Matt Farlow's body belongs to God. The Multnomah Biblical Seminary grad student claims that all of his tattoos "glorify Christ," except for his first piece of ink: a small, now-faded lightning bolt. Since Farlow, now 33 and married with two kids, became "full-on Jesus-centered" in his 20s, he's marked his body with only religious imagery. And now that Multnomah Bible College (and its grad school, the Seminary) finally allows students to show off their body art, Farlow can display a full-sleeve tattoo of vibrant symbols depicting the Holy Trinity and the Greek name of God.
And he has Kelly Fried, Multnomah's new dean of student services, to thank.
"I'm not a rules person," says Fried, a smartly dressed 60-year-old former public-school principal. "You can't shape someone's behavior based on rules. It's got to come from the inside."
When Fried joined Multnomah in January 2006, he noticed that the student handbook—which, according to Fried, hadn't seen much change in the past 30 years—was overflowing with outdated rules: Students weren't allowed to wear bike shorts or watch R-rated movies on campus, and they were forbidden both from getting any tattoos while enrolled at the college and from bringing any attention to the tattoos they had before enrolling.
"Tattoos or piercings don't have anything to do with your spiritual life," says Fried, who has considered getting a tattoo but never gone through with it. Ben Thomas, a Multnomah alumnus who now works as a resident director at the college, says no one was ever expelled for getting a tattoo (which the old handbook states is a possible penalty), but it's likely that prospective students decided against Multnomah on account of it.
After conducting focus groups last year, Fried and others in Multnomah's student-services department found that the tattoo policy was popular with the college's trustees, but it wasn't a hit with students.
The solution? A complete overhaul of the student handbook, which no longer mentions tattoos or piercings and simply states: "Dress, whether on or off campus, must be in good taste, appropriate, attractive and suitable to each occasion without being extreme." Fried says there's been no surge in new tattoos among students—but he suspects they are more comfortable showing the ones they've got.
Mav Mess, owner of local Deluxe Tattoo and Farlow's tattoo artist, gets plenty of business from Multnomah students. "I personally have noticed more Christians coming to me through word of mouth," says the 40-year old artist, who attends Compass Church in Vancouver. "They say, 'I came to you not just because you're a Christian, but because you do great work and I feel OK here.'"
Multnomah's not the only Christian institution in town that supports body modification. Imago Dei, a self-proclaimed "post-modern" church in Southeast Portland—the same church Blue Like Jazz author and Portlander Donald Miller attends (see "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," WW, Feb. 2, 2005)—has a congregation that more resembles the crowd at a Shins concert than members of a traditional church.
Imago Dei member Emma Mason has eight tattoos on her chest and upper arms (many the work of Cheyenne Sawyer at Oddball Studios). She doesn't see a conflict between her religious beliefs and her tattoos. A virgin until she got married last year, Mason was more concerned with what her future husband would think of her tattoos than the spiritual repercussions of permanently scarring her body.
"The Biblical idea of my body as not my own was something I—not struggled with, but definitely thought about a lot," says Mason, 23. "Not so much the tattoos as much...it was just sort of the idea of I would want my husband to be pleased with my body."
But Imago's attitude toward personal expression is less surprising than Multnomah's. Imago's message of focusing on the intersection of the Gospel and culture is more mainstream than an 820-student Bible school in Northeast Portland whose motto is: "If it's Bible you want, then you want Multnomah!"
Imago's worship and arts director Josh Butler doesn't have any tattoos himself, but he offers two reasons why other Christians get them.
"In my own life, and for others, there's a real sort of validity of the arts themselves," explains Butler, expressing a mentality that echoes Imago's mission statement. "For a number of people, to have that artistic expression on them is a valid part of their faith." Believers like Butler and Mason see tattoos, even secular ones, as just one mode of personal expression, like playing in a band or painting with watercolors.
Farlow, who will receive his Master of Divinity in Theological Studies this year, believes the subject matter of Christians' tattoos is a bigger issue than whether or not Christians have them in the first place. He thinks it's the intention behind the tattoo that matters. "The apostle Paul says that whatever you do, do for the glory of God," Farlow says. "If a Christian is going to get a tattoo, I think they need to prayerfully consider what they're putting on their body."
Not everyone at Multnomah agrees with Farlow's idea that tattoos need to be religious. Neither Fried nor Thomas does, although they agree students should think carefully before getting tattoos because, well, they're permanent.
Paul Metzger, professor of Christian theology and theology of culture at Multnomah, suggests that a new acceptance of tattoos among the Christian community represents how culture and religion can influence each other. He sees tattoos as both an opportunity for Christians to demonstrate their faith to non-believers and as a way to soften stricter Christians' notions of what it means to believe.
"Certainly being in a given culture shapes how we engage," says Metzger, who thinks of Jesus as a radical. "So often we tend to identify theology with politics. If you're conservative with one you have to be conservative in the other. It doesn't have to be that way."
Fried recognizes that Portland's progressiveness might affect the type of students Multnomah attracts, but he emphasizes that Multnomah's relaxed attitude toward student expression is based on the idea that "you can't legislate behavior." The department of student services continues to discuss student behavior issues, like whether the campus should remain dry or allow drinking for students over 21.
Regardless of any other changes at Multnomah, Farlow believes that Jesus would support Christian body art. "I think that Jesus is gonna have a tattoo when he comes back," says Farlow, referring to the book of Revelation. "[The Bible] says he's gonna have written on his thigh, 'Lord of Lords and King of Kings.'"