Thank God For Ink - The Tattooed Vicar

Published: 30 March, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 133, May, 2006

 

Andy looks more like a member of a punk band as  he pulls up in his 4x4 sporting Dickies skate gear and a confidant swagger. Even more so when his jacket is removed to reveal a colourful sea of ink.

But looks can be deceiving; Andy is a man of the cloth and has been for most of his adult life. Not one for tradition, he works hard towards bringing the archaic image of Christianity into the 21st century, punk music, ink and all. I set off to discover what the heck Andy is all about and how he marries the seemingly polarised worlds of body art and bible bashing. More tea vicar?

What is your personal history?

"I spent much of my early life in New Zealand, where I was born to travelling parents. My brother was born in Canada and Sister in OZ. We moved to Hemel Hempstead where I lived until I was 12, before heading north to Runcorn. This wasn’t a good move for a cockney kid halfway through year 8 and on my first day at scouser school I had my first ever fight. I had to learn to stick up for myself pretty quickly. I pretty much dropped out of the system, ending up in juvenile court, leaving school early and hanging out with a bunch of skin head and punk mates. My accent didn’t matter to them and I fitted in. I worked in construction for a while apprenticing as a brickie and drain layer, going out in the evenings, drinking and all the usual stuff. "

How the hell did you end up doing ministry training then?

"I went to Ministry College in my early 20s. I guess I’d always thought I’d be a skinhead until I died, that is how you feel as a teenager, but I found that I fell in love with God. Which is a very different thing to falling in love with the church, which I definitely didn’t do."

Bit of a career move then? 

"I had always felt as though I had been born for something more, then I got introduced to Jesus and it all clicked into place for me. I’d never previously been interested in church and that whole concept of trying to make you look like every other Christian, that whole attitude of ‘you can have what I have if you do as I say’; a power thing really. This is all wrong as religion is an internal not an external thing."

Bet that went down like a poo sandwich with the skin head gang?

"At that time I was still looking like a skin head and still hanging about with my old mates, breaking into places, drinking and sniffing glue. However, now god was involved and my two worlds collided. The world I’d made for myself and the world god had made for me and I was presented with a choice. And it was a really difficult one. In the end I went for the long term option and chose god."

So you cut yourself off from your mates then?

"I had to. For me that was the only way I could be courageous enough to make the change. They had noticed differences in my behaviour, my language, my drinking and knew I’d been going to church. I began to feel uncomfortable with their behaviour and I suppose my behaviour was probably becoming just as alien to them."

It sounds like you were very enlightened for such a young pup?

"Yeah. You are who you hang out with, so if you hang out with knob heads it follows that you are a knob head and the same goes for wise people. I started hanging out with god. I had to make some really hard decisions, but still like the music I grew up listening to, if not the messages of it. The transitional stage was a lonely time, as I was torn between the music and church, with the church leaders trying to change me. 

In 1990 I went to Bible College and met my wife, everything started to work out. I had decided no more girls, that the next one I went out with I’d marry, and Sharon had decided the same thing we knew instantly when we met and I proposed a week later. We married the following year and are still together 20 years later."

(Wiping a tear form my eye) Has your wife got any tattoos then?

"She recently got some flowers on her lower back and is considering getting more done…"

I digress. So what was Bible College like?

"I was 22 when I started there and living with school leavers. I had all this life experience having grown up on a rough council estate and been on construction sites for a number of years. I found it incredibly difficult getting on with these clueless people with no idea about real life. It was a little Christian world, very blinkered, very unhealthy. A microcosm of Christianity if you like."

Are your family religious?

"My grandfather was a church planter, travelling to Winnipeg, New Zealand, Canada etc. setting up churches. I went to church until I was 13 with my family, but it didn’t say anything to me. Nothing about how to deal with getting bullied at school, your parents getting divorced or anything useful. They talked about ‘honouring your parents’, how the heck do you do that when your dad doesn’t want to spend 3 minutes in your company? It was another world to the one we are living in. I have found though that the things I get angry about are the things I should change. Anger is gods way of communicating to me I should do something to change things, to be part of the answer not the problem."

So how do your services differ from the sleep inducing church services of my childhood?

"My service is aimed at teens and young people and averages 190 at each service. There is a live band at the front, and seating isn’t formal. I don’t dress up in dog collar and all that stuff. I teach real life principles to deal with real life issues. Youth work is another important part of my work, raising money through faith and hard work. There is a music side too, we have a variety of artists, a couple of which have just been signed and are in the studio working on their music."

So when did you become interested in tattoos then?

"I was tattooing myself and my mates with a couple of pins and Indian ink at 14 years old. I had OI tattooed on my arm, but the dot on the exclamation mark kind of merged in to the line, leaving me with OIL on my arm…At 18 I got it covered up with a flower and scroll which has since been covered up too. I have always loved tattoos, particularly big pieces rather than little bits put here and there.

It wasn’t until I moved 6 years ago that I found Dave, my tattooist. When I came out of Bible College, getting ink was a way of getting back into the real world. I started hanging out at this night club and got a great circle of friends within that culture. My aim was to go there and make a difference. I found all these broken kids and was with them on their journey and let them know that it wouldn’t always be like that. For example, there was this kid, who at 16 tried to kill himself and the first person his friends called wasn’t his parents, who basically didn’t gave a shit about him, but me. I’m the one who went to the hospital and had to go and tell his parents what had happened.  Around that time I decided, yeah, I’m going to get tattooed. And if I’m going to do it I might as well get some big stuff. Dave has helped me to put my heart on my sleeve (wouldn’t that be on your arm?) and really listened to me. I always give him plenty of artistic freedom and we design my tattoos together."

Presumably the themes are of a religious nature?  

"All my tattoos are based around Christianity, Celtic work, Christian soldier’s crucifix and the flames of hell are included in my designs. I also have MXPX (the punk band) tattooed on my arm and HIS, the initials a lot of ministers have on their graves, meaning in his service, my ink portrays the transition that I have had, the journey and the commitment. 

I have a crown tattoo, representing the king of kings, a concept often misunderstood. The kings of kings are us, normal people not king of countries or gods, and we are placed on earth to rule in a certain area of life. God has set boundaries for us, and we shouldn’t want to be anything other than what god has created. You rule your own territory. The way the world works is if someone hates you, hate them back. That isn’t how I work. If someone is standing in front of you, don’t thump them, and clear them out
of your way, bless them instead."

Isn’t that very difficult?!

"Incredibly, but we should try not to take everything personally in life."

How do you reconcile the Leviticus idea that you shouldn’t tattoo or mutilate yourself at all?

"This is funny as it crops up every now and then. It is in the Old Testament not to tattoo yourself shave your head, grow a fancy beard etc. The Old Testament is very hard at times to decipher and understand. What is actually being said is that in those days tattoos were popular with priests who worshipped false idols not god and were sacrificing people to these idols. They would tattoo symbols on their skin to represent which idols they were serving and shaved their heads and beards as part of this image. 

In another part of Leviticus it says that if a woman breaks up a fight between two men and accidentally grabs his testicles, her hand should be cut off. It’s all too literal to make modern sense. The New Testament talks about the body being a temple of the Holy Spirit, you are a living sacrifice. Everything I do should be done out of my devotion to god. So I look after my body, the way I see it is that god gave me a canvas and I am painting it. I have a great tattooist, who doesn’t believe in god, but helps me in my goals."

To a certain extent do you see yourself as a performer?

(Long pause).

"I suppose when you do big service, such as mothers day or remembrance Sunday guess there is an element of performance to it.

There is a talent to preaching and teaching which must be learned and developed, but I don’t necessarily see myself as a performer."

Are you interested in any other areas of body modification? 

"I had my tregus pierced which hurt way more than getting tattooed, particularly afterwards. I couldn’t sleep on it for a month. I haven’t got a problem with body piercing, but wonder why we are doing it. Is it for attention, to fit in? I have discovered in being tattooed why people self harm. It’s a release of inner tensions, pain and aggression. In people who don’t self harm this often comes out as violence involving other people. There have been times when I have felt so wound up, stressed out and had a session booked in at the tattoo studio and the pain has been released. It’s a strange feeling."

Any future work planned?

"I want the 7 plagues of Egypt wrapped around my leg, but it’s a couple of years since I got my last tattoo. I haven’t had the time as I have been in and out of hospital with Beth (his ‘hero’ and youngest daughter) as she has been very ill. Thankfully she is now in remission. 

Life is too short to worry about outward appearances, unless it’s sexually provocative or purposefully offensive I don’t have problem with it. It’s the heart that matters." 

Amen.

Contact Andy via www.nailthetruth.com

Dave can be found lurking at Eternal Ink Tattoo Studio

Credits

Text & Photography: Rebecca Burton

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