My Rublev Icon Tattoo

Well, I've been hiding from you the big news in the Beck house.

I got a tattoo!

It's a half sleeve on my left arm that goes all the way around, halfway up the forearm to the elbow.

A warm Thank You to my talented friend Travis Eason for the beautiful design and execution. For Abilene locals, you can find Travis at Travis Eason Designs. Dear Travis, I love this piece of artwork you've done for me.

The tattoo is of Rublev's icon of the Trinity, pictured here.

Rublev's icon may be the most well known of all the Orthodox icons.

The icon is actually of a scene called "The Hospitality of Abraham" depicting the events in Genesis 18 where Abraham offers hospitality to three angelic victors--collectively identified as "the Lord"--under the oak trees of Mamre. In some Orthodox icons of this scene Abraham and Sarah are also depicted. In Rublev's icon (and in others) only the three angelic visitors are seen.

If this is an icon of the events in Genesis 18 then why is the icon called Rublev's trinity? Well, the Orthodox iconographers were not allowed to depict God directly. That would be making a graven image. So the iconographers would use the hospitality of Abraham as an indirect way of depicting God as the Trinity, with the three angelic visitors described as "the Lord" in the text representing the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In the icon the Son, in brown, is the central figure. The Spirit is on the right of the picture in green. The Father is on the left in red. All also wear blue to represent their divinity.

So that's my tattoo! Why this choice?

Two reasons, one theological and the other aspirational.

The theological reason is that for the Orthodox the Trinity is the theological articulation that God is a relational, communal being. Ontologically, God is loving community. So I picked this icon to simply say "God is love." God is loving community and relationship. This is the theological bedrock of everything I believe about God. God is love. That belief is now written on me. (And written is the right word as icons are "written" rather than "painted." An icon is the Word being proclaimed.)

The aspirational reason for this tattoo is related to the fact the hospitality of Abraham is the primal text in the bible that points to welcoming God in the stranger. The icon represents hospitality and welcome. In this the icon is aspirational. I look at the icon and am reminded to welcome the person in front of me as I would welcome Christ himself. Matthew 25. Welcoming the little one. As the Benedictines say, Hospes venit, Christus venit. "When a guest comes, Christ comes." I want to live my life that way. Rublev's icon reminds me of that. So I wanted to always have it with me. And thanks to Travis, now I do.

If you'd like to see it, pictures of the tattoo are below the break.

I took these pictures with my phone (by myself) so the quality and framing isn't all that great. I hope to get back over to Travis's so he can take some proper pictures. But this will give you a sense of what it looks like.

On the left is the central image of the Son and a better shot of the Spirit on the right:

On the right is a better image of the Father and on the left is the Oak of Mamre (which is on the back of my arm):

Update: I've added this picture so you can see what the tattoo looks like from a distance and a better sense of where it's placed on my arm. This is a picture from Streaming during the Q&A with Walter Brueggemann. You can see the tattoo--mainly the oak tree--on my left arm.

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47 thoughts on “My Rublev Icon Tattoo”

  1. I'd say it was more uncomfortable than painful. It wasn't sharp enough to be "pain," in my estimation. Though it was plenty sharp at times.

    From what I understand the pain of a tattoo is related to four things:

    1) the individual's pain tolerance (mine is high).

    2) the location of the tattoo (sensitive area or over a bone is more painful; mine was in a good spot).

    3) the skill of the artist (some less skilled artists push too hard and too deep; Travis is good so no worries for me on that end).

    4) how much whiskey you consume before going in (I didn't consume any but did pop four ibuprofen).

  2. You'll know better than I do, Richard, that a tattoo at your age is a classic symptom of a mid-life crisis; perhaps a way of dealing with your repressed unitarian demons.  If you want to talk, I'm here for you.  ;)

  3. That's at least 10 bonus point on the 'christian hipster' ratings... but you were pretty high up already ;-)

  4. Dr. Beck, I hope this comment "sticks."  I've been having trouble with it.

    I noticed your tattoo from the pictures of the conference you attended with your wife earlier this summer.  I almost asked about it, and then thought maybe it'd be rude (too forward).  Thanks for sharing.

    I like the tattoo, and the meaning behind it.  If I were going to ever get a tattoo (not likely, btw), this would be something I could "live" with.

    Blessings to you.  ~Peace~

  5. Thanks! But I've mainly got you on speed dial for any overalls fashion consultations. :-)

  6.  Groan.  How about minus 10 points for not being a beer or coffee snob. That'd make me even, right? ;-)

  7. Thanks Susan. I thought long and hard about it. Before Travis started on it he asked if I was nervous. A bit, I said. Afraid it is going to hurt? he asked. And I said, "I'm not afraid of the pain. And I'm not afraid of the design or your skill in executing it. I'm afraid because this is pretty damn permanent."

    But all this well. The reasons I got it--the spiritual promptings I wanted it to give me--are working out just as I had hoped.

  8. You explained why you chose this tattoo, but why did you choose to have a tattoo at all?  Were the other forms of "spiritual prompting" you were using ineffective?

  9. There wasn't any "lack" it was trying to rehabilitate. As to the why it's hard to say, I'd just, for many years, been intrigued by this as a form of spiritual practice. I can say why I was intrigued, just that I was.

  10. That's very beautiful and I love the meaning behind it.  Brought tears to my eyes.  I'm curious... do you know what those long stick-like things are they hold in their hands?

  11. Walking sticks. If you click on the Rublev icon above and expand it a bit, you'll see them.

  12. Truly astonishing.  I am an Icon painter/writer and please feel free to use any of my work for your next tattoo.  I'v been thinking of my version of the Virgin of Guadalupe or Blessing Christ from Saint Catherine's in the Sinai (it's in the little box by my name).  Blessings and obliged. 

  13. By taking upon ourselves things normally thought to be only in the domain of the profane (like tattoos), we help to sanctify this world.

  14. It's not clear to me how "taking upon ourselves things normally though to be only in the domain of the profane" would serve to sanctify.  I'm more familiar with, say, "prayer and the word of God" (1 Tim 4;5) as a means of sanctifying.

    If you were to argue that prayer and the word of God sanctify the tattoo it would make more sense to me than saying that taking a tattoo sanctifies the world.

    I wrote my questions above because I am genuinely curious about what motivates people to get a tattoo.  It remains a mystery to me.

    I do notice that getting a tattoo is popular with more people now than it used to be, but I don't know the reason for this either.

  15. That's exactly as I would have thought about it.  I figure that if I can handle natural childbirth X 2, then I could get a tattoo without going to pieces over the pain.  But, yes...the permanence of the image.  Daunting.  I like your thoughts on the tattoo being a spiritual prompt for you, as much as (if not more than) a visual cue of sorts for others.  The artistic detail of the design is beautiful, which I couldn't make out from the conference photos.  I'm happy that this decision has been blessing you.  You are always such a blessing to others (with or without tattoo.)  ~Peace~

  16. Very legitimate questions. Ones I did factor in and think about a lot. There is a, I guess you'd call it, a stigma associated with getting a tattoo. And I wanted to be mindful of that. Which factored into the location I chose. When I'm in certain social situations I roll my sleeves down.

  17. Most excellent. I love it.

    Mine is of a dragon which covers my back. At some point the defeat of this dragon will be depicted. Not sure what that will look like yet. Perhaps in the age to come...

  18. I'm utterly fascinated by this, especially having read your blog entries on the topic a while back. I'm still up in the air on whether or not I'd get a tattoo, but if I did it would be something like yours: something of significance and prompting and the orthodox iconography is great.

    Was there any particular reason on left vs right arm? I know sometimes there is significance in that as well.

  19.  I don't have any tattoos, and probably never would get one.

    But what motivates people to get a tattoo? Obviously, it's the "bada**" factor. Tattoos (often) hurt and they're always permanent. Ask Richard to explain this one..he's the one who does professional psychology. One of the reasons I don't care for a tattoo is just this: I don't like the "doesn't give a s***" image. I'm about being the opposite of that. Though obviously, tattoos of saints and icons don't say "bada**" quite like most tattoos.

    But at the end of the day, the tattoo is just window dressing. Not that big a deal. People are going to talk to you face-to-face.

  20. Richard, I commend you for having the Tatoo engraved on Your arm. It is no doubt a conversation starter or at least a look attractor, and I can think of lots of things I would have been less pleased with than a profound depiction of the Trinity in a welcoming motif. This is a great reminder of our missional posture: welcome and especially appropriate at this time In our congregations's spiritual journey. Will it start a trend? Who knows? One thing is sure.....they're hard to get off, and maybe that's a lesson in itself. Sticking close to Jesus and friends like he had is another really good way to advertise the heavenly lifestyle.......both relationally and ontologically.

  21. hehe  just as impressed to see you with  Brueggemann, as to see the tatt. (:
    You probably  know that Steve Seamands features the Rublev in his teaching, and in this book of his,
    pp 12ff here:

  22. Well, I'm definitely not one who is prone to comment, but seeing how I also have a Travis Eason tattoo, I feel compelled. I really love it, Richard. The colors are beautiful; that is one of my favorite thing about much of Travis' work - the bursting color. I can't wait to wrap up my pre-K class stint so that I can be back in Sojourners and hopefully remember to check it out! 

  23.  Mike,

    i got a religious tattoo because i wanted to mark myself with the permanence of my commitment to that belief. 

    But more to your feeling of mystery, my understanding is that different peoples on the earth have been tattooing themselves for thousands of years.  The motivations have probably been different in differing cultures and subcultures.  i would venture a guess that aversion to tattoos might be more an historical anomaly than having tattoos (i'm sure someone here with far more expertise in anthropology could speak to that point or correct me). 

    Do you think there's any qualitative difference between tattoos and ear piercing (asking out of honest curiosity)?


  24. I agree that there seems to be a similarity between tattoos and ear piercing.  In fact, it seems that body piercing in general (including nose, mouth, and elsewhere) has increased in popularity at the same rate as tattooing in recent years.

    It's obvious that a larger percentage of the population thinks it's a good idea, but, as I indicated, I do not know why.

  25. As something else to think about (or if Jana is looking for tattoo ideas), the hospitality of Rahab to the spies is closely connected to Abraham's receiving of the guests in ancient Christian thought (see James 2 and 1 Clement 10-12).

  26. I believe the increase in these things are a reflection of a.) people being more open to non-traditonally-Western things, which tattoos and piercings originally are, and b.) people no longer believing that it is irreligious to have a little metal in their face or a loved one's name inked on their arm. It is decoration, not blasphemy. Decades ago, men had nearly identical hairstyles because people would laugh at a man who did not have exactly the hairstyle that was considered fashionable at that point in time. Having a tattoo meant being a dangerous biker or a dangerous criminal. Not today. Individual expression is more highly regarded today. Times are a-changing.

    Now, there's something I really don't like about the vanity of a bunch of tattoos and piercings. I'm disgusted by those tattoo magazines that have models inked head-to-toe, who are actually bimbos and have worsened their appearance quite a lot. We've got to keep our minds on holy works and prayer, not obsess over appearance. I lean natural, but I do like creativity and ornamentation, and some kinds of simple piercings I find pretty cool.

    It's hard to explain the reasons for body mod rationally, but then again, it's hard to explain a whole litany of our religious practices rationally. I believe we were meant to live by our hearts first and foremost.

  27. Some of the people that get body modifications are intentionally trying to use it to intimidate or get a rise out of people. But I believe it to be a real minority. I feel that, more than anything, people that get tattoos and piercings tend to not be all that self-consciousness or worried that God will love them less because of their appearance. In childhood and teen years, my extreme self-consciousness caused to wonder for a long time why anyone would get any kind of body modification at all. I've mellowed somewhat.

  28. If I remember correctly, didn't a woman in one of the early books of the Bible, maybe Genesi or Exodus, have a nose ring (somebody help me here)?

  29.  You are correct, but i can't recall who it was either.  i do recall, though, that in Ezekiel 16, God gives Israel a nose ring as a sort of courting gift.

  30. I live in Egypt where the Coptic cross, tattooed
    on the inside of the right wrist, is an ancient tradition for Christians past
    and present. It's not a decorative fashion statement or sign of rebellion, but
    a permanent reminder of their faith and dedication to Christ who bore the everlasting
    scars of redemption. It is very much a means of communal identity in a country
    that has a history, past and present, of sectarian friction. There is a defiant
    reaction, personal and communal, as the Copts cling to their identity in the
    face of discrimination and terror. The tattoo often singles them out for
    special, and often unwanted, attention. But it also serves as some
    protection against kidnapping.  It’s hard
    to cut those crosses out of the thin skin over the veins in a human wrist. 

  31. This is so fantastic. I have the Chartres Cathedral labyrinth tattooed on my left forearm and always appreciate seeing a really creative religious/spiritual/meaningful tattoo. Peace, Craig at TokensShow

  32. It was Rebecca; Abraham's servant gave it to her along with 2 gold bracelets after she watered his camels.

  33. This is awesome. I love the concept behind the piece, and I also like the fact that as the ink ages and fades it will mirror the Rublev icon even more acutely.

    On an unrelated note, by virtue of not being able to find a 'direct' contact for you on the site, I just wanted to give you a heads up for a song that I just posted which was inspired by some of your blog postings on the Deus ex Machina. I hope you don't mind my referencing you in the Youtube commentary, but just let me know if you'd rather it now be there.



  34.  Very nice job by the tattoo artist!  If we ever meet in person, I will venerate your arm.  :)
    p.s. I got a "spiritual" tattoo in about the same place (forearm) for many of the same reasons (including being able to wear long sleeves and cover it) when I was about 45. I had the design for years before I finally did it. Congratulations.

  35. the colours might last a long time as long as Dr. Beck is diligent in applying sunscreen :)

  36. I guess I've been one of the lurkers, but seeing your artwork prompts me to post.  I too recently got inked.  I'm in the 'over 50' crowd so it should last me.  I thought/planned/researched over many months before deciding to permanently alter my skin.  It's a reminder to me, a conversation starter (as I need to translate it) and also portable art.
    I chose the Greek for aphiemi, carved in stone over an English ivy background.  It's on the inside of my left forearm.  Next time we come down to Abilene I'll have to check out Travis, very nice work.
    Richare I very much enjoy your posts and look forward to reading each of them.  Very thought provoking and encourages me to keep on thinking.

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