Sunday, October 17, 2004

Faith, body, art

From: The Sun

RIALTO - Disciple Johnny prays for those he tattoos.

Johnny Neuneker prays as he scars arms, legs, backs and necks. He doesn't know what the person believes in or if he'll change their life. But he prays.

And while he does, his customers absorb the Christian images that surround them and ask questions.

"Wow, is this a Christian tattoo shop?' Neuneker hears often. "I didn't know you could be Christian and have a tattoo.'

The debate over that very question rages on. But, largely popularized by the emergence of God-praising punk and hard-core music during the past decade, more and more Christians have taken to tattoos.

The 30-year-old owner of Heroes and Madmen on Riverside Avenue has found his spiritual niche. Through tattooing and piercing, the ngly rough crowd.

"The churches of today need to be on the front lines. I see this ministry on the front lines of everything,' said Neuneker, who started a Bible study in his shop's lobby.

As unusual as it sounds, he is part of a growing movement. About 500 Christian tattoo shops exist throughout the nation and in Britain and Australia, according to the Christian Tattoo Association.

"We represent a positive aspect of tattooing. We don't get into drugs or drinking or anything like that,' said Steve "Pastor Freak' Bensinger, association director and pastor of the Come As You Are church in Kalamazoo, Mich.

"People tell me I can't be Christian because I have tattoos,' Bensinger said. "That is completely crazy.'

Christians who think ill of tattoos cite Leviticus 19:28: "Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves.'

Proponents counter that Christians are not bound by this verse, which is part of the Levitical Code. Some even believe, based on Revelation 19:16, that Jesus will have a tattoo when he returns: "On his robe and on his thigh this name written: King of kings and lord of lords.'

"To argue one way or the other is really to misuse the Bible,' said Philip Amerson, president of Claremont School of Theology. "It's what is called proof-texting starting with the answer you want and using the Scripture to prove it.'

A tattoo ministry, Amerson said, follows Jesus' tradition of serving society's fringe.

"I suspect there won't be any churches that would set this up in the sanctuary,' Amerson said, "but this kind of outreach ... goes back through Christian history.'

Some of the people who enter Heroes and Madmen want nothing to do with Christianity. Neuneker takes a passive approach to sharing his faith and only does when asked. He doesn't know how effective his efforts are.

"That's not my job,' he said. "I'm a sower not a reaper. God does the harvesting.'

In the year since Heroes and Madmen opened, Neuneker's brothers and sisters have taken a particular liking to his shop.

Take Redlands resident Ben Dooley, who got his first tattoo four years ago and suddenly stopped.

"I wanted to get stuff done by a Christian tattoo artist,' said Dooley, 26.

While driving up Riverside Avenue one day, he spotted a Jesus sign in the window of Heroes and Madmen and popped inside.

Christian images surrounded him music, pictures, drawings, shirts, stickers and TV programs.

"People don't just have the hobby of collecting Jesus stuff,' Dooley said. "They have a reason behind it.'

Before long, he was leading worship in the lobby and helping Neuneker arrange services with alternative Jesus machines such as musical group Gospel is a Grenade and heavily tattooed-speaker Jay Bakker, son of Jim Bakker of notorious televangelism fame.

From motorcycle ministries to amateur wrestling night, Christians constantly use the unexpected to attract the distracted.

"God has called us to reach out to people in the gutter, not just wait for them to come to us, whether they have tattoos or piercings or they are rockers or into porn,' said Craig Gross, co-founder of the XXX Church in Corona, which helps Christians who struggle with pornography.

Heroes and Madmen doesn't stand out of the Rialto landscape in the same way the XXX Church's Porn Mobile does in a conservative church parking lot. Neuneker takes a softer approach to spreading the Gospel even though hard-core music screaming "Jesus is Lord' blares in his store.

Kent Anderson Butler does the same. The Azusa Pacific University art professor usually wears shorts while teaching students how to integrate art into their Christian faith. On his calf is a tattoo of the Celtic symbol for the Trinity with the sun behind it.

"I get all kinds of different reactions. A lot of times, my students will be a little surprised,' Anderson Butler said. "I'm not afraid to talk about it, or whatever. Every once in a while I'll get in some conversations (about it) out on the street.'

And that gives strangers a window into his faith.

"To me, that is pretty cool,' he said.