by Alyssa Maldonado-Estrada
Hannah Medeiros (@sadgirl_tattoos) and Pauly Lingerfelt (@paulylingerfelt) are tattoo artists known for their work with Catholic imagery and iconography. They not only tattoo saints and Sacred Hearts, but also surround themselves with devotional stuff in their studios and homes in Rhode Island (Hannah) and New Orleans (Pauly). I spent time with these two artists, getting tattooed, geeking out over our love of Catholic objects, our obsession with collecting, and thinking about the role their own religious histories played in their art. Through these conversations we explored the devotional aesthetics of their tattoos and spaces, their sentimental and enchanted objects, and how their collecting shapes their art.
Figure 1: Shrine of objects in Pauly Lingerfelt’s private tattoo studio in New Orleans: including a doll, Virgin Mary bust, “Sainte Sara” mug, antique Arma Christi statue, crucifix, nun statue and chaplet, pink rabbit’s foot, reliquary, Black Madonna, Saint Sara photo, Man of Sorrows bust, St. Barbara statue. Photo by the author.
Hannah does illustrative blackwork, “focusing on textures, like etching line work, or shading with the lining needle.” Her favorite art medium is graphite and that really comes across in the contrast, gentle shading, and variation in gray and black tones in her tattoos. Her favorite imagery to tattoo comes from Catholicism and its devotional iconography because it offers sources for figurative and botanical work—such as Our Lady of Sorrows, doves, Sacred and Immaculate hearts, lilies, thorns, and saints. Pauly’s style is bold, black, and ornamental. He focuses on making simple and clear symbols. He calls it “boiled down to just the essentials. Just enough black, just enough lines.”
Figures 2 & 3. Our Lady of Sorrows tattoos. Left by Hannah Medeiros, right by Pauly Lingerfelt (via Instagram).
Devotional tattoos have a long history, especially related to shrines like the Holy House of Loreto and pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Tattoos have functioned akin to the souvenirs and blessings pilgrims would carry home from holy places such as martyrs tombs and apparition sites. From as early as the sixteenth century, European pilgrims were tattooed in Jerusalem, especially around Easter. According to Robert Ousterhout, “With an emphasis on tactility and corporeality, a tattoo would have been the ultimate pilgrim’s eulogia [blessing]…Moreover, unlike portable objects, which could have been separated from their owner, a tattoo was a permanent souvenir and would have remained with the bearer until death.” Late seventeenth-century engravings depict pilgrim forearms decorated with tattoos of crosses, the crucifixion, and the Holy Sepulchre. Pilgrims could be tattooed with images of Christ carrying the cross and a map of the Via Dolorosa, mapping Jerusalem onto their bodies.
The Italian scholar Guido Guerzoni has written on sixteenth-century engraved tablets with tattoo designs from Loreto depicting the Madonna of Loreto, Our Lady of Sorrows, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Clare, purgatorial souls, the House of Loreto, hearts, and many saints and symbols. He has also found evidence from 1702 of tattooing during the feast of St. John the Baptist in Cagli, Italy. Women punctured people’s skin with pins, making crosses and other symbols and pouring ink on the wounds. In the nineteenth century ethnologists observed Italian peasant men working the fields who had their arms tattooed with the symbols of the Passion, the Holy Spirit, and pierced hearts. In Lombardy and Naples people wore tattoos of the Blessed Sacrament and patron saints.
In many ways these contemporary tattoo artists are heirs to these practices of ornamenting the body with the stuff, saints, and stories of Catholicism.
A Flexible Catholicism
Hannah, who is from Rhode Island, grew up going to Mass on Sundays with her grandmother, her vovó, who was “very Portuguese and very Roman Catholic.” In her vovó’s house she was surrounded by stuff like sweet rose-scented rosaries and prints of Jesus and the Immaculate Conception. She was an altar server until she was around fourteen and went on to Catholic high school. Hannah laughed while telling me about her Catholic school experience and how she was “forced to go to church.” She was “very combative” as a teenager in Catholic school, calling bullshit when the teachers would talk about miracles, telling me “I loved…ruffling their feathers.”
Hannah’s vovó passed away when she was fourteen and she inherited all of her devotional stuff. While she was frustrated with institutional Catholicism in the form of church and school, her personal and family history has shaped her love of Catholic iconography. “It’s just that kind of connection I have with [my vovó] that kind of like lives on through the things she has given me and that imagery in particular.” This collection from her vovó was the start: devotional scenes with dried flowers behind convex or bubble glass, rosewood rosaries, old prints, and last rites crucifixes that open up and contain candles and other sacramental paraphernalia. Hannah says she’s “very sentimental” when it comes to objects. She has an expansive collection of objects like an entire wall of crucifixes decorating her staircase, chalkware statues, wooden last rites boxes, embroidered sacred hearts, and huge tapestry of the Immaculate Conception.
Figure 3. Hannah’s (former) station in Black Iris Tattoo, Brooklyn, NYC, featuring an antique last rites wall-mounted box, fox taxidermy, wooden crucifix, and chalkware pietà.
She finds Catholic objects give the feel of a “homey environment.” She would love to fill her house with pews and church furniture, and one day wants to get a votive candle holder with rows of little candles in glass jars. When I ask her what her dream tattoo shop would look like if she had a place of her own, she laughs, “man it would be fucking full of all that religious shit. I’m seeing a lot of gold. A lot of tapestries too. Wood, I’m very much into wood…as if someone vomited religious stuff everywhere. Just because it’s such good tattooing imagery, it’s like classic tattoo imagery, and it’s a conversation starter too.” Hannah says religious stuff “just makes me feel more comfortable and at ease.”
Figures 4 & 5. Hannah’s collection of crucifixes. Free-standing crucifixes and porcelain statue. Photos courtesy of Hannah Medeiros.
For Hannah, beautiful churches like Saint Patrick’s Cathedral are places of refuge that elicit deep emotional responses. Practices like praying the rosary offer solace, even if she wouldn’t call herself a Catholic. Sometimes other people see her Catholic-themed work and look for reassurance that she is “actually not religious,” hoping that these are just aesthetic practices for her. But Hannah says “I think you can pray the rosary beads in your apartment and you’re not hurting anybody. It’s just that moment of like, you know…I’m at a loss, I don’t know what else to do, and this is one thing I can do that is like some kind of comfort to me.” She just hopes the people in her life understand and respect what she’s into.
Pauly, who is from New Orleans, also has a history with Catholicism but he emphasizes that his family was “loose…not strict Catholic at all.” They were “New Orleans style” Catholic. When I ask him what that means he tells me, “Mardi Gras style. Like you can always ask for forgiveness…you can go on Sunday and make it right or whatever…tradition but not necessarily strict…no big rules or anything.”
The first thing Pauly ever remembers drawing was Jesus on the cross. When he was around fifteen years old, he took a framed picture off his dad’s wall. On the brown backing of the frame, he says, “I drew a Christ on it and I put it back up. It’s so weird, but I think about it now and I’m like, what was I doing? I drew Jesus on the cross…then I put the picture back on the wall and didn’t say anything. I loved knowing what I put in the back of that picture.” It was disproportionate and the legs were too little, but this clandestine crucifixion was his first memory of making art. The very first tattoos he got interested in were Russian prison tattoos which often featured icons, angels, Virgin Marys, and crucifixions, “maybe because…the Russian prison tattoos had a lot of Catholic imagery in them. I think that’s what got me like, god, I want to tattoo.”
As a kid in New Orleans, the saints and Jesus were familiar, but awesome and superhuman. Pauly remembers seeing a painting of St. Francis of Assisi in the cathedral of New Orleans. As Pauly described it, “When I was a kid there was a painting of Saint Francis of Assisi receiving the stigmata. But you know as a kid I just saw superman Jesus flying through the sky with laser beams coming out of his fucking hands shooting this dude on the ground who’s like suffering…Like what the fuck? It’s a trippy thing.” Indeed, Christ on the cross seems to be flying, surrounded by clouds. Red lines of blood extend out from his hand, feet, and side wounds to meet and pierce the same sites on Francis’s body. For some this is an image of mirrored suffering, but for young Pauly it was a badass image of a superhuman attack.
Figure 6: Painting of Saint Francis receiving the stigmata, St. Louis Cathedral, New Orleans.
As a teenager Pauly started surrounding himself with Catholic iconography, and he says some people that were raised “super strict Catholic” are like “why do you want this stuff, or it creeps them out and gives them bad feelings, you know? But for me it was like loose and there was no judgement in that way.” Ultimately, for Pauly, one of the things that is so interesting about Catholicism is that it is “flexible.” It has been “forced to flex because…every culture has their own Catholic culture.” He is especially interested in hybridity and syncretism, it draws him to black Madonnas, Romani pilgrimages, and Afro-diasporic traditions, like Vodou, Santería, and Palo, and their arts.
Figures 7 & 8. Details from Pauly Lingerfelt’s studio, featuring a wooden mask, small shrines with crucifixes, antique Our Lady of Mount Carmel statue, framed images of Nuestra Señora de las Angustias. Framed Immaculate Heart of Mary, and Sacred Heart of Jesus statue piled with rosaries.
The Dark, Strange World of the Saints
Both tattooers find the stories of the saints captivating, intense, strange, and of course inspiring for their own art practice. Whether drawing from art books, or their own object collection, they both have deep and catalogic knowledge of the saints and their attributes and make efforts to stay loyal to that iconography.
Pauly also makes prints, paintings, pennant flags and other art. While he makes traditional icons, and small paintings and collages of crying Madonnas, paintings of Our Lady of Czestochowa with piercing golden eyes, and ink drawings of Saint Gerard, sometimes his work is erotic or has sexual marginalia. I ask him about some of the play and subversion in his art and he connects it back to not being “strict-Catholic.” “Luckily I’m not strict Catholic, you know what I mean? So I can break rules.”
For Pauly though, nothing he can come up with is too out-there for Catholic art. “It’s like what they say, truth is always stranger than fiction. Like it’s way weirder than what I, or any creative person, could ever come up with. It plays with really heavy things…if I wasn’t used to some of these things, they would be very subversive and very strange…But I really think nothing is stranger than the actual art that exists even from the fourteen- and fifteen-hundreds. Some of these images are pretty crude or insane, or intense, or surreal even more than any creative person could come up with nowadays…They’re more pornographic, they’re more brutal, you know? They are just like real things, they’re like fucked up.” We devolved into talking about paintings of the Virgin squirting pearls of breast milk, medieval images of vaginal-looking side wounds, and brutal stories of martyrdom.
Figure 9. Gallery wall of lithographs of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Immaculate Heart of Mary, Psalm 23, vintage photographs, and Our Lady of Mount Carmel with souls in purgatory.
Hannah went to college for oil painting and also leans on Catholic imagery in her own art, whether that be sultry oil paintings of beautiful nuns, or ink drawings of the Immaculate Heart. When I asked her who her favorite saint was, Hannah picked Saint Lucy, patron saint of the blind: “she gouged her own eyes out and put them on a platter because she was trying to avoid getting married to someone her parents had betrothed her to. That one is pretty metal.” And, of course, Saint Catherine—which was the name of the parish her family attended growing up. She says her story has a lot of “mental health undertones.” “She would eat pus from patients. She would starve herself and only eat their pus and blood…it was a way for her to relate to them or some kind of, you know, almost like a flagellation, but like an edible one.”
As she thinks about the stories of the saints she says, “a lot of the saint stuff is really dark, I feel like there is not one feel good story.” Reflecting on Catherine and other saints, she said, “You have to obviously think about the mental health part of it, you’re like shit, they were not in a good way. It’s super fucked up.”
For both Hannah and Pauly, Catholic iconography offers a gruesome, but real and relevant take on humanity in all of its splendor, pain, sexuality, and suffering.
An Enchanted Tattoo Studio
What do these religious figures, saints, statues, masks, and images do to the space of the tattoo shop?
While we might consider a tattoo shop or studio a decidedly non-devotional space, it still may be full of presences and beings. Looking around Pauly’s shop I meet so many Madonnas of all skin tones. There are little reliquaries are tucked into tight spaces, perhaps with shards of bone or fabric from the dead. Jesus suffers on so many golden crucifixes and in bust form. Rosaries hang off of so many surfaces and statues. This is a devotional aesthetic of excess, a curated throng of religious beings, sometimes cheekily juxtaposed with tiny plastic babies, pop culture figures, and classic American traditional tattoo imagery. Getting tattooed by Pauly means that no matter your own relationship to religion, the intimate act of getting tattooed takes place in this materially and ontologically crowded space.
Figure 10. Close-up of Our Lady of Czestochowa wood-art, vintage photograph of Saint Sara procession. Photo by the author.
Pauly is a theorist of presence and the agency and personhood of objects in his own right. When I ask him what draws him to certain things he says “I guess what draws me to stuff is that things are personified to me. Things have feelings and moods and you know.” Things can be friends. He says, “I almost prefer things that have like a certain roughness or a certain quality that I think people aren’t going to want, you know? Because then I feel like I’m saving it. I do have a feeling that like ‘I’m going to give you a good home’. ‘You’re going to be on a nice spot, nice shelf. I’m going to love you, I’m going to look at you all the time.’”
The tattooer curates an aesthetically and affectively charged space much like a shrine, an assemblage of special things in a place built or groomed for encounter, engagement, and memory. Getting tattooed means being vulnerable to such ink-cursions—it is a profoundly intimate act and exchange. Sometimes it takes place in front of an audience of statues, beings, and things.
In these spaces, devotional things are more than just aesthetic and decorative objects, they are also relationally charged, and alive with memory, sentiment, history.
The contemporary tattoo studio may be a surprising site to find the devotional aesthetics of pre-Vatican II Catholicism intact: a space readied with candles for last rites, where patron saints are plenty, benevolent gazes and heavenly friends abound, and a rosary is always within arm’s reach. During the 1960s and 1970s many Catholics rejected the saccharine or perverse devotional sensibilities of their tradition, and their parents or grandparents. Some cast out their statues and partook in “devotional sacrilege”—destroying and ridding themselves of sacred things to adopt a more “modern sensibility.” Catholic stuff ended up in junkyards or antique shops—their sacred presence seemingly diffused so they could become collectibles and art objects.
Today tattooers mine that same stuff, whether in thrift shops, antique stores, or on eBay. They care for and love this devotional detritus. Their collecting impacts their art-making. They tell, make, and tattoo the stories of the saints, appreciating them for their disturbing lives and keeping their memory and iconography aesthetically relevant. In these tattoo spaces we see that devotionalism is still enchanting.
Figure 11. Tattooing tools, angel stencil, and Nalgene bottle with crucifixion sticker.
All work at The Commons is published under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/
Alyssa Maldonado-Estrada is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion at Kalamazoo College. She is the author of Lifeblood of the Parish: Men and Catholic Devotion in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (NYU Press 2020).