By Rachel Wilburn
In August of 2015, I spent a week in the hospital for a traumatic injury and resulting complications. After over a year of outpatient testing and treatment, I finally found the time and emotional bandwidth to process the turmoil and life-changing experiences I’d walked through. One thing really stuck with me: the word “brave.” It was something I had been told to be, something I had struggled to be, and in hindsight, something everyone told me I was even when I didn’t see that in myself. The desire for a tattoo had been stirring in me, and “brave” became poignant enough in my life that I decided to get it tattooed on my arm in my mom’s handwriting — my life word in my greatest example of bravery’s personal script.
Tattoos have shaped American culture and continue to evolve. As stigmas change and the popularity of tattoos increases, I wanted to know what drives people to make a permanent dedication to tattoos as both simple pieces of art and meaningful expressions.
I spent an evening walking around Tuscaloosa and starting conversations with people about their tattoos. I found there’s not one simple, universal script or reasoning behind anyone’s decision to make that commitment. I discovered that some people are artists and look at their bodies as a personal canvas, choosing to use their skin as a creative outlet. Some people started to tear up, telling me stories of lost loved ones and life experiences. Some people didn’t have a reason; some told me they didn’t have time to get into the stories with me. Some regret their choice, and others don’t and probably never will. Tattoos are ultimately one of the most personal decisions, meaningful or not. They keep track of time, love gained, love lost, life lived — some things happen and you feel the need to mark them down.
Toni, 28, got her first tattoo when she was 19 years old. Three small turtles swim down her shoulder, symbolizing family. For her, that was just the beginning.
“After that, when I was younger, I was going through some really hard times, and I got this song tattooed on my tricep. But I didn’t want my parents to know,” she said, blushing. “So I wore sleeved shirts all the time, trying to hide it, and [because of] the rubbing from the fabric, it didn’t heal right, so I got it covered by a rose.” She added that she plans on getting more roses in the future, choosing to continue with the symbolic theme of her tattoos.
“I’m really into hispanic culture, things like Day of the Dead, and astrological signs,” Toni said. “I have the pisces symbol on my foot. I got it for my best friend; his daughter, my son, him, and I are all pisces. When he passed away, I got it in remembrance of him.”
“This one is really special to me,” she said, pointing at a figurine of a smiling jack-o-lantern, two steaming coffee cups, and a banner that reads, “Est. 2015.” “It’s for my boyfriend. We met through coffee; we were both baristas. Our first date was on Halloween and we both just really love it. I got that one for him.”
I left Toni with one line from our conversation echoing in my head: “Sometimes people get tattoos because they’re significant. Sometimes people just get them because they like the way they look.”
Jamey, 33, couldn’t agree more. Jamey is a local hair and makeup artist, a photographer, and a tattoo artist. He has been drawing since he was 5 years old, always focusing on black and white sketching. Jamey dipped his toe into tattooing as an apprentice for a tattoo artist friend for two years.
“I still remember the first tattoo I gave,” he said. “It was a cover up piece for a friend. He had some bad work done, and he just looked at me like, ‘Anything would be an improvement, so have at it!’”
As Jamey continued to tattoo his clients, he discovered he really leans towards a specific style, preferring to focus on artistic form.
“I really like anything filigree,” he said. “I’m not a huge fan of tattoos that look stamped; I lean towards anything organic and flowy like my sleeve. It’s mostly just filigree, but there’s a hidden L for my last name, a skull, and a fleur de lis intertwined.”
From Jamey’s experience, it’s easy to imagine that to him others’ opinions don’t carry much weight. As a creative, Jamey said tattoos are all about expression and beauty- no matter their permanence or meaningfulness.
“When someone tells me they don’t like tattoos or has something negative to say, I just tell them that they’re in the minority,” he explained. “Fifty years ago, only 30 percent of the population had tattoos but now something like 85 percent do. Those opinions don’t hold too much water with me. But to me, there’s a difference in classy, well-thought out tattoos and something you got at the beach over spring break. That’s what matters.”
Jamey’s emphasis on being selective carried through to my conversation with Andrew, a 23-year-old bartender, student, and former member of the Air Force. Andrew’s three tattoos were all intricately designed and particularly placed.
“The owl is a design piece I thought of doing after my times out in Texas,” he said. “Owls represent wisdom in many cultures, and when I was getting it done, I specifically wanted the teal eyes to stand out. My underarm is a verse from the Bible, Isaiah 6:8. I read this verse when I was in the military at a memorial honoring Staff Sgt. Scott D. Sather, a fallen Air Force Combat Controller. It was done at a tattoo convention by a guy whose expertise was in script art. My last one, my calf, is a rattle snake coiled in an offensive position with arrows and an olive branch.”
While Andrew also expressed a personal love for tattoos, he was a lot more adamant about selectivity.
“I think tattoos can be a good way to represent your ideas and beliefs, but I also believe that getting them shouldn’t be a priority, and if they’re not done right, it could leave you feeling bad about your body. Do your research. There are some amazing artists that could be horrible at the type of tattoo you want. Don’t be afraid to ask around.”
Anna overheard my conversation with Andrew and asked if she could chime in. At first glance, you would never guess that Anna bears a small treble clef on her foot.
“I played piano for 11 years and wanted a tattoo when I was 18,” she said. “I pseudo copied Colbie Caillat’s tattoo, but I drew it, so no one else has it. That’s what’s special about it to me.”
But to Anna, tattoos carry more potential interference than benefit. She noted that she considers tattoos best in moderation.
“To me, anything that can interfere with your career is where you should draw the line,” she said. “I specifically got mine somewhere that could be easily hidden. Even a Rainbow flip flop can cover it.”
Alex, 24, was my last person to meet, and she was a striking contrast to Anna. She was bartending at the bar I went to that evening. Her tattoos are impossible to ignore, lining her arms and legs. The striking, horrific beauty of the skull-like woman on her forearm is what caught my attention. I tried to be casual and asked her about her opinion on tattoos.
“Well obviously, I think tattoos are awesome,” she said, laughing. “But you know, there’s so many different reasons why people get them — some to tell a story, some for a remembrance of a loved one, some just because it looks cool. [It was] a little bit of all three for me. I think it’s a way for people to show their personality on their skin.”
Out of curiosity, and frankly confident that at this point she’d be running out of ideas, I asked her what her next tattoo would be if she ever got one.
“Oh, definitely getting a next one,” she yelled over the bar crowd, mixing drinks and smiling. “It will be a Venetian mask on my forearm, which will finish up my sleeve, with the exception of some backgrounding I will need to get done.”
“My mother collected them when I was younger and they are all so beautiful. Literally not one is alike,” she said with a glow in her eyes. “just like people, and I guess tattoos.”
She’s right. No tattoo is the same. Much like the people who bear them, every tattoo represents something unique and beautiful, each with a story to tell behind the ink.
Photos by Rachel Wilburn