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Wearing ‘sacred stories’ on sleeves

Hebrew words written as tattoos

People of faith tell the stories behind their spiritual tattoos in a new touring photographic art exhibit sponsored by the Wesley Foundation at the University of Michigan.

Content Editor

The Wesley Foundation at the University of Michigan, the United Methodist campus ministry, is preparing to unveil Sacred Ink, a new traveling art exhibit featuring photographs and stories of people of faith and their tattoos. The interactive gallery hopes to engage the community, including churches in the Michigan Conference, in conversation about this artistic expression and how it is more than skin-deep. For many wearers, tattoos are ever-present reminders of deeply personal, sacred stories.

Sacred Ink’s opening gala will be held on Friday, October 27, 2023, from 7 to 9 pm, in Wesley Lounge at the Wesley Foundation, 602 E. Huron St., in Ann Arbor, MI. Sixteen large photographs will be shown, along with an art talk featuring the two photographers and some of the models. The exhibit will run for a week before it is prepared to travel around the state.

The Wesley Foundation seeks churches or groups to host Sacred Ink as it tours the area starting in November. Groups interested in bringing the exhibit to their community should contact Rev. Tim Kobler, chaplain and director of the Wesley Foundation, at [email protected], or complete this online form. Hosting the exhibit requires space for 16 large-format photos and a video monitor. The Wesley Foundation also asks for a freewill offering to help cover the travel expenses of transporting the exhibit.

Photographer with model in photo shoot
In March 2023, photography sessions began at the Wesley Foundation for the Sacred Ink project. Myles McGhee, one of the student photographers from the Stamps School of Art & Design, held a series of photo shoots and interviews with each model he was asked to photograph. ~ photo courtesy Sacred Ink/Facebook

As Rev. Tim Kobler has spent time on the campus of the University of Michigan, he believes that young adults have spiritual connections, even if they don’t align themselves with a specific faith tradition or Christian denomination. And he wants people in the pews to get to know some of these young adults by seeing (and hearing) their faith stories through their tattoos.

Kobler says the idea for Sacred Ink was inspired by a clergy colleague who started a similar art project with her church to engage their community. He notes that Sacred Ink builds on that idea and adds depth through a multimedia experience of images, words, and video. With mobile devices, viewers can scan QR codes next to the art to access brief video interviews with the models in which they tell the story behind their tattoos and why they chose them.

The Wesley Foundation established a relationship with the renowned Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design at the University of Michigan to move the project forward late in 2022. Gabrielle Mack and Myles McGhee (read bios here), two art school graduates, were selected to photograph the 16 persons of faith who had responded to the invitation to join the project.

Persons of faith with their spiritual tattoos
Kaitlin Doublestein (left) tells the story behind her hummingbird tattoo in the Sacred Ink exhibit. Rev. Scott Marsh (right), pastor of Coldwater UMC, has two tattoos that tell part of his call story and continually encourage his faith and ministry. On his right arm, he has the communion liturgy from Matthew 26. He got a second tattoo on his left arm, that of a sheaf of wheat, this year following his ordination. Reflecting on the meaning behind his tattoos, he says, “The gift of communion has been core within my call to ministry. I remember sitting at the Wesley Foundation of Western Michigan University, watching Lisa Batten break the bread and lift the cup, and feeling a call to do the same. My tattoos remind me of the gracious loving act Jesus gave and the continual invitation offered. In talking to others about my tattoos, I try to witness to the ways God is calling us to something better, to be reformed and renewed no matter our circumstance.” ~ photos by Myles McGhee/Sacred Ink

Of the 16 photographic models, most were Christian, including 10 United Methodists, but there were two Jewish models and some seekers not identified with a specific religion. Eight of the models were clergy, including several United Methodist elders.

Working with Kobler and learning about the mission of the Wesley Foundation was a great experience for Myles McGhee, one of the Sacred Ink photographers. McGhee appreciates how Kobler invited him into the process early on, giving him the freedom to utilize his gifts as he approached the creative challenge. In many ways, it felt like a genuine partnership.

McGhee explains that it was important for him to learn about and observe his subjects, notice their habits, rhythms, and personalities, and then learn how to take a picture of a tattoo on a living human being in a way that doesn’t look like documentation or just a portrait.

People of faith showing their spiritual tattoos
Rev. Dr. April Gutierrez, Associate Pastor of Discipleship at St. Paul’s UMC in Rochester, MI, (left) has three tattoos on her upper right arm that will eventually become a half sleeve. She explains, “The main tattoo is an anatomical heart with flowers growing out of the top that reminds me of my cultural and spiritual identity. I have an appreciation for the Sacred Heart of Jesus, this is the name of a Latina school in East Los Angeles, where I first taught; however, I do not like the traditional image of the heart. When I saw this painting in honor of Frida Kahlo by Eréndida Mancilla (Homenaje a Frida Kahlo) I knew this was perfect. My second and third tattoos surrounding and expanding the original were done at the same time, the night I defended my doctoral dissertation. One is of a labyrinth which has been a significant spiritual practice for me and my covenant group of clergy colleagues. Andi and I both got this tattoo that night in honor in celebration of the completion of my studies and our time in covenant around spiritual practices together. The third is a hummingbird hovering over one of the flowers coming out of the heart in honor of my father who died in 2019.” Natalie Norton (right) works for the nondenominational New Life Church in Ann Arbor. Her tattoo has deep meaning: “It is a window into a mountainscape bordered by myrtle and juniper. The mountainscape is a picture of God’s redeemed creation singing and dancing in worship to Him. The myrtle represents the beauty of God’s redemption, and the juniper represents the eternal nature of God’s salvation. It is based on one of my favorite songs, ‘The Sower’s Song’ by Andrew Peterson. The lyrics are mostly comprised of John 15 and Isaiah 55. These words paint a beautiful and poetic picture of God’s promises for redemption and restoration that will be enduring. I come back to these words whenever I need reminders of God’s promises, so I wanted a visual reminder that would be with me permanently as well.” ~ photos by Gabrielle Mack/Sacred Ink

Each session was unique as the photographer interviewed each model on video to learn about their tattoos and the stories behind them. That opened up the creative process for McGhee as he got to know each model and bring them into focus. “They were all incredible to me,” said McGhee. “I was amazed how they volunteered to come and tell their story. They were excited about it, and you could see how cathartic it was for them to talk about where they’ve been, what their tattoo means to them, and why they chose it. It’s a really cool project.”

Through art and storytelling, Sacred Ink illuminates the faith journeys of 16 individuals as depicted in their tattoo art. Kobler explains, “There is a deeply personal story behind every tattoo, and they can signify important people or events in their lives and often have deep spiritual roots. Each time the tattoo’s story is told, it further deepens the spiritual significance and connection with the wearer. The telling of their story becomes like a sacred litany.”

The wearing of tattoos is an expression of faith and spirituality going back generations for some traditions, even though we see fewer younger adults involved in organized religion today. A recent Pew Research survey concluded that 47% of tattooed adults got one to make a statement about their beliefs. In many ways, the wearing of “sacred stories” on their sleeves is an open door for conversation for the Sacred Ink models as they give witness to their identity as beloved children of God. It’s a form of evangelism or spreading good news.

Photographer and tattoo model
Rev. Paul Reissmann, pastor of Lake Odessa UMC, was photographed by Myles McGhee (right). The artful depiction of Paul’s tattoo (left) of a sword and book (echoing Christian iconographic symbols of St. Paul) was captured by McGhee during the March 2023 photo shoot. Reissmann’s tattoos have multiple layers of meaning; one aspect relates to his faith journey as he dug into his family’s history, its complicated story, and the significance of his name. “I’m the fourth Paul in my family, so for four generations, the oldest son, the eldest son, was named Paul. And I realized I was given that name and that it was always part of my life, but it wasn’t until my call to ministry that I was really experiencing diving back into my own story and figuring out who God called me to be.” ~ photo on left by Myles McGhee/selfie on right by Paul Reissmann

“Almost everyone who has a tattoo has had the experience of curious people asking about their ink and the meaning behind it,” says Kobler. “The telling of the sacred meaning behind the tattoo art invites the hearer to engage with their own sacred story and to think theologically.”

Kobler invites Michigan United Methodists to experience Sacred Ink for themselves by attending the free opening gala in Ann Arbor on Friday, October 27, or by contacting him to host the touring exhibit in the coming months. Those interested in learning more can watch the promotional video (click here) or visit their website and Facebook and Instagram feeds.

“Bringing Sacred Ink to your community can be a great way to engage your community and perhaps make contact with folks who might not normally attend church events,” concludes Kobler. “I also think the exhibit will help bridge the generational gap, helping older people realize that young people do think theologically and engage in spiritual practices.”

Tattoo-wearing may look and feel different from traditional faith expressions or practices, but as Sacred Ink reveals, it is just as spiritually rich, honest, and fulfilling.

Last Updated on October 31, 2023

The Michigan Conference