CALGARY—It’s an age-old question.
Which came first: The pastor, or the tattoo artist?
Other than the large black cross behind his left ear and a few prayer candles on the shelf near his tattooing station, one wouldn’t likely peg the smiling, clean-cut Trevor Jameus for a pastor — or a tattoo artist, for that matter.
Jameus works at Ascending Koi, a tattoo shop in a northeast Calgary house painted black and white like a Holstein cow. But on Sundays, the shop becomes a church — a small screen is brought out to display the words to the psalms, and an assortment of mismatched chairs are arranged diagonally across the lobby to face a young man and woman opening the mass in song. Jameus, in his crisp, white clerical collar, preaches to the small but dedicated congregation, many of whom met him through his work as a tattoo artist.
The two professions aren’t so different to Jameus, who loves getting to know people and learning their life stories. It’s one of the reasons he loves tattooing, he explains, and why he doesn’t see himself ever fully giving it up, even as his new career in pastorship begins to take up more and more of his life.
“I really have discovered some different sides of me. I really love tattooing, and so I don’t know that I would ever stop,” he said. “But, yes, my trajectory in life has changed a bit.”
It was an unexpected career twist for Jameus, 38. As a teenager, he felt disconnected from his parents’ religion, where many of his questions about evolution and contradictions in the Bible weren’t being answered. He considered himself an atheist for close to two decades before finding his way back to Christianity.
Fifteen years ago, Jameus was a freelance comic book artist working odd jobs to make ends meet. A colleague presented him with an unexpected offer to work as a tattoo artist at a new salon. Jameus wasn’t a tattoo artist, but the colleague knew someone who was willing to teach him what was necessary to transfer his artistic skills onto the human canvas.
His teacher, a colourful, mysterious figure whose real name Jameus never learned, disappeared after two months, leaving him to learn the rest on his own.
“I was a bit fearless, I think … because I was a good artist, like a good illustrator, I could fake it,” said Jameus.
He even gave himself his first tattoo — Batman, his favourite comic book character — so clients would take him more seriously.
Jameus’ clientele grew, and he found his own studio. But while his tattoo career was doing well, Jameus wasn’t. He was working three jobs and had started to use drugs to cope with his hectic life. Eventually, he decided he needed to find a healthier place to continue his career.
A friend of his was moving to Ascending Koi and the shop opened on June 1, 2011. Jameus went to the shop’s opening party and felt a connection.
“I loved it. Something inside me recognized that I needed to be here,” he said. “It felt like home, I guess.”
But moving to a new shop didn’t fix everything — Jameus was still having trouble juggling his work, and was fighting with his then-girlfriend (now wife). Desperate to find something that would pull him out of the rut he’d found himself in, Jameus tried hypnosis and began studying different religions.
“I knew that … if it was left up to me, I was going to destroy my life.”
On a road trip, Jameus found himself at Via Apostolica, a church in Lethbridge. His brother-in-law was a priest there, and had asked him to design a logo for the church. There, Jameus met Bishop Todd Atkinson, and felt an immediate connection to the man. He was struck by his calm and authenticity.
The bishop asked if he could pray for him, and as Jameus listened to his words, it seemed Atkinson was addressing all the difficulties he’d been having.
“It wasn’t just a parlour trick,” said Jameus, “it was surgery. It was specific words to specific places in me that brought healing.”
As the road trip continued, Jameus said he felt joy for the first time in years.
Jameus eventually let go of his other jobs and decided to focus only on tattooing. He was no longer turning to hard drugs to get by and he began reading about religion and philosophy, studying the Bible and taking a discipleship course with Via. He wanted to have all the questions he’d asked as a child finally answered.
Eventually, Jameus was asked to lead a young Via congregation in Calgary.
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“I felt the desire to make the church work in Calgary,” said Jameus. His boss, who had been wanting to use the tattoo shop as an event space, offered it up for the congregation. And so Ascending Koi became a church on Sundays, and Jameus began training to be a pastor.
Just as he’d learned by doing when becoming a tattoo artist, Jameus threw himself into the responsibility. In May, he was officially ordained.
And Jameus isn’t the only one at Ascending Koi melding the worlds of religion and tattooing.
His tattoo apprentice, Calan Lovstrom, met Jameus at a church event shortly before the tattoo shop he was working at suddenly closed.
It felt like a sign to Lovstrom, who has been at Ascending Koi for about four months now.
“It’s just great to find some truth in things,” said Lovstrom. “I’ve always been searching and nothing ever made sense and finally things make sense and it’s changed my life a lot.”
Jameus says being Christian is sometimes viewed as antithetical to his work as a tattoo artist, but he says he thinks it actually helps to get outside the “Christian bubble.”
“I think that it’s smart to be working in a culture that looks very different from me … I see how people think differently from me, so that I might learn from them,” he said.
For a while, Jameus said he would hide his religion so he didn’t have to explain.
“Being a Christian is a bit funny in our culture right now. There’s a lot of assumption about what I might think about things or what I believe,” he said.
That’s why he got the black cross tattooed behind his left ear, big and bold enough that it can’t be missed.
It was done by a good friend of his, a fellow pastor who had always wanted to apprentice at a tattoo shop.
“I told him to come out for a week, and his final project for that week was to tattoo behind my ear and give me a cross,” said Jameus, who returned the favour and tattooed the same cross on his friend.
Jameus said the tattoo serves as a statement about his beliefs.
“Part of why I did it was to take that option away from myself and just say like, this is what I love. I’m going to make it so obvious that I could never hide it.”