Infographic by Sarah Wolf
Infographic by Sarah Wolf
Darren Cools grew up hearing that tattoos were mortally sinful. And he grew into adulthood never having gotten a tattoo. Then he met the woman who would eventually become his wife. She had a tattoo of the Trinity knot, a Celtic symbol representing the Holy Trinity, on her back. One of his high school friends got a tattoo of the Holy Spirit. His perspective began to change. Three years ago, as a 32-year-old man, he got his first tattoo.

“I decided I wanted a Catholic tattoo as a reminder to myself and as a silent witness,” says Cools.

Cools, a member of St. Patrick Parish in Northwest Portland, works as a creative director and content specialist for the Archdiocese of Portland.

The final nudge toward his decision to get a tattoo was the discovery that he is descended primarily from Catholic Croatians. Catholics in Croatia have a long history of tattooing, dating back to the Ottoman Empire’s reign in the region beginning in the 1400s.

At the time of this Turkish power, Croatian girls often were raped, children taken often as slaves, and Turkish chiefs had the right to sleep with a Croatian woman on her wedding night. As a defense, Croatian women would tattoo their children between the ages of 3 and 20 with Catholic symbols. This would both repulse Turkish men who detested tattoos and serve as a witness of the Catholic faith to the children if they were pressured to convert.

When Cools uncovered this tradition, his decision was set and he spent months researching Catholic Croatian tattoos. Adorning his forearm is a tattoo picturing the planets and sun, the Eucharist, the four evangelists and God at the top. On his bicep, a tattoo portrays God, the Holy Trinity and the lunar symbol for Mary.

Leviticus 19:28 prohibits tattoos, but the the church has never interpreted the passage as binding on Christians, as with many other Hebraic codes. Church teaching does promote modesty and would frown on vulgar body markings. The church is strong in places where tattoos are part of the culture, like Oceana.

Cools says that people with tattoos don’t typcally talk about their body art with each other, so his tattoos don’t usually lead into evangelization with tattooed people. However, his tattoos do sometimes spark conversations with clients or people from his church. And he even credits his wife’s tattoo of Our Lady of Guadalupe with leading him to his job at the archdiocese.

When his tattoos aren’t leading to conversations, they serve as a silent reminder of God’s presence.

“He’s always there,” says Cools.

Despite his conversion on the topic of tattoos, Cools says he wouldn’t get a tattoo of something that isn’t inspired by the divine. “To me, tattoos are such permanent and indelible things that they have to represent something permanent and indelible,” he says.

This wasn’t the thought of a young tattoo artist on the East Coast who would eventually become a monk in Oregon.

Benedictine Brother Andre Love started working as a tattoo artist in New York when he got out of the Army. He wanted to live by his art, and tattooing paid better than commercial art. Not only did he draw custom tattoos on clients, but he acquired many of them himself. By the time he was 22, his arms were covered in tattoos.

“I think it’s a wonderful medium and manner of self-expression,” says the monk. Despite this, his days of tattooing and getting tattoos are spent. He stopped working in the industry around 2000. And he now lives as a monk at Mount Angel Abbey.

As a man covered in tattoos and wearing a monk’s habit, Brother Love is what some may call countercultural. This is what he thinks is the best use of tattoos for evangelization.

“You see this person with a bunch of tattoos, and you’re making snap decisions about this person and the type of life that they live. Then all of a sudden they’re not acting the way you expect them to act. That’s where the evangelization comes,” he says.

No matter how a person looks or how they’re perceived, they can be seen to really be living the Gospel.

“It’s attractive these days or at least gives people a moment of pause to consider and take in what they see,” he says.

Brother Love tells the story of a recent road trip he embarked on with an old friend from the tattoo industry. A friend of this man came to visit. Brother Love says this visiting friend was a huge, burly man and his whole face was tattooed with scary images. Then, the three men sat around talking about how much God loved them.

“Next thing you know, here’re these three tattooed guys on their knees crying and giving their lives to God,” he recalls. He was moved by the profound effect God was having on this man.

Tattoos, says Brother Love, can be an attention grabber, a conversation starter. But covering yourself in holy images won’t make you holy, he adds. The person’s actions have to speak louder than their body art.

Brother Love says tattoos can be a unique expression of the individual. Yet, he encourages caution and plenty of thought before getting one.
He ends by quoting an old saying, “Tattoos are a permanent reminder of a temporary emotion.”

This is the exact experience that has been realized by one Portland woman and why she is working to erase body art from her past.

Meagan Montanari is a member of Holy Rosary Parish in Northeast Portland. Her tattoos come from a period of her life that was plagued with crime, drug use and cutting her wrists. After her conversion to Catholicism two years ago, she is having her tattoos slowly removed through Project Erase. When people notice her fading tattoos, they inevitably ask why she’s having them nixed.

“People are really interested in why I would do something like that,” she says.

It provides a segue into her conversion story and how she wants her body to look the way it was created by God.

“It’s beautiful, the way that he made it originally. It didn’t need anything extra,” Montanari tells them.

Her tattoos no longer represent her life or interests. She’s completely into her faith now.

“It’s my entire life. Everything in my life revolves around my faith,” she says.

So Montanari’s tattoos will go. But they’ll go slowly.

“It’s going to take a long time to have them all removed,” she says. “I’m glad that the scars are there and I can’t really get rid of them.”

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