On entering Stuart Randell’s tattoo parlour in Fremantle, one is greeted with several unique sensory experiences.
There’s the sticker on the back of the desk computer that reads: “Jesus loves me with or without my tattoos”.
There’s the array of tattoo design books on the front counter, sitting beside a large Bible.
There’s the radio playing in the background, transmitting the sounds of Christian radio station Sonshine FM.
And then there’s the man himself. Five earrings and tattoos covering both arms, with a friendly smile and a firm handshake. Welcome to Sacred Tattoos.
Stuart Randell has worked as a tattoo artist for about 20 years, first working in partnership before establishing his own business in 2009.
It was at that time that Stuart, who was raised Catholic but drifted away from the Church, experienced a conversion and began to seek God again.
Initially, he began by attending services at the local Christian church. But thanks largely to the warmth of Fr Stephen Astill SJ, parish priest of East Fremantle, Stuart soon returned to the Catholic Church.
“Fr Stephen had just started [as parish priest] there, and he came across the street and introduced himself, so then I started going back to the Catholic Church after many years,” he says.
Four years later and Stuart’s still a regular parishioner at Immaculate Conception Parish, even taking up a voluntary role at Sunday Mass recently.
“God’s given me a job on Sundays,” he says proudly. “I collect the money, and it’s really humbling.”
But his day job is his real passion, and the tattoo of the shop logo visible on the side of his head proves that his passion is more than skin deep.
As for the shop’s name, Stuart says he called his new business Sacred Tattoos because, “God told me to”.
He says the name has attracted a different clientele, with many customers requesting tattoos of religious images or Bible verses. Stuart himself has a large tattoo of St Michael the Archangel on his back, to go with the various images on his arms and chest.
His friend Buzz, who himself is about to get his first tattoo in remembrance of his father’s death, says his mate is a remarkable man who’s devoted to his work.
“He’s got an aura about him, and if you sat and watched him do a tattoo, you’d see he’s a master craftsman,” he says.
“He’s a good bloke, he would do anything for anybody.”
The fact that Stuart Randell had enough customers to start his own business is testament to the remarkable rise in popularity of tattoos in the past decade.
But does the Catholic Church have anything to say on getting a permanent ink mark? Is it immoral, or can it be a way of witnessing to the faith?
Perhaps the first permanent mark ever made was that which appeared on Cain, immediately after he killed his brother Abel: “And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him,” (Genesis 4:15).
For Cain, such a mark provided a lifelong memory of his sin, but it was also a source of protection.
Going further into the Bible, one finds that God prohibited the Israelites from having bodily markings: “You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you,” (Leviticus 19:28).
While such scriptural references might appear to indicate that tattoos are not to be encouraged, other sources indicate the issue is not so clear-cut.
In 2011, a unique conference on the history of tattoos was held at the Pontifical Urbanian University, organised by Israel’s ambassador to the Holy See Mordechay Lewy. During the conference, Mr Lewy explained how pilgrims to Jerusalem have been tattooed to commemorate their visit since the 15th century.
“It is a typical practice in the Orient, one that never died out and was adapted by the pilgrims. They didn’t have to invent it,” he said.
A professor at an Italian university, Guido Guerzoni, told the conference a pilgrimage tattoo was seen as “a small martyrdom, a public shedding of blood” that was a sign of “unshakable, immovable faith”.
Furthermore, in Steve Gilbert’s Tattoo History source book published in 2000, the author writes that the Council of Calcuth, held at Northumberland in 786AD, a report by papal legates distinguished between two types of tattoos.
According to Gilbert, the Council report states: “When an individual undergoes the ordeal of tattooing for the sake of God, he is to be greatly praised. But one who submits himself to be tattooed for superstitious reasons in the manner of the heathens will derive no benefit therefrom.”
Nevertheless, there is no specific mention of tattoos in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, leaving opinion somewhat divided and inconclusive as to their morality.
What we do know, however, is that an estimated three million Australians have a tattoo. The remarkable growth of tattoos has made it one of the key trends of the 21st century.
Tarryn Woods, a 27-year-old finance professional, is proof that tattoos have become a part of mainstream society.
Sporting nine tattoos, Tarryn says the public perception of people with tattoos is changing.
“I don’t think people tend to associate tattoos with bikie gangs anymore,” she says.
“Not everyone will accept tattoos for what they are, but they are definitely more accepted. I have a few visible tattoos and they have had no impact on my progression in the company.”
No longer associated with criminal or questionable behaviour, tattoos can be seen on people from all walks of life, according to Stuart Randell.
“I’ve got a friend who’s heavily tattooed, and he’s a high court lawyer,” he says.
“I had a family of three sisters and a mother and a couple of her friends get a tattoo of the ribbon for cancer. The mother was 81 or 82 and that was her first tattoo.”
With more females now getting tattoos, elaborate, complex images of menacing creatures or tribal patterns are no longer the most popular designs.
Some of Tarryn Woods’ tattoos reflect a new generation of ink-lovers whose purpose for getting a tattoo is anything but to look intimidating. She’s got a butterfly on her rib, a frangipani flower on her foot, love hearts on the backs of both ankles, and a mermaid on her thigh – not really the stuff of a fresh-out-of-jail bikie with an imposing beard.
While reasons for getting a tattoo vary widely, Stuart Randell says a common theme is remembrance.
“People get tattoos when their parents pass away, and tattoos that represent who they are and where they’re from,” Stuart says.
“Tattoos tell a story of who you are.”
It’s a sentiment felt by Tarryn Woods too. She has the letter ‘S’ with the symbol representing infinity on her wrist, a tattoo her sister also got to mark their sibling bond.
“I think tattoos are an avenue for people to express themselves,” she says. “Each tattoo represents a time in my life.”
Unfortunately, many people who get tattoos regret their decision later in life.
As the industry has grown in recent times, so has demand for tattoo removal.
Just over a kilometre away from Sacred Tattoos is one of Perth’s seven TattFree Clinics.
Valerie Lambard, a director of TattFree, says many people make the decision to get a tattoo without fully understanding the consequences.
“I think a lot of people have made decisions in their youth that they strongly regret,” she says.
“There are the other people who have decided to take on a career where it’s not appropriate to have a tattoo in a visual place.”
The clinic utilises new technology to remove tattoos. Until recently, the only way to remove a tattoo was through laser treatment.
Nonetheless, Ms Lambard says the process of removing a tattoo is complex and difficult.
“It’s not a simple operation to remove a tattoo, because a tattoo is put on your body for permanency,” she says.
TattFree uses a fractional system, treating a small part of the tattoo at a time. It can take up to two years of regular treatment to completely remove a large tattoo.
“We abrade the skin and a proprietary fluid flows over the ink, draws the ink to the top, and that forms a scab,” Ms Lambard explains.
“Once the scab falls off, underneath you have baby skin, that’s the complete philosophy of it.”
While the process may sound painful, it’s a far cry from the way tattoos were removed in the past.
“You had to get a skin graft, and you could go into hospital and have a complete dermabrasion of the skin,” Ms Lambard says. “It’s almost like sand-papering your skin back to a very low level, and then that has to heal, so it’s pretty vicious.”
The topic of tattoos is one that is rarely spoken of or written about by leaders in the Church, but Sydney-based priest Fr Peter Joseph is one who has tackled the subject.
Fr Peter says that by examining a tattoo’s nature, size, extent and place on the body, it is possible to identify whether the tattoo is appropriate or not.
It is not consistent with the Catholic faith, he says, if tattoos exult in the ugly, are indecent or irreverent; or if an individual gets a tattoo out of vanity, immaturity, a desire to shock, or out of rebellion.
“It is not always possible to draw an exact line and say where the bounds of moderation have ben exceeded,” he says. “But this does not mean that there is no line.”
Even tattoos of religious images, such as a crucifix or Rosary, can be unsuitable, Fr Peter says.
“No priest would ever go down to a shopping centre in Mass vestments, not because there is something wrong with the vestments, but because there is a time and a place for donning special religious symbols,” he says.
“The human body is meant to be treated with care, not maltreated or disfigured.
“Its dignity and beauty must be kept and cultivated, in order that it be an expression of the deeper beauty of the soul.”
While he would never purport to be an expert in theology, Stuart Randell sees no contradiction between his faith and his work designing and imprinting tattoos on others.
“Tattoos are sacred, mate,” he says. “I had a girl come in the other day who had a best friend who had just died of cancer… it was her first tattoo and she came in the next day and gave us flowers. It’s good when you can do that for people.
“I love it. I’ll be tattooing until the day I die.”