SEWELL, N.J. — Tattoos cover most of Harry J. Ake’s body — from his wife Linda’s name on his neck all the way down to his ankles.
“I have things on me that are not real holy, and then I have other things that are nicer,” said Ake, owner of Headlight Tattoo and Body Piercing.
His newest tattoo — displayed prominently on his right arm — reflects the transformation in his life since his baptism for the forgiveness of sins more than two years ago.
A Serenity Prayer tattoo is among the recent work done by church member Harry J. Ake. (HEADLIGHTTATTOO.COM) “Church of Christ,” that tattoo proclaims.
Since his conversion, the 52-year-old Ake has become an active member of the Pitman Road Church of Christ, a 300-member New Jersey congregation, about 20 minutes south of downtown Philadelphia.
From leading a Monday night men’s Bible study to helping prepare Wednesday night fellowship meals, Ake is “every preacher’s dream for what a new Christian should be,” longtime Pitman minister Dan Cooper said. The servant-minded tattoo artist even rolls the church’s garbage cans to the street for weekly curbside pickup.
Ake’s long journey to a strong Christian faith began as a young boy who attended Roman Catholic schools.
When Ake was 11, his father abandoned the family, leaving the boy’s mother to care for him and his three siblings.
“I thought there couldn’t be a God that I wanted to worship if this was the case,” Ake said of his broken family. “So I turned my back on God.”
As a young man, he battled drug and alcohol addictions.
Harry J. Ake
Later, while following Alcoholics Anonymous’ prescription for sobriety, he fell on his knees and begged God to help him.
But as he kept “trying out different churches,” Ake said, he didn’t feel like he fit in anywhere. “There was just way too much judgment and hypocrisy.”
For years, he stayed away from organized religion and simply listened to Christian radio.
“When I opened up my first tattoo studio, I was a very spiritual man, and I considered myself a Christian,” he said. “I had crucifixes on the wall, and I listened to calm music. But sometimes, like late at night, that calm music would turn into rock ’n’ roll, and the next thing you know, a couple of years go by, and I’m just in the world — totally in the world.”
SEARCHING FOR A SAVIOR
By 2011, Ake had opened his third tattoo studio.
He had a dozen tattoo artists working for him. He made “tons of money” and owned a “big, beautiful house.”
But inside, he was empty.
His marriage was disintegrating, and he began searching for God. Again.
About that time, the Pitman church built a new, 28,000-square-foot worship facility that Ake passed frequently.
Meanwhile, the lyrics in a country song that Ake heard on the radio caught his attention: “Come Sunday morning service at the Church of Christ, well, there ain’t an empty seat to be found,” Montgomery Gentry sings in the 2002 hit “My Town.”
Ake checked out the church’s website and liked what it said about “just wanting to follow the Bible.” He told his wife that he wanted them to visit.
But before doing so, Ake needed to know that he’d be welcome.
On a Wednesday morning, he made his way inside the building and approached church secretary Dottie Grillo.
“Do you think if I came at 7 o’clock that I’d be allowed to go?” he asked, referring to that night’s Bible classes.
Of course, Grillo replied.
A new quarter started that night, and church deacon Garth Hutchinson, a former missionary to France, began a series on Ephesians.
Tattoo artist and body piercer Harry J. Ake poses at one of his three tattoo studios. Ake has put new limits on his work since his conversion. (HEADLIGHTTATTOO.COM)
“I had read the entire King James Bible cover to cover during the 17 years that I wasn’t going to church … but I didn’t understand it,” Ake said. “But the way that he was explaining the book of Ephesians to me, within about 60 seconds, my heart got soft, and I felt extremely comfortable.
“I looked over to my wife, and she looked at me,” he added. “I just said, ‘Linda, I’m really glad that we’re here.’ She said, ‘So am I.’ We just sat there, and we’ve never left.”
To distract attention from his tattoos, Ake normally wears a collared, long-sleeve shirt to church. Initially, though, doubts surfaced in his mind about whether church leaders would approve of him — and his profession.
As the couple began personal Bible studies with Cooper — who eventually baptized them — the preacher reassured Ake.
“We sometimes sing the song ‘Just As I Am, Without One Plea,’ and that’s the way we take people, just like you are,” Cooper told him. “If you’re coming to us with tattoos, then that’s fine.”
As for Ake’s tattoo studios, Cooper said he needed to do more Bible study. But the minister said he didn’t foresee a problem as long as Ake conducted his business in a moral fashion.
A few times since his conversion, Ake acknowledged, “I have felt a panging in my heart that maybe I need to explore doing something different for a living. Because it did not make sense to me that this is what a Christian man does all day: tattoos people, body-pierces people, puts studs in their tongues and their lips and their eyes and all that kind of thing.”
He added: “I’ve asked God multiple times: ‘Are you sure? If this is what you want me to do, then please bless it. And if it’s not, please shut the door on it and open a door for something else.’ Because I really am conscious of my covenants with my people, my debt load, my responsibilities for my mortgage and whatnot, I just don’t know what else that I would do.”
NEW CHRISTIAN, NEW LIMITS
Ake’s Christian faith means setting new limits on the specific tattoos and piercings that he’s willing to do, he said.
To tattoo or not to tattoo? Read our sidebar on what the Bible says.
“I try to have some type of meaningful conversation about God with each person that comes in there,” Ake said. “It’s going to be very hard for me — impossible for me — to have a conversation like that if I’m tattooing some type of vulgar thing on them or any kind of really heavy, negative type of sign on them.”
His heart’s desire: to make sure every person who walks in the door knows that “I have God in my heart, that I love them and that God loves them.”