The graphic tattoos that cover the bodies of millions of Russian prisoners symbolize their sins and crimes, their pain and suffering.
Some of the tattoos are beautiful and hint at redemption. Others are disgusting, especially those etched involuntarily into the faces of victims by other prisoners as punishment for especially shameful crimes behind bars or on the outside.
Put all of these images together, said artist Scott Erickson, and they tell the stories of broken people. That's the big idea that gripped him as he studied tattoo culture while creating a set of "Stations of the Cross" images for a Lenten art exhibit at Ecclesia Church in the hip, edgy Montrose neighborhood near downtown Houston.
For many young Americans, it's impossible to talk about their tattoos without needing to candidly describe the peaks and valleys of their own lives. The tattoos are like emotional maps that are hard to hide.
"We have lots of people who have tattoos. Some members of our church have criminal records. Some have been shamed and abused. Some have struggled with drugs," explained Erickson, who serves as "artist in residence" at Ecclesia.
"A lot of these people thought they needed to cover up their tattoos when they started coming to church. They weren't sure that they wanted to share those parts of their lives with others," he said. "What we're trying to do is tell them that their tattoos are part of who they are and now we want to talk about who they are becoming."
Thus, the leaders of Ecclesia Church -- created in 1999 by a coalition of Southern Baptists, Presbyterians and others -- have raised eyebrows and inspired headlines by embracing tattoos as the artistic medium for their eighth annual art exhibit during the 40-day season that leads to Easter. The title is "Cruciformity: Stations of the Cross on Skin."