A photo of Edson de Moura

Edson de Moura

São Paulo, Brazil

Tattoos and Spirituality

Well, my routine has been working. I am working a lot. I arrive home several times late at night because it takes me from the place I am working to my house two hours and a half by bus. I take 3 buses. It is tiring but gratifying for the opportunity. For the opportunity of having my own life now. And we can't live with our parents our whole lives. And because there is a bias for my appearance, and the tattoos, people generally associate it with the idea that you are lazy, that you don't want to work or that you don't do anything with your life. And that your profession, tattoo artist, has no future. My wife works at a private school which is one of the 7 most expensive in the country. When she says she works in this school, everybody gets impressed, I mean, her profession is more dignified and honoured in other people's eyes than mine. But because she is still finishing her school and because she is having to pay some debts that she has done, then, thank God, I am the one who provides my work to pay the bills of our home.

Daniel’s Reflection

I met Edson at the Zadok Pentecostal Church in Sao Paulo, Brazil on my first shoot for Portraits in Faith back in 2001. I was enamoured by the beautiful and intricate tattoo of the Star of David over Edson’s entire scalp, combined with a tattoo of stigmata on his hands. Tattoos are prohibited in traditional Judaism under the idea that it creates a blemish on God’s perfect creation of the body, so it was never in my consciousness to get one. Yet I have now been exposed to beautiful and deeply meaningful works of tattoo art as an adult. I wanted to explore the spirituality and profound meaning of tattoos.

It is now easy for me to understand Edson’s choice to have a permanent and beautiful symbol of Jesus, his Savior, on his body. The tattoo is of Jesus’s life as a Jew (symbolized by the Jewish star on his head) and his death/resurrection (symbolized by the stigmata). 

The first tattoo artist I ever met was the sister of my dear friend, Rabbi Leah Cohen. “Gypsy Jill” was the name she was known by in Seattle where she lived for many years. When I last met up with Jill she shared with me that her work was mainly focused on helping women transform stretch marks from giving birth to beautiful art to celebrate their bodies and spiritual journeys. She said: 

I see myself as a ferryman. My purpose is to take you from one shore to another. And what you can count on is that I will absolutely navigate through those waters. You can rely on me no matter how scared you are, or unsure you are, or how tormented you are. I’m just the ferryman but I am a divinely inspired ferryman and I will get you to where you’re going on that leg of your journey. I’m not a guide. I use the same route almost every day.  

The ferryman is my archetype in this business with women and scars. I think that society tells women that after age 30, they’re used up. If not their cosmetic looks then their durability is past due after 30. As I talk to women and work with them, a lot of them tell me, “I gave my best years to my children, to my husband, to having children.” It’s like an apology, something that doesn’t feel so good, like the rest of their years are in decline. When I decorate that part of them, I’m taking them across the river to this new, more beautiful life. Something higher and better to look forward to. The journey is really exciting, and in a way, the more tumultuous the waters are, the more exhilarated they are by the time they get to the other side.

I love this understanding of tattoos as transformational, as external symbols of a change in consciousness. According to Jill, tattoos also help people take on an attribute or characteristic they want to show to the world that they do not yet feel they fully embody. This is so very powerful to me. It reminds me of many times when I was trying to grow to the next level and needed first to have a belief that I could get there…a hook. Or some confidence. I can see how the decision to get a tattoo that symbolises a desired shift is an act of defiance or courage or self-love. My best friend and his wife have infinity symbols tattooed on their ring fingers where they used to wear their wedding bands. I see those infinity symbols as an even more permanent sign of their love and commitment.

Since Portraits in Faith is about showing that there is no “other” and that we are all on a spiritual journey together, it pains me to hear Edson’s comment that people assume someone with extensive tattoos is “lazy.” The stereotype I was taught was to fear someone with tattoos. It makes no sense to me now. But his comment makes me doubly aware that I must not be part of those who judge others by their physical appearance, especially the decision to have tattoos.

Edson shared in his interview how his mother required blood donations in order to have a surgery. His entire community from Zadok Church, which caters to “underground people” who are tattooed, pierced, and often wearing dreadlocks, showed up at the hospital and more than filled the blood donation requirement for the surgery to take place.  And yet these are people who society would normally judge.

Interestingly, tattoos do have negative connotations especially as part of gang culture. I visited the amazing Homeboy Industries founded by Father Greg Boyle in Los Angeles. Their mission is to help get former gang members rehabilitated after being released from prison by giving them meaningful work. Their number one industry is gang tattoo removal. This I get, and I don’t conflate tattoos that come from harmful activities to those that beautify and transform.

I am so grateful to look upon this portrait of Edson and see his profound faith and the beauty of how he decorated his body to reflect it.

Permissions and References

Permission to use quote from Jill Greenberg’s unpublished Portraits in Faith interview was given by her sister, Rabbi Leah Cohen on March 17, 2024.

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