Inked in the Faith

By Hillary Asbury

At the end of next month, I will be exhibiting at my church’s district convention in Irvine, CA.

This means that for the next few weeks I will be gearing up: getting my booth materials ready and organized, counting inventory, sending files out for print, and matting prints. I don’t enjoy this part particularly, but traveling with my work is always a little nerve-racking, and I insist on everything being done the right way before I go. As much as I get anxious about everything being just so, I love going to these conferences.

I love connecting with people, talking about the role of art in the church, and sharing my work with them.

I don’t get to do this very often as I’m alone in my studio a lot, so it’s nice to get out and socialize. My last conference found me shivering in Arizona. It was my first outdoor conference, and I was very unprepared for the weather. I was absolutely miserable, drinking coffee way after I had reached my max capacity point in a futile attempt to keep warm.

Something funny started happening the first day of that conference.

I was standing there, minding my own business when someone wordlessly walked up to my table, rolled up his sleeve, and showed me his tattoos. I was a little shocked, but smiled, looked at his Luther Rose tattoo, and nodded. Off he went, never speaking a word. Then it happened again, and again the next day, and the next. Men who were complete strangers to me hurried up to my booth, rolled up their sleeves, and proudly presented their tattoos, and each time they were absolutely thrilled. The more it happened, the more bemused I became. What was going on? Was this an organized thing? Did these guys know each other?

Had my pastor put all of them up to some weird practical joke?

Some of them did it in passing, pausing slightly before hurrying off to their next talk. But some of them stayed to chat for a moment, and I slowly realized what it was. Luther’s Rose meant something to these guys. Clearly, it is significant for them; they had it permanently etched on their skin, literally wearing their theology on their sleeves. They walked by my table, saw my rendition of the rose, and realized it meant something to me too. It was exciting to see something they always carried with them in someone else’s artwork.

They had branded themselves as lovers of Luther’s theology and saw that same brand proudly displayed at my table.

They wanted to connect in some way, to express what the image meant to them. But what do you say in passing to someone in that situation? “Go Luther!”? Seems silly. It also doesn’t convey what they were trying to say. They had communicated their love for something in a visual way, as had I, and so without words to express the connection they felt to it and to my work, they simply showed me. Now, looking back, I cherish the fact that they felt so compelled to stop by a stranger’s table and let me into something so important to them. After all, isn’t that what I try to accomplish with each piece I paint?

I pray my work moves people.

I hope it expresses theology and speaks the Gospel. I desperately wish for people to feel connection to what I try to express. Most days I feel entirely inadequate to be doing what I do. But in those moments, confronted by bare and tattooed arms, I had connected to those guys through my work.

So, if you happen to be at the same convention in Irvine next month, stop by my table and say hi. And, yeah, go ahead…roll up your sleeves and show me your ink.