 percent of 18-25 year olds have a tattoo, and of them, one in five have two or more. In the 30-45 year old group, 32 percent have tattoos.
Hulman said he had a rough childhood and that particular verse “ran to the core of my being.”
After the Bible verse, he said he plans to get a cross on his left shoulder.
Looking for ink
The tattoo artist gave me a look that said he didn’t understand my question.
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. …
“Doing ink is a major thing. You want to make sure what you do is exactly what you want,” Hulman said. “I wasn’t going to do anything really scary or Satan-y-type crap. You see some of these guys do that and it drives me nuts. It doesn’t prove how tough you are.”
‘Why did you do that?’
Hulman said he was raised Lutheran, but the Catholic structure and view of family values led him to convert. He’s a member of St. Martin of Tours Parish, Franklin. He hopes these tattoos will help others think about how God impacts them in their daily life.
“I think we’re here to help each other and guide people forward, that’s just the way I am,” Hulman said. “I’m not about myself. It’s more about the tattoos I want to do when people see them it’s going to be more about, you know, they’re going to ask, ‘Why did you do that?’ I’ll tell ya. If you really want to sit down over a beer or over a burger…. I’ll tell ya.”
An avid motorcyclist, standing 6 feet, 1 inch and weighing 250 pounds, Hulman is somewhat intimidating. He had a temper that caused a lot of problems. Now, working as a customer service representative for the Gustave A. Larson Co., he’s married with three children and realizes he’s a more peaceful man – because of his faith.
Hulman said his change makes him think about things more deeply, especially something as major as getting a tattoo.
“I believe in doing things right, so I want them to know the right one, not the stupid crap,” Hulman said. “Not the brainless stuff, not the ‘highway to hell’ type of crap.”
Hulman said doing something extreme, like putting a Bible verse on his arm, allows him to proclaim his faith in a non-verbal way.
“Doing that type of tribute to your Savior, realistically, lets people know where you stand and if they don’t like it, they got other places where they can go,” Hulman said. “But if they want to know more about it, I’m not afraid to tell them.”
Finding a meaningful design might prevent people from getting a tattoo, another is the cost. Hulman said he estimates the total cost of his tattoos at $100. Recently he has had to make repairs on this car and clothes dryer, which have delayed the date of getting the tattoos, but he’s still motivated to sit in the chair and face the needle.
Church teaching unclear
The Catholic Church’s view on tattoos is hazy at best with no clear statement of position.
Fr. Bob Lotz, a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and a faculty member in the Marquette University College os Professional Studies, said in an email he was unsure of church teaching on tattoos.
“I don’t know that the church has any official view of tattoos,” he said. “If it does, I haven’t heard about it.”
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church under “respect for bodily integrity,” it states, “Except when performed for strictly therapeutic medical reasons, directly intended amputations, mutilations, and sterilizations performed on innocent persons are against the moral law.”
The catechism also mentions that man was “created in the image and likeness of God,” but goes on to say, “admittedly, in speaking about God like this, our language is using human modes of expression; nevertheless it really does attain to God himself, though unable to express him in his infinite simplicity.”
For Catholics who want a priest’s advice on getting a tattoo, read Fr. Jerry Herda’s column “Ask Fr. Jerry.”
‘Everybody gets them’
The idea of permanently etching a sign of your faith on your body to signify eternal devotion and proclaiming your beliefs without speaking is appealing to some.
But the act of getting a tattoo itself is a whole different story. Often, Catholics are called on to put our faith in a stranger, but to ask a stranger to place an irreversible mark on your skin might be enough for some to just enjoy the fantasy. But for those that actually go through with it, it’s a whole new experience.
Ink Addictions, on 12th Street and Oklahoma Avenue, is a small tattoo shop that looks like a converted barbershop. On the wall are numerous pieces of art drawn by the in-house artists. It even sells candy and soda.
“When it comes to religion, there is no barrier, everybody gets them,” Adrian Castaneda, Ink Addictions tattoo artist, said of the people he’s “tatted” with religious art. He’s been at this tattoo shop for eight years and said people get religious tattoos for all sorts of reasons.
Castaneda said every detail matters when it comes to getting a tattoo. Something as simple as Jesus’ face, with tears or without tears, can invoke a different response. When it comes to getting an image of Jesus inked on their body, it sometimes serves as gesture to his sacrifice.
“They want to remind themselves the pain he went through was for them,” Castaneda said.
Castaneda is a Catholic who attends Mass “off and on” with his girlfriend at Blessed Sacrament, Milwaukee. He said having knowledge of his faith comes in handy when tattooing a person, especially something like a rosary.
“You really have to know the rosary yourself because you have to know how many beads can fit on it, where the beads go, the pattern that they go in,” Castaneda said. “You have to know a little bit of anatomy, you know, the way a rosary really would hang around somebody’s neck or wrist … if it was straight down, it wouldn’t really look right.”
Castaneda has tattoos all over his body, and he knows people give him weird looks, but he “leaned to deal with it.”
His first tattoo, however, was a tribute to his mother and his faith.
“She raised me by herself, as a Catholic woman,” Castaneda said. “I wanted my first tattoo to be for her and I wanted it to mean something.”
The tattoo is a cross on his right forearm and a banner across the front with “mother” written on it.
Tattoos can send the wrong message
Castaneda said his mother loves tattoos, she even has a few herself, and has always encouraged him to express himself.
“She’s always going to be in my life, along with my religion,” Castaneda said. “She helped me grow up, so will everything else. So will God’s plan, you know, everything.”
Despite societal advances in accepting individuals with tattoos, Castaneda wishes it would be accepted by more.
“I know some people don’t like them, which I understand, but I did leave a church because of the way I was looked at,” Castaneda said.
Castaneda didn’t want to say which parish he left but did say it was the way a priest looked at him is why he left.
“I went up for Communion … and he just kind of looked at me and did a double take,” Castaneda said. “I felt judged, you know, in the house of God and I shouldn’t be. Only God can judge me.
That phrase, “only God can judge me,” Castaneda said, is one of the most popular phrases he’s tatted on people.
“A lot of people get it because they feel like they are judged by everybody,” Castaneda said. “That’s the biggest saying I really love.”
Robert Karas walked into Ink Addictions on a hot August day wearing comfortable baggy clothes. He came to get a poem about “success” tatted on his right shin, one of the few body parts that doesn’t have ink on it.
Castaneda prepares the stencil of tattoo on an illuminated drafting table while Karas listens to his iPod. This isn’t the first time Castaneda is tattooing Karas; the first time was a year ago when Karas got the image of a pair of taped hands holding a rosary with the phrase “death before dishonor” scripted around it on his left shoulder.
“It was my first tattoo, I didn’t know how it was going to feel so I got it there,” Karas said.
He breaks down every detail of the tattoo starting with “death before dishonor.”
“The tattoo represents, like, I’m never going to screw nobody over,” He said. “I’m always going to stay true to you. I’d rather die than mistreat one of my good friends.”
As an amateur mixed martial arts fighter, Karas said the taped hands represent life because “life is pretty much nothing but a fight.”
And the rosary?
“I am Catholic,” Karas said, adding he’s a member of St. Veronica, Milwaukee.
According to Karas, fighting and faith “go hand in hand” in the sense that a person must be mentally prepared for the challenge before them.
“If you go into a fight in a bad mood, bad mental state, you’ll get destroyed,” Karas said. “You have to think positive and religion helps with that.”
Karas said he hopes to become a professional MMA fighter but until then he works at Beer Bellies restaurant as a line cook and does security at The Rave. Faith is part of the reason why he stays focused on his goals, he said.
“Mentally, I’m a very strong person, somewhat because of religion and my faith and my beliefs in life,” Karas said.
Castaneda finishes the tattoo in just less than an hour, and now Karas’ shin has about 10 lines of text. His left shin is still bare, but he plans to fill that space.
“I’m going to get praying hands with a rosary coming off of it and the cross is hanging below it,” Karas said, adding he liked the way his first tattoo turned out and wanted another one like it.
He thought about the future design for a moment, and then said, “It’ll just only make me stronger.”