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 CNS Story:

TATTOO- Sep-18-2013 (970 words) With photo. xxxi

Australian tattoo parlor owner wears his faith on his sleeve

Stuart Randell poses in front of his Sacred Tattoos parlor in Fremantle, Western Australia. Randell's unusual service offers designs centered on religious themes. (CNS/Matthew Biddle, The Record)

By Matthew Biddle
Catholic News Service

PERTH, Australia (CNS) -- On entering Stuart Randell's tattoo parlor in Fremantle, visitors are greeted with the seemingly unusual.

A sticker on the back of the desk computer reads: "Jesus loves me with or without my tattoos."

An array of tattoo design books, many with religious images, sit on the front counter beside a large Bible.

The radio playing in the background, transmits the sounds of Christian radio station Sonshine FM.

Then there's Randell himself, adorned with five earrings and tattoos covering both arms, with a friendly smile and a firm handshake. Welcome to Sacred Tattoos.

Randell has worked as a tattoo artist for about 20 years, starting with a partner before establishing his own business in 2009.

It was at that time that Randell, who was raised Catholic but later drifted away from the church, experienced a conversion and began to seek God again.

It started when he began attending worship services at a local Christian church. But thanks largely to the warmth of Jesuit Father Stephen Astil of Immaculate Conception Parish in nearby East Fremantle, Stuart soon returned to the Catholic Church.

"Father Stephen had just started there and he came across the street and introduced himself," Randell recalled. "So then I started going back to the Catholic Church after many years."

Four years later, Randell is an active parishioner at Immaculate Conception, taking on a regular role at Sunday Masses.

"God's given me a job on Sundays," he said. "I collect the money, and it's really humbling."

But Randell's day job is his real passion. The tattoo of the Sacred Tattoos logo on the side of his head proves that his passion is more than skin deep.

As for the shop's name, Randell said he settled on Sacred Tattoos because, "God told me to."

He said the name has attracted customers requesting tattoos of religious images or Bible verses.

Randell himself has a large tattoo of St. Michael the Archangel on his back, to go with the various images on his arms and chest.

The fact that Randell had enough customers to start his own business is testament to the incredible rise in popularity of tattoos in the past decade among people of all walks of life.

But does the Catholic Church have anything to say on getting a permanent ink mark on one's body? Is it immoral? Or is it a way of witnessing to the faith?

To start answering such questions, it's worth turning to the Bible.

Perhaps the first permanent mark ever made was that which appeared on Cain, immediately after he killed his brother Abel: "And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him," (Genesis 4:15). For Cain, such a mark provided a lifelong memory of his sin, but it also was a source of a kind of protection.

Going further into the Bible, one finds that God prohibited the Israelites from having bodily markings: "You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you," (Leviticus 19:28).

While such biblical references appear to indicate that tattoos are not to be encouraged, there are other sources to examine before drawing a conclusion.

In 2011, a unique conference on the history of tattoos was held at the Pontifical Urbanian University, organized by Mordechay Lewy, Israel's ambassador to the Vatican. During the conference, Lewy explained how pilgrims to Jerusalem have been tattooed to commemorate their visit since the 15th century.

"It is a typical practice in the Orient, one that never died out and was adapted by the pilgrims. They didn't have to invent it," he said.

A professor at an Italian university, Guido Guerzoni, told the conference a pilgrimage tattoo was seen as "a small martyrdom, a public shedding of blood" that was a sign of "unshakable, immovable faith."

There is no specific mention of tattoos in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, leaving opinion somewhat divided and inconclusive as to their morality.

The topic of tattoos is one that is rarely spoken of or written about by Catholic leaders, but Sydney-based Father Peter Joseph is one who has tackled the subject.

Father Joseph said that by examining a tattoo's nature, size, extent and place on the body, it is possible to identify whether the tattoo is appropriate or not. It is not consistent with the Catholic faith, he explained, if tattoos exult in the ugly, are indecent or irreverent, or if an individual gets a tattoo out of vanity, immaturity, a desire to shock, or out of rebellion.

"It is not always possible to draw an exact line and say where the bounds of moderation have been exceeded," he said. "But this does not mean that there is no line."

Even tattoos of religious images, such as a crucifix or rosary, can be unsuitable, Father Joseph added.

"No priest would ever go down to a shopping center in Mass vestments, not because there is something wrong with the vestments, but because there is a time and a place for donning special religious symbols," he said.

"The human body is meant to be treated with care, not maltreated or disfigured. Its dignity and beauty must be kept and cultivated, in order that it be an expression of the deeper beauty of the soul."

While he would never purport to be an expert in theology, Randell sees no contradiction between his faith and his work designing and imprinting tattoos on others.

"Tattoos are sacred, mate," he said. "I had a girl come in the other day who had a best friend who had just died of cancer. ... It was her first tattoo and she came in the next day and gave us flowers. It's good when you can do that for people."


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