Sitting shirtless at Sid's Tattoo Parlor in Santa Ana, pastor James Rasmussen didn't flinch as Rob Silva worked the long, silver needle into his pale skin.
Rasmussen decided the faded blue tattoo of a biker on his right shoulder wasn't in tandem with his born-again lifestyle and wanted it covered with his church's symbol: a dove and a cross.
"I want to be a walking billboard for Jesus Christ," said Rasmussen, clicking his tongue stud between his two front teeth.
Tucked away in a strip mall, Silva and his colleagues are the new missionaries of the flesh. With images of Christ, crucifixes and banners that blaze "BORN AGAIN," the tattoo artists at Sid's proclaim their faith in permanent ink. Under the counter, a dog-eared Bible lies on a shelf next to bottles of alcohol and jars filled with ink caps and razors.
Call it a ministry or a moneymaker. Either way, it's coming of age. Christian tattoo parlors across the country banded together this fall to form the Christian Tattoo Assn., a consortium of 100 tattoo parlors that vow to push their faith by using tattoos as a "witnessing tool" to incite curiosity and, they hope, to convert some nonbelievers.
"Tattooing is a means of the soul coming to the surface," said Gina Dwyer, association member and a born-again Christian who runs a shop with her tattoo artist husband in Florida. "It's a way of screaming out our faith.'
The association, based in Bismarck, N.D., has garnered thousands of subscribers to its monthly newsletter, "Eternal Ink," and last month set up its first booth in Miami at the Tattoo Tour, an annual gathering of tattoo artists.
"Our goal is to share Jesus with people while they're getting a tattoo," said Daniel Ostrowski, one of the tattoo association's founders who runs a Christian tattoo parlor in rural Wisconsin. "We're marked for life for Christ."
His business, however, is marked by religious controversy.
Many members of the clergy consider Christian tattoos to be sacrilegious and say that scripture expressly forbids branding the flesh. In particular, they quote passages from Leviticus: "Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you. . . . "
The Christian Research Institute in Rancho Santa Margarita offers an admonishment on the trend. "Most people who wear tattoos today are considered part of the 'drug culture,' " reads a position statement from Hank Hanegraaff, president of the institute. "Any Christians who want to wear tattoos should examine their motives for doing so."
Others, like Rasmussen--pastor of the True Vine Christian Fellowship, a Garden Grove affiliate of Calvary Chapel--see no conflict about religious branding and view it as a positive way to proselytize.
"Cover-ups" are especially popular among born-again Christians who, like Rasmussen, might have had far less spiritual images stuck on their skin from before they became believers.
"A lot of Christians have been getting cover-ups," said Silva, also a born-again Christian.
Silva, 32, said his business has covered up hundreds of secular tattoos and has added bikinis to naked women, replaced swastikas with sacred hearts and turned skulls into visages of Christ.
"Even God has given me tattoos," said Rasmussen, 38, pointing to a birthmark on his stomach, an uneven brown blotch right below a tattoo of a ring of thorns encircling his torso.
Tattooing was banned by the Catholic Church until the 10th century as a form of deviltry that disfigured the body created in God's image, according to Donald Miller, professor of religious studies at USC, who has been tracking the practice of Christian tattooing.
It later reemerged when medieval crusaders decided to adopt permanent body decoration while traveling to Palestine. A small cross on hands or arms signaled the desire for a Christian burial should the wearer die during the journey.
Most recently, the skin adornment was adopted by a youth culture hungry for ways to express its identity.
"Christian tattooing has becoming an increasingly legitimate way for a younger generation to express their faith and individuality," Miller. "These young people are putting the stained glass on their flesh."
Tattooing--and piercing-- have moved from the margins of society and settled firmly in the mainstream, said Colleen McDannell, author of "Material Christianity" and professor of religious history at University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
"Whatever you see that's becoming popular in the mainstream culture, there will be a reflection of that in Christian culture." she said.
Perhaps no one feels more caught between the two views of tattooing than Jennifer Stankovits, wife of Sid Stankovits, the owner of Sid's Tattoo Parlor.
She's the granddaughter of Chuck Smith Sr., founder of the Calvary Chapel movement--a Pentecostal church started in 1965 in Costa Mesa that now has over 700 affiliates--and the daughter of Chuck Smith Jr., pastor of the Calvary Chapel in Capistrano Beach.