Lent and Easter, in blood, sweat and ink

The graphic tattoos that cover the bodies of millions of Russian prisoners symbolize their sins and crimes, their pain and suffering. Some of the tattoos are beautiful and hint at redemption. Others are disgusting, especially those etched involuntarily into the faces of victims by other prisoners as punishment for especially shameful crimes behind bars or on the outside.

Put all of these images together, said artist Scott Erickson, and they tell the stories of broken people. That's the big idea that gripped him as he studied tattoo culture while creating a set of "Stations of the Cross" images for a Lenten art exhibit at Ecclesia Church in hip, edgy Montrose neighborhood near downtown Houston.

For many young Americans, it's impossible to talk about their tattoos without needing to candidly describe the peaks and valleys of their own lives. The tattoos are like emotional maps that are hard to hide.

"We have lots of people who have tattoos. Some members of our church have criminal records. Some have been shamed and abused. Some have struggled with drugs," explained Erickson, who serves as "artist in residence" at Ecclesia.

"A lot of these people thought that needed to cover up their tattoos when they started coming to church. They weren't sure that they wanted to share those parts of their lives with others. ... What we're trying to do is tell them that their tattoos are part of who they are and now we want to talk about who they are becoming."

Thus, the leaders of Ecclesia Church -- created in 1999 by a coalition of Southern Baptists, Presbyterians and others -- have raised eyebrows and inspired headlines by embracing tattoos as the artistic medium for their eighth annual art exhibit during the 40-day season that leads to Easter. The title is "Cruciformity: Stations of the Cross on Skin."

The plan, explained the Rev. Chris Seay, was for 10 members to have Erickson's images permanently tattooed onto their bodies shortly before Ash Wednesday. These volunteers would stand in the church's gallery on the first night of Lent, surrounded by photos of their tattoos -- photos that would then remain on display throughout the season.

Instead, at least 60 members of the church have visited one of the dozen or so nearby tattoo studios to mix blood, sweat and ink and another dozen have scheduled appointments. Seay said as many as 150 may end up taking part, out of a flock averaging about 1,500 worshippers in five weekend services.

"I have spent way more time than I ever expected trying to talk some people out of doing this," he said. "People need to give this decision some serious thought. ... It's also good to seek the permission of your spouse."

The pastor decided to cover his right upper arm with an image of a tree growing out of an empty coffin -- Erickson's symbol for Jesus rising from the dead. Seay had a tattoo artist inscribe a tribute on the trunk in honor of his grandfather, a prominent Southern Baptist pastor who died this past year.

"I was a bit worried at first," he said, "but my grandmother said she thought it was beautiful."

One church member, who works with cancer patients, had the "Jesus is Laid in the Tomb" image -- a rose in a coffin -- tattooed on one foot and plans to add the resurrection image on her other foot. One mother selected the "Jesus Meets His Mother" image, which is a rose surrounded by symbols of suffering. Another member, with his wife's blessing, plans to have all 10 images tattooed onto his body.

The project has already created buzz in the tattooing community, said Erickson.

But the key is not that some members of this church decided get tattoos. The key is that more than half of its members already had tattoos -- like 36 percent of Americans between 18 and 25, according to a Pew Forum study.

"Our invitation to do this was not for everybody," said Erickson. "We're not creating a tribe, here. You don't have to have a tattoo to come to this church. ... But we already have so many people here who do have tattoos and those images are part of their stories. We're telling them that it's good for them, that it's normal, to add Christian symbols into that mix. They get it."