Tattoo artist Bobby Love had no clue he would some day become a Benedictine monk and an iconographer.
“‘Who’s this monk that has the tattoos? What’s his story?’ people ask,” Benedictine Father Odo Recker, Mount Angel Abbey’s vocations director, remarked.
Love made his final profession as a Benedictine monk at Mount Angel Abbey in Saint Benedict, Ore., last September, after five years of monastic formation.
He’s now Brother André Love, named after St. André Bessette. “Hey, I’m just one of the monks here, nothing special,” he says in frustration over being singled out for something skin deep. Riding his BMW motorcycle, the leather-clad Love cut a novel figure in a community of clean-cut monks and seminarians with his pierced ears, dreadlocks and tattoos.
“He was well on his way by the time he came here. His application to the monastery simply authenticated his desire for God and his ability to enter and live in a monastic context,” Father Recker said.
Today, he’s as clean-cut as everybody else at the monastery, save for the tattoos that had to stay, mainly for practical reasons.
“Needless to stay, it’s extremely painful and expensive to remove them,” said Father Recker.
“It has also been decided that the tattoos should stay because they’re a part of who I am,” Brother André added.
Born into an affluent Catholic family with two older and two younger sisters, Brother André grew up in Texas and Mississippi. He dropped out of school and the Church in the 11th grade. He had the desire to attend art school, but without his father’s support: “My father was very numbers-oriented. His idea of success and mine didn’t match.” His mother, however, was the artsy kind, who painted seasonal art on their home’s doors and windows and painted T-shirts with her children.
Love joined the army at age 17 and served for five years during Desert Storm. While in the army, he got into the habit of getting a tattoo, preferably something off-putting, with every paycheck: “I felt angry and isolated. I just wanted to be left alone,” he recalled.
Art and the Church
Then, instead of attending art school, Love opted to become a self-taught artist, painting a wide variety of subjects in mixed media.
Although he tried to avoid the mainstream 9-to-5 job market, Brother André had a brief stint as display art director at Tower Records in New York City before working his way into a lucrative career as a tattoo artist in the East Village, earning as much as $100 an hour.
Moving every few years, from New York City to New Orleans and from Seattle to Austin, Texas, doing tattoo art, the young man felt “alone and adrift,” even though he had no lack of good friends and material comfort.
He eventually tired of doing whatever “the kids wanted to shell out the coin for” and began to feel uneasy about doing off-putting tattoos. Love soon quit tattooing for good.
He first became acquainted with Mount Angel Abbey after a client asked him to do a chest tattoo of a cross he had seen at the abbey’s church: a Jerusalem cross embroidered on the cloth covering the tabernacle.
Founded in 1882, Mount Angel Abbey is a Benedictine community dedicated to a life of prayer, pastoral ministry and hospitality. It also runs the largest seminary on the West Coast.
Love visited the abbey to take a look at the embroidered cross and, while there, learned about an upcoming vocations-discernment retreat.
By then, Love had returned to the Catholic Church after 25 years of absence. Reared Catholic “without a full understanding of what it meant,” he developed “a fear of religion and saw it as more of a hindrance than a help.”
Brother André had hit rock bottom before realizing that he needed to give the Catholic Church a second look. He confessed about getting “into a whole lot of trouble” soon after moving back to Oregon from Texas in 2006: “I lost my truck, my license and my savings.”
In realizing that he was carrying a lot of baggage on his own, Love signed up for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) in 2006 at St. Joseph Church in Salem, Ore: “It was time to stop debating doctrine and to go back to what I knew. Through RCIA, I was able to look at Tradition and lineage and was able to reason and understand as an adult.”
In the spring of 2007, Love received the sacrament of confirmation and reconciliation after years away: “I cried like a baby upon receiving the holy Eucharist. I felt an overwhelming sense of God’s presence in my life.”
Soon after returning to the Church, Love worked at a mom-and-pop sign shop in Newport, Ore., a coastal city where he spent much time pondering his life.
“I had a lot of tantrums on the beach. I knew I didn’t want to be alone anymore and hoped that there might be that special someone for me. I was upset that it wasn’t happening according to schedule,” he said, adding that he had gone through three divorces prior to his conversion.
Then, in the spring of 2009, Love attended the vocations-discernment retreat at Mount Angel Abbey.
“I thought I was brought to the abbey to be introduced to Benedictine spirituality. Entering the monastery wasn’t on my mind,” he recalled.
In February 2010, however, he decided to enter Mount Angel Abbey as a postulant. By this time, he had already incorporated aspects of Benedictine spirituality — lectio divina (prayerful reading of Scripture), the Divine Office, a healthy balance of ora et labora (pray and work) — in his daily life, and he fit right in.
Last September, when now-Brother André made his final vows, he knew he was where he was supposed to be: “There was a great sense of relief after I made my vows, just being able to relax and to try to be the best monk I can be each day.”
“He’s a good monk, very hardworking and very faithful,” Father Recker remarked.
Icons and Peace
Early on in his monastic formation, Brother André began taking icon-writing courses at the Iconographic Arts Institute in Mount Angel, Ore., upon the abbot’s advice. “I basically had to let go of everything I knew about drawing and painting. There’s a self-emptying that’s necessary, which is a great experience as well, because it crosses over into my formation as a monk,” he said.
Today, he’s the abbey’s junior iconographer. He writes icons and paints religious art for the abbey, as well as for churches and individuals.
The icons include the Mother of Perpetual Help and Sts. John the Baptist and Mark. They can be viewed on the Mount Angel Abbey website (MountAngelAbbey.org), along with his religious paintings.
One of Brother André’s instructors, Kathy Sievers, has watched Brother André’s growth as an iconographer over the years: “As an iconographer, you take all your skills and lay them at the service of the Church and the Tradition. It’s a voluntary move to do that. What happens as a result is really quite astounding, as you’ve seen with Brother André.”
As an artist, Brother André draws much inspiration from the Symbolist movement. “The Symbolists tried to paint grace as if it was something tangible and not just something unseen,” he said. He’s also influenced by the French Nabis movement, including Maurice Denis who, as a Catholic painter, felt it “necessary to celebrate all the miracles of Christianity” in his work.
Between praying five times a day with his fellow monks and fulfilling other duties, Brother André manages to devote only 20 minutes a day to painting religious art and writing icons. He’s also the curator of the abbey museum and is tasked to care for the bell tower.
“I just love writing icons. I love everything about it. I’m using the geometry, the colors and techniques that had been established in a canon hundreds of years ago. It takes the ego out,” he said of his new artistic work.
Above all, life at the abbey hilltop for Brother André and his fellow monks revolves around the tolling of the bells for prayer: “It makes it simple to be in the moment. There’s a great peace that comes from that.”
Jo Garcia-Cobb writes from Mount Angel, Oregon.
Photo courtesy of Frank Miller