“Identity is just like a shield: when you have it you’re protected, if not you get killed”
Joshua Luke Smith
I have a tattoo on my neck.
I know, I know. I won’t get a proper job. It makes me look like a thug. I’ve disfigured myself! (Although at least it takes the attention away from my face.)
The Bible forbids it. I’ve heard the arguments, and I get it. Tattoos aren’t for everyone. I don’t really want to get into a deep discussion about the theological arguments against (and, some would say, for) tattoos. I would never tell someone to get a tattoo; it’s a personal choice that one should never take lightly.
And let’s be honest, there are some really ugly ones out there *shudder*.
The image of a miner’s safety lamp that is permanently etched on the side of my neck is there for a reason. It represents light in darkness. It’s in such a prominent place to show that the light cannot be hidden.
Sure, it’s bold.
I like bold.
11 years ago, I was engaged to be married to my awesome wife, working as a teacher in a school in the UK. I had a deep appreciation for tattoos and the culture which surrounds them, I even had a few. God spoke to me that year at a conference in Toronto, setting me on a path that would lead me to where I am now; a professional tattoo artist. Looking back, I see that as I started to pursue this new dream, even though it cost me, I had so much favor. God was also doing a work on my heart, drawing out lies I had believed about my creative limitations.
My wife, Bethany, and I now own and operate Victory Tattoos, a custom tattoo studio that sits less than a mile from the sea in Lytham St. Annes. It is a Holy Spirit filled place, bustling with creativity, community and good coffee (hallelujah!). We are just walking out what we have heard for years in church. Our shop is called Victory because before it had even started, we won. “…While we were still stinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8)
On a very small scale, what that means for us as a business is that we are a success to our Heavenly Father whether we make loads of money or not. He likes me regardless of if my tattoos get thousands of Instagram likes or not. If I didn’t know this; if I didn’t have a relationship with Truth, I would be distracted and tormented by comparison.
Victory: An act of defeating an enemy or opponent in battle. (Oxford English Dictionary)
We are all telling a story. Everyone that walks through the door to our studio is carrying with them a unique narrative, full of context and detail.
I regularly tattoo peoole in wheelchairs, people who don’t speak English (Google translate FTW), people that identify as homosexual, as well as a vicar in The Church of England. That is a very small glimpse into the diversity we find ourselves immersed in.
We have a large print up on the wall that states ‘You Are Loved’.
That’s our starting point with our clients.
And that’s God’s starting point with you.
“We learn that we are lovable or unlovable from other people…That is why God tells us so many times to love each other.”
Every individual that takes their place in my chair is trusting me to help them express themselves, whether that is to mark a tragedy, to rejoice in a life-giving experience, to cover up something outdated, or just to attempt to show the world who they are and what inspires them. They make themselves vulnerable. My job is to honor them and guide them through this process. Practically, this could mean drawing and refining drawings for hours. It’s hard work. We have learned that running your own business isn’t as easy as it looks, but ours is incredibly rewarding.
Bethany and I revel in the enormous privilege it is to build relationship like this and be invited to our clients’ family events. We have been to weddings, christenings, barbecues and birthdays. As we sincerely open up our journey to them, they open up their journey to us. This is living the dream.
See, I love the artwork and the tattooing, but I love realtionship more.
When God called me into this industry I could never have imagined it would be this fruitful and life-giving. I never thought it could be so easy to share my faith. I often tattoo at conventions, and when I look around I think this is a place where you would find Jesus.
I used to feel uncomfortable in my own skin, unloveable even. I was confused about where I belonged. And I could never do what I am doing now from that place of insecurity. Not even close. His perfect love truly casts out fear. (1 John 4). Submit to His love, and you’ll see for yourself.
Now stereotypes are afraid of me, and I take every opportunity to challenge them.
I am a tattoo artist, a worship leader, a preacher and knitting instructor (yes, I teach people to knit socks and tea cosies).
When I tell people at church I am a tattoo artist I see a bubble go, ‘pop’. When I tell my clients I am a leader in a church I see a similar bubble go, ‘pop’. Isn’t it great?
My tattoos don’t stop me from jumping around with my guitar in abandonment at the front of church. Neither does being a big, beardy man stop me from knitting a lace cardigan for my daughter and teaching others to do the same! Why would it?
It’s wild when my own abilities don’t match up with what I produce. I look up to many fantastic artists in the industry that are pushing boundaries. I want to do what I do with excellence, so naturally it helps to have a creative Father inspiring and empowering me. He placed me in this role to acheive great things far beyond my reach, for a purpose. Not for my glory, but for His.
I was recently at a conference at my wonderful home church, The Well. The speaker that afternooon made a very challenging statement which I can paraphrase here:
“If you can do what you are doing for God, purely by your own abilities, then you have to question whether or not you are truly following his will”.
I know I can’t do what I do by my own ability. I know that if I rely entirely on myself, I will end up losing the plot, because I will find myself inadequate. But when I recognize the call of my Father on my life, and am assured that He will work out the details, I find myself capable of stepping out of my comfort zone to achieve incredible things. I can actually enjoy what I am passionate about at Victory Tattoos instead of trying to protect it like a freaky little Gollum.
I’m preaching Jesus in an industry that, traditionally, wants nothing to do with Him. I am sharing my story in places that are spiritually dark, and putting my Light on a stand. I’m challenging stereotypes and religious spirits. I’m walking a difficult path, but I’m trusting God to put my feet on safe ground, and finding that I end up in the most outrageously rewarding places. All of that is due to me growing in my identity as His son.
You don’t have to like tattoos.
You can even say that you think my theology is skewed.
But my tattoos tell a story, and there are people listening to it.
“You and I were chosen for a purpose, healed for a purpose, called for a purpose, and that purpose always involves other people.” – Christine Caine