Pulling up to the Wild Wings on Rivers Avenue, I noticed a blackboard painted in pink letters, “We want to hear about your tattoos!” The sign surprised me, not because I didn’t know about the event, but because I didn’t expect it to be so, well, cheery. What kind of tattooed folks would respond well to that?
Plenty, actually. Sitting at a table with members of Summerville’s recently created St. Timothy’s Church, a plant of the Diocese of South Carolina, I delightedly watched people come up to the table, lifting their shirts and shorts, pulling down socks, revealing their ink. I clutched a large camera, hoping to get a high-res shot in a dark bar — some stood still for minutes.
Gary and Sue Beson, Summerville natives and St. Timothy’s founders, recently moved back to Charleston from Pennsylvania. The two, along with the help of Rachael Stewart and others, founded St. Timothy’s in Charleston, inspired by the church they attended in Pittsburgh, South Side Anglican. South Side put on an art exhibit, Hear Me, in 2012 which featured pictures of local peoples’ tattoos with their stories printed underneath. After starting their church, the Besons thought that the exhibit was such a good idea, they’d put one on of their own, Hear Me Too. Since then, the Besons have been visiting Charleston-area bars for the past few months, photographing tattoos.
Stewart, the exhibit’s official organizer, pulled out pieces of paper with spaces for names, ages, stories. She sat with each willing guest and talked to them for a while, writing down when, where, and why they had gotten a tattoo.
Stewart explained that the exhibit was going to be put on by the church and that the images would be public — you know, in case that would make someone uncomfortable. Sipping a beer, scribbling down strangers’ names, I wondered if I felt uncomfortable. For a while I weighed whether or not this exhibit, and the process leading up to it, were worth covering. If the church’s end goal was proselytizing, I wasn’t interested.
Beson says it’s not.
“People want to be heard,” says Beson. While the church organizers do want people to learn its name — they’re new in town, after all — they say they don’t have any ulterior motives. According to Gary, these church members just want to hear about peoples’ tattoos and the stories behind them. They also want to give people the opportunity to share their stories with a much larger audience.
The first woman I photographed, Alyson (the participants were told that only their first names would be used), had several tattoos, but the one she chose to highlight was on her arm, stretching from her shoulder to her elbow. This is an excerpt of the story she relayed to Stewart: “Ever since I was a child I’ve had a fascination with Disney. I wanted to do something fun and different as a tattoo that I could tie together with my siblings. I decided to do an Alice in Wonderland type sleeve. Each teacup has a little piece of each of my siblings in them.”
Erik, the next guy we talked to had no qualms about lifting up his shirt, showing off his large back tattoo. He showed us the tombstone that covered the expanse of this back, telling Stewart, “My ex wife’s name used to be tattooed on my back. I got it covered up with a tombstone to symbolize the death of my marriage. My two favorite scriptures are on the tombstone, Genesis 9:6 — ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man,’ and Psalm 9:5 — ‘You have rebuked the nations and destroyed the wicked; you have blotted out their name for ever and ever.'”
Logan, a mid-20s guy eating with his girlfriend and young son, let us photograph his arm where parts of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree were colorfully inked. He told Stewart, “I got this tattoo while I was in the Army. The Giving Tree was my favorite book when I was growing up. I think all of Shel Silverstein’s books contain a lot of meaning. The Giving Tree always meant the most to me. My brother and I used to take turns reading it to each other when we were kids.”
I think about how religion plays into some of these tattoos, and how for many others, it’s not even a factor. The original exhibit’s flyer read, “We want to hear you. It’s an echo of how we believe God hears.” Sue acknowledged this sentiment, telling me that everyone has a story — we’re all pieces of a larger story. Whether people want to believe that’s God’s story or not is up to them.
As the night wore on, fewer people came up to the table, and our attempts to seek out any more tattooed customers came up empty. Out of curiosity — the guy didn’t have any tattoos — Beson asked a man at the table behind us, “Who are you, where do you work?” and the man happily answered. I marveled at Beson’s complete lack of social restraint: he would talk to anyone.
Beson catches me staring at him. “We’re just trying to care,” he tells me. We talk about the stigma of tattoos and how they may or may not relate to religion. I made a comment about people complementing, rather than competing with one another. “You should really think about seminary,” he says. I laugh into my beer, thinking about the story I’ll tell about this night.