Bible tattoos attract a following for Arlington Hts. native
His relationship with the Bible and tattoos began when Mike Mueller was a grade-schooler at Christian Liberty Academy in Arlington Heights.
"I actually got in trouble in gym class for wearing a temporary tattoo," remembers Mueller, who returned to school after a family vacation in Mexico with a henna tattoo on his hand. "I think I got a letter home."
That letter no doubt reminded Mueller of the divine guidance found in the biblical book of Leviticus 19:28, which commands, "Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord."
Now a 26-year-old entrepreneur living in Colorado, Mueller makes his living selling temporary tattoos of Bible verses. He and friend Eric Knopf launched their Armed With Truth business in 2012 and immediately found an audience eager for religious tattoos.
"Our first day, people started buying them," says Mueller. "It was mostly young college students at Christian colleges."
Then John and Stasi Eldredge, founders of a ministry called Ransomed Heart, discovered the temporary tattoos and used social media to plug Armed With Truth. Then, the cast of TV's "Duck Dynasty" became fans of the tattoos, ordered a set geared to their preferences and are selling them on their duckcommander.com website.
But Armed With Truth has its critics, too.
"Even the idea of tattoos is very controversial in the realm of Christianity," Mueller says, noting that some people, adhering to the Leviticus admonishment, regard tattoos as downright evil. In Harry Potter literature and movies, the "Death Eaters," followers of the evil wizard Voldemort, sport tattoos.
"We've gotten messages from people saying, 'We think you are paving the way for the mark of the beast,'" Mueller says, referring to the revelation in the last book of the Bible about a Satan-like evil beast that uses the mark "666."
A couple of generations ago, the Christian community was pretty united in its rejection of tattoos, says Larry Eskridge, associate director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College. Preachers could point to that Leviticus passage, "and that cinched it right there," Eskridge says. Tattoos weren't meant for "proper churchgoers."
However, while tattoos remain "contested terrain" for some Christians, "I think there has been a lot of change in the last 20 or 25 years," Eskridge says. "This is one of those touchy issues ... depending on your church and who your mom and dad are."
You can't go to a water park or professional sports venue today without seeing armfuls of tattoos. Eskridge notes that San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kapernick talks about his Christian faith and also boasts Scripture tattoos. (On his throwing shoulder is this Scripture, appropriate after wins: "You armed me with strength for battle; you made my adversaries bow at my feet.")
Just as the broad, diverse Christian community has seen opinions change when it comes to hairstyles or rock music, many have been more welcoming to tattoos, Eskridge says.
That is the case at Christian Liberty Academy.
"We may have softened up over the years," says headmaster Thad Bennett, 46, who remembers when Mueller was a student there. "The moral law hasn't changed, but the clerical laws have changed."
School policy still doesn't allow a student to get tattooed, "but if he does, I don't think he's the worst kid in the world," Bennett says. "I have a couple staff members who have tattoos."
Covering tattoos and dressing modestly are part of the school's "Christian educational environment," Bennett says. But a temporary tattoo designed to help people make a connection with the Bible is a different story.
"I have no problem whatsoever with that," Bennett says.
Tattoos can be flashy, attention-getting statements, but Mueller says Armed With Truth grew out of a private, personal quest. He and Knopf were trying to memorize the "encouraging truths" from Scripture to counteract "all the negative reinforcement" the world can dish out.
Notes on paper were easy to misplace. Apps weren't effective because of "the endless distractions that come with smartphones," Mueller says.
Aiming to write the word of God into their hearts, they settled for putting it on their arms. While looking for manufacturers, Mueller's name rang a bell with one factory owner. "My grandpa had hired this guy's father," Mueller says. "I really felt like it was the Lord opening the door and that we should give this thing a shot."
Since the Bible can be "a pretty intimidating book," Mueller says his company sells packages of 10 tattoos built around themes such as "Identity" and "Father God," or advice in how to be "Fearless" or "Be Christlike." "The medium shouldn't transcend the message," says Mueller, who recently left for a trip to Costa Rica with an eye toward expanding Armed With Truth into a Spanish version.
The company accepts custom orders but won't print verses that condemn sinners or feed the concept of God "as an old, bearded, white man, who wants to make sure you get your just deserts," Mueller says. The tattoos aren't meant to be political statements.
Lovers of irony might be disappointed to learn that Armed With Truth doesn't make a tattoo out of the biblical verse prohibiting tattoos.