Anthony Whitney was barely into his teens when he waltzed into a Bible study at a local tattoo parlor. A fledgling artist at heart, he was instantly mesmerized by the shop’s vibe.
“I saw everything that was going on and I thought, ‘Wow, they are getting paid to do this,’” said Whitney, who goes by A.J. “’This is cool.’”
Raised in a Christian home and a believer himself, he was immediately struck not only by their craft but their blazing love of Jesus.
“It was a bunch of guys that I think that society back then would call ‘the least of these,’” he said. “They were so roughed up but they spoke with so much wisdom ’cause they had been there, done that. It was like God just opened my eyes that all these people who looked so rough and tough were all these elders that had so much experience and knowledge.”
The young, impressionable Christian wanted what they had, so he bought a prepaid debit card to order a tattoo kit on eBay.
“At that point I started recruiting some of my gullible buddies to let me go to town on them,” he said. “It was just a fascination, and it’s been a fascination ever since.”
A decade later Whitney and his wife, Heather, have put his dream into action with the opening of Revelations Tattoo, a 400-square-foot shop where they use skin art as an avenue to preach the gospel.
“I show them love by talking about their day, talking about where they are from, what they do for a living, this, that and the other,” Whitney, an Iraqi war veteran, said. “In most occupations where you do customer service, they are urged to stay away from talking about religion and politics and all that good stuff, but that’s pretty much the first spot where I go.”
After spending time developing a rapport with his customers, he gently turns the tables as he leans over them with his inking gun.
“I share with them what I believe, how I opened up the shop, what God’s done in my life and the testimony that I wear on my body because a lot my tattoos are testimonial pieces of just different things that have hit me in life that I don’t want to forget.”
Those entering the bright purple shop shouldn’t be surprised by his passion for both tattoos and Christ. The word “Revelations” is blazoned on an inside wall. Nearby is a stunning black and white drawing of Jesus’ face with red drops of blood sliding down his forehead and cheeks and the words “Have we forgotten why he came” written below. The window air conditioning unit serves as an impromptu bookshelf housing stacks of New Testaments the couple hands out at every opportunity.
Clues also greet them outside, where their motto “Set Apart” is clearly visible as is the shop logo, which includes a crown of thorns with the reference 19:16, referring to the Bible verse after which the shop is named:
“On His robe and on His thigh He has this name written: King of Kings and Lord of Lords.”
On his website Whitney includes the Greek translation for the word “written”: “to engrave, write, according to the ancient method of writing on plates of metal, waxes tables, etc.”
“I don’t think he used a Sharpie,” he said.
No clear distinctions
Mark Strauss, a New Testament professor at Bethel Seminary in San Diego, said the most commonly cited passage about tattoos is Leviticus 19:28. The King James version reads, “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the Lord.” In newer translations, “tattoo” has replaced the word print.
Even so, Strauss, author of the new book “How to Read the Bible in Changing Times,” said most biblical experts believe the passage refers specifically to pagan forms of expression.
“The great majority of scholars think this has a specific reference to pagan rituals, cutting of the body associated with pagan rituals, especially in mourning and things like that, and that really doesn’t necessarily apply to modern tattoos. Of course it could if, in fact, the modern tattoo represents identification with false religion or a false god. It’s not necessarily a blanket forbidding of all tattoos or markings on the skin.”
As for the reference to Revelation 19:16, Strauss said scholars have differing views on the interpretation, some believing the phrase will be engraved on statues or on robes only.
“Everyone is pretty much guessing at what it means,” he said. “It’s obscure enough that you can’t make a strong case one way or another about what it means.
“I think we can honestly say there is no expressed forbidding of tattoos from the Bible. That doesn’t necessarily make them right or make them wrong. You have to judge it from broader testimonies in Scripture.”
The professor said he believes it is much more important to consider the decision in context of the purpose of the tattoo and the state of mind of the person seeking one.
“Obviously, when people put Christian symbols or names or whatever on them, they are essentially identifying themselves with Christ,” Strauss said. “I don’t think that’s a negative thing at all. I think other times tattoos are related to self-image issues and that people get tattoos because of peer pressure to do so or are seeking value. In that sense it could be a negative thing.”
An unhappy mom
Though rather obvious, Strauss said another major consideration is the permanency of the artwork.
“It’s a tough one,” the New Testament expert said. “I think the important thing is people don’t get them because they feel like they have to for self-image, that they don’t get them because it’s the thing to do in the culture.”
Whitney admits his mother was not a fan of the teenage hobby.
“She was livid,” he said. “She hated me. I got in so much trouble. It was horrible.”
The son said he used Revelation 19:16, the one he learned in that tattoo shop as a 14-year-old Bible study student, to sway her.
“Now so many years later, I ended up tattooing her,” he said, saying she chose a four-color piece with four flowers and swirls.
“After I showed her that Bible verse, it kind of changed her perspective a little bit. It’s crazy that 14 years later I’m using that (verse) as inspiration to drive my business.”
The Whitneys, who have a 2-month-old daughter named Aajay, said they are more than aware of the controversy over tattoos in the Christian community.
“We have some people say it’s amazing,” Heather Whitney said. “They are proud of us for what we are doing. We have others who call us hypocrites.”
Witness and service
Instead of focusing on the debate, the couple has chosen to focus on the business, which they said has been anointed from the beginning, and on using the store as a conversation point for sharing Jesus. Since opening in February, they have witnessed to military personnel, atheists and Buddhists.
“It’s been a pretty wild ride,’” he said. “It’s just unbelievable how God has moved in our lives, and we are super humbled by it, and we understand that it can be taken away at any moment. We’ve tried to be really diligent with what he has given us and make the most of it. Looking back on it, I can see all the trails leading up to where I am now.”
One of those trails includes using the business to reach out to the neighborhood’s homeless and hurting.
“For years that boulevard has always been considered a Hells Angels-ruled neighborhood,” he said. “If you look at what Hells Angels actually really means, it’s hell’s angles, which means demons.”
Among the trouble spots was Dumont’s, a biker bar that was closed in 2007 after its owner, a Hells Angel, was sentenced to prison for racketeering. The long-time bar was also the scene of a fatal shooting and stabbing. Last year, a Drug Enforcement Administration officer, joined by local police, raided a nearby private Hells Angel club using flash-bang grenades and seizing computers. No one was in the club at the time of the raid, but several members were later arrested on drug charges.
“(Satan) always really ruled that neighborhood, and I feel like God is kind of taking it back,” Whitney said. “We’re trying to be a light in the community and show them that God loves them and we’re set apart.”
For more information on the business, including the couple’s thoughts on the Bible and tattoos, visit www.revelationstattoo.com.