Faith and tattoos? FaithMarks, an exhibit dedicated to spiritually themed body art, opens this Friday. (Photo: SweetTwithlemon.com)

“You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you.”

So reads Leviticus, but as a new church-sponsored art exhibit is proving, those guidelines do not resonate with more than one modern Chattanoogan with a spiritual streak.

FaithMarks, an exhibit of spiritual tattoos developed by St. Marks Church, opens Friday, March 22 at Lindsay Street Hall for a one-night debut party before the collection of 22 images moves to the church’s campus, where it will be on display until Easter Sunday.

The project’s seemingly odd pairing of tattoos and a house of God emerged from St. Marks’ ongoing revitalization effort, a pilgrimage to reconnect with the church’s neighbors on the North Shore.

Beyond opening night

—The 22 photographs in the FaithMarks Exhibit will move to the St. Marks campus at 701 Mississippi Ave. and show until Easter Sunday.

—The exhibit is slated to appear at Christ United Methodist Church in East Brainerd later this year.

—The FaithMarks website is currently accepting photo and story submissions.

—The project organizers hope to see the online presence grow into a national and even international collection of spiritual body art.

“If we’re not embracing the arts, if we’re not embracing music, if we’re not embracing diversity in all of [its] forms, how are we going to connect to this community?” asked minister Carl Greene.

Telling the story
Greene has long been in the habit of asking people he meets through his work ministering at St. Marks Church about the significance of their tattoos, and it was that passing question that actually provided the initial spark for FaithMarks.

Beginning last November, Greene and Anna Golladay, who is both a member of the congregation and the lead marketer for the church, sketched out the project from the idea of a single gallery showing the realization of an ever-evolving—and perhaps even touring—exhibit.

The scope was simple: Invite people in the Chattanooga area who have spiritual-based tattoos, regardless of their affiliation with a particular religion or denomination, to pose and share the photograph and the story behind the ink with the community.

St. Marks partnered with Triple 7 Studio to put out a call for models. Patrick and Tiffany Jaworski, the husband and wife pair behind Sweet T Studios, stepped in as creative partners and completed the project's photo sessions in about four days.

“We do everything, but our passion is people,” Tiffany said. “I really love to capture people’s personalities.”

Greene and Golladay chose the 22 models. Tiffany explained that with 15 to 30 minutes with each model, she and Patrick practiced their skills at quickly getting to know the person, the tattoo and the story.

The collection's images range from black and white close-ups of tattoos to full-body portraits of the models and their ink. (Photo: SweetTwithlemon.com)

She said it was always a thrill to discover "who gets tattooed where" and that they were surprised by what they found. Both photographers have their own artistic expressions of faith: Tiffany's is a bird carrying an olive branch on her hip that reads "God the Healer," and Patrick has both arms tattooed, one with a Celtic cross and the other with the Lord's Prayer in Aramaic.

The collection of images featured in FaithMarks reveals deeply personal and beautiful homages to each individual model’s beliefs.

Some images are in black and white, while some were developed in color. All were shot on St. Marks’ campus, allowing the tattoos to be framed by stained glass windows, wooden pews and the view from the balcony. The photos are also a mix of close-ups on the tattoos themselves and portraits of the model and his or her ink.

Each image, printed on oversized canvases, will be hung at Lindsay Street Hall with a headshot of the model and an explanation of the tattoo written by the models themselves.

In true gallery-opening style, Friday’s party, which is free and open to the public, will be complete with a DJ and food and drinks.

Golladay noted that though the projects' organizers had expected to see a trend of crosses and doves, they instead found plenty of texts and even a hummingbird, which for the model symbolized the ability to look at her past to see and understand the plan God had for her in the future.

The common thread lay in the models' reasons for getting inked.

"Almost every story has the phrase ‘My tattoo is a constant reminder of ...’ or ‘My tattoo is a permanent recognition of ...’ my faith, my walk, my relationship," Golladay said. "The whole point behind the show was to tell those spiritual stories."

Golladay noted that the models were not all Christians. Some are agnostic, others Buddhist and one is Jewish, providing a variety of spiritual imagery. (Photo: SweetTwithlemon.com)

Shifting the stereotype
The story behind the models’ tattoos and FaithMarks is, in actuality, St. Marks’ own story of evolution.

In its effort to bolster the size of its congregation, a process that began about a year ago, the church is reconceptualizing the image of whom it should be ministering to and re-evaluating the methods by which it connects with that person.

Both Greene and Golladay affirm that a North Shore resident does not match the stereotypical image of a “Christian.” The community is much more diverse than that, they explained.

As such, St. Marks operates with an “all means all” philosophy: Everyone is welcome, be they tattooed, pierced or disabled or of any sexual orientation, ethnicity or age.

The church's leadership, all of whom are volunteers, is hoping to live that philosophy through projects like FaithMarks. Greene noted that the inclusive message is closest to the original teachings of Jesus, whose teachings were deemed radical at the time.

And the North Shore is responding positively. The church has seen a boost of 39 members, including an old man, a teenager sponsored by her grandmother and a gay man whose partner was already a part of the congregation.

Even more heartening is that many of the new members were people who had not had a home church for years.

Greene pointed to a broader movement in today's Christianity to remove some of the “baggage” of the modern church and marry those traditional or even ancient values and practices that still speak to congregations and the traditions that modern-day worshippers are forming or adopting themselves.

"It's called 'blend' or 'fusion,'" Greene said. "We're striving to do it at St. Marks."

Updated @ 8:22 a.m. on 3/21/13 to add Patrick and Tiffany's last name.