In an act totally out of character, I recently asked 15 women to share the stories behind their tattoos. Having over a dozen visible tattoos myself, one would think I was begging for people to ask me what each tattoo means to me. TBH, it's one of the more annoying questions I'm asked, falling second only to when I'm tending bar and someone asks "Can you charge my phone?" I have some great stories behind my tattoos, but they are way too long or personal for smalltalk. Many inked up ladies agree that answering the question, especially when asked by strangers, especially when said with a tone of judgement, makes them sigh inwardly.
However, there's no doubt that these stories are important to the women whose bodies are home to the artwork and, in the right setting, we're happy to share. Especially since there's still a lingering stigma about women with tattoos — strangers still feel the need to warn us about how "terrible" our ink will look when we're old, as if we aren't aware of the changes to come for our bodies — we're eager to abolish. So, instead of walking up to random tatted up beauties to inquire about their own stories, I went the formal email route and asked women to tell me their favorite or least favorite stories behind their tattoos. From meaningful, sentimental tattoos to hilarious, spur-of-the-moment adventures, these stories will actually make you want to ask people even more about their tattoos — just maybe ask when they aren't about to get off the subway and maybe be prepared for a curt, polite answer.
1. Cait Webb
"I have always loved tattoos and the art of tattooing. Always an artist, I am now into creating hand poked tattoos otherwise known as machine free tattoos. It is absolutely amazing to be able to express myself through two passions. Tattoos have always been a way to remind myself of the past, a way to look forward to the future and ultimately a way to express myself. I have tattoos to hide areas of my body and tattoos to showcase other areas. Tattoos are stories, they are a visual history. I hate when people talk down about tattoos or make snotty comments about when I am 70 and my tattoos will look like crap. I am sure I will look like crap at 70 and it doesn't matter if they do too. I think slowly the stigma around tattoos is lessening and more and more people are finding a way to express themselves through tattoos."
2. Kiwi Laundry
"I think [my] best tattoo story is the most meaningful one: A quote on my ribs that reads 'love is born of poverty and resource.' The quote is from The Symposium by Plato where Diotima tells Socrates the story of the birth of the God of love. Zeus held a party on mount Olympus and the goddess of poverty was excluded. She hung outside of the gates until the god of resource stumbled out drunk and she slept with him, [becoming] pregnant with love. This reminds me of my mom who raised three kids by herself while earning three degrees by herself [while giving] me every opportunity [from] private school to designer clothes."
3. Kim Plane
"When I was 17 and living in southern New Hampshire, I got a tattoo of a mess of various sized stars on the upper third of my back. It was large and very tacky. Fast forward six or seven years, I'm living in Portland, Oregon and am deeply regretting this memento of my questionable teenage taste. I got together with a dear friend who also happens to be a very talented tattoo artist and we planned out my back piece while eating pizza and watching Rosemary's Baby. It had to be crazy intricate to fully obscure the thick black stars on my shoulders. He started on it about six years ago and it still isn't finished. Although [I love my tattoo], if I could travel back in time and have a chat with 17 year old Kim I would urge her not to get one in the first place. All of this is to say that I feel exactly how my parents told me I would feel when I told them I was getting one. Turns out they actually knew some stuff."
4. Dominica Hutson-Montoya (Tattoo By Anderson Luna, Saved)
All of my tattoos are strongly representative of the ideals and people closest to my heart as well as the time of my life in which I got them. My biggest piece is the beginnings of a half sleeve on my left arm depicting the portrait of a busty female sailor, a snake, and a banner that reads "Fearfully and Wonderfully Made." I started the tattoo shortly after graduating college and getting out of a pretty terrible three-year relationship. It's about being a strong and independent woman grounded in faith and family, liberating myself from all the crap I'd let knock my spirits in the past. Over the last few years, [my tattoo has been] an incredible reminder of strength, a work of art I'm proud to have on my body forever."
5. Jathina Campos (Tattoo By Brittany T. Genius)
"On a random Saturday, [a friend] and I decided to get matching bar spoon tattoos to show our love and involvement in the bartending world. Despite common frustrations working in the service industry, bar life calls to certain people who need to invent and create. After a long week of yelling at unruly costumers and venting to our fellow co-workers, we were ready to get our matching spoons. After a long haul to Williamsburg, 45 minutes of yakking to our favorite tattoo artist in the chair, we had matching bar spoons and an experience we would remember forever."
6. Annapurna Rogers (Tattoo By George Long Of True Love Tattoo In Seattle)
"A printed copy of a drawing inspired my tattoo, [the drawing] has been in my possession for around 10 years. After [my separation from my husband], I found it [tucked] away amongst some old cards and letters. It's by the German artist, Sulamith Wulfing, who produced most of her work in the 1930s and '40s. As a child, my mother owned a book of the artists work, I adored this book. Her images were melancholy, ethereal, and beautiful, and this one in particular [has] always stuck with me. I know the artist and her numerous other works well, but recent internet searches haven't resulted in finding out the title and year it was created. I suspect I'll need another two sessions before I deem her complete, there is quite a bit of the white detailing and flowers done and now I want to add more color and finish shading the rest of the figure. [Maybe] the nameless figure will [have a name] by the time she is finished."
7. Kara McGrath
"Out of all my tattoos, my balloon is the one people most often assume is just pretty and doesn't mean anything. 'Have you ever even been in a hot air balloon?' they'll ask. My dad's been flying them since he was about 20, and helping him set up for a flight was a pretty defining part of my childhood. Big, rainbow hot air balloons tend to gather crowds, and watching my dad make a big group of strangers laugh while simultaneously spewing out actual facts about his hobby was amazing to my young, anxiously shy self. This tattoo reminds me of how much fun those days were, plus makes for a great conversation starter, which makes social situations feel less awkward — just like good ole pops."
8. Jordan Hughes (Tattoo By Chuck Donoghue, Greenpoint Tattoo Co.)
"I got this tattoo pretty much on a whim. In the course of a month, I found out my (now) ex boyfriend had been cheating on me, I'd lost nearly all of my savings, I was struggling professionally, and feeling like I didn't have any control over my life. I needed to remind myself that I did. I wrote down "It is well" and in about two hours, it was tattooed in my handwriting on my inner arm. The line is from the hymn 'It Is Well With My Soul," which Horatio Spafford wrote while he was going to meet his wife, as he was crossing the very spot where his four daughters drowned shortly before his trip. It reminds me that even when things are at their worst, I can still trust that they'll get better and that there's a future beyond it."
9. Elisabeth Waltz (Tattoo By Kevin Leary)
"In early 2011, [I found myself] in stage 4 renal failure due to lupus. After three months of chemotherapy, steroid infusions, and extreme lifestyle changes (quitting my job, abandoning academic pursuits, moving back in with my parents), my life was saved and my physical condition had improved greatly. My 30-pill-per-day regimen seemed to be keeping my immune system at bay, but I became a shell of my former self — or, more accurately, a shard of a broken shell of my former self. A year after my last chemo infusion, I was at a bar with some friends discussing how annoying it is when people ask us what our tattoos mean; I made a joke about getting a tattoo of a wolf carrying my limp, possibly bloody body around in its mouth. The word 'lupus' means 'wolf' in Latin. I found sheer awkwardness of [my own] battle with the disease would teach random voyeuristic types to keep their questions to themselves. A week later, I had a huge joke tattooed on the inside of my right arm. It was, for lack of a better word, strange, to look down and see something so representative of how it felt to inhabit my own life — and I don’t think my mother has ever really forgiven me for coming home with a tattoo of a wolf with my own head in its jaws."
10. Laurel Adams
"My 30something random AF tattoos all have one thing in common: They spent less than 24 hours in incubation. This one nearly hit that disenchanting hour where any thoughts of reason were overruled by an alcohol fueled gumption to walk into a tattoo parlor at 9 PM for a seven hour session wherein a stranger will stab me over and over with a needle until my bicep is halfway covered in black ink... for the rest of my life. My friends still think I drew this picture — even some of the friends who were at the bar when I found it on Pinterest. Go figure."
11. Tracey Jackson (Tattoo By Greg McDonald, Granite State Tattoo)
"In the spur of the moment, my sister and I decided to get matching tattoos. For once, we immediately agreed on something: Our father had introduced us to one of our favorite movies growing up, Breakin 2: Electric Boogaloo. Over 2 decades later, we still know all the words to the film and the soundtrack, so we agreed that I would get Electrorock and she would get Radiotron tattooed on the outside of our hand. The best part of the story, is that my sister went first and when it was my turn, I chickened out and got my tattoo on the outside of my arm [instead]. Now, my sister's most visible tattoo is a movie that no one's ever seen and a reminder of years of sisterly pranks. We wanted something fun, something that reminded us of our childhood, when life was easy and all our problems could be solved through a break dance battle."
12. Kristin Collins Jackson (Tattoo By Chuck Donoghue, Greenpoint Tattoo Co.)
"Like all my tattoos, I got the sign to ward off evil on the inside of my wrist simply because I wanted it. Of course, unlike the others, I didn't know I ever wanted it and to be completely honest, I wish I never had to get it. When my good friend was battling bone cancer, she rose to the occasion of life. She traveled, threw herself into her paintings, and got a bunch of tattoos. I hated watching her struggle, but the fight in her ignited a fire in all of us to take charge of our own destiny. When she passed away, I lost one of my best friends and part of myself. This symbol to ward off evil was performed by a dear friend of Melissa's, who tattooed the same tattoo on her, her parents, and many of our friends. I look at it and I feel her presence, every time I am being too hard on myself, the sign represents all the times Melissa talked me out of a dark emotional hole."
13. Kourtney Brown (Tattoo By Gwen Moore)
"My favorite [tattoo] is a rendering of the Chrysler Building. [My father] and I shared a love of architecture. Many an afternoon as a hapless intern in NY was spent calling my Dad and asking him for directions. It was a huge deal for him to know I was maneuvering around the city — his city — safely, independently, and with actual knowledge of where I was going. His response was almost rote by the end of my first summer: "Where are you trying to go/ where are you right now/ how are you going to get anywhere if you don't even know where you at? Look up, what do you see?" Leaving fashion magazines in Manhattan, [I was usually] looking up at the spires of the building that ended up on my arm. When the goings on the ground become too much to bear, it's a similar technique I often use to talk myself down from a panic attack. [Today], calling my Dad on the phone and asking for help is out of the question. look up, not at street signs, but beyond them to get my bearings and figure out my next direction."
14. AJ Johnson
"[I got a] horse head logo I designed for my family's racing stable. [This was actually] supposed to be a darker red/maroon, but ended up being pretty bright on my skin — burgundy and gold are [my family's] stable/racing colors. My grandfather, uncle, father, and cousin all having a variation of the same pattern in their racing colors. I grew up around horses and both of my parents are hugely involved in harness racing and I wanted something to represent that."
15. Sara Maria Salamone (Tattoo By Daniel Albrigo, Port City Tattoo)
"One of the favorite tattoos that I wear is a work by the talented, Daniel Albrigo. Daniel and I started working on this piece in 2008 in Brooklyn, NY and finally finished the work in 2015. It's a somewhat rare design by him, as Daniel is well known for black and grey (though he is a secret master at bold color). Daniel and I started this sleeve with a likeness of my cat, Brody, then filled the rest out with bright peony flowers, carousel horses, clouds and fireflies. Daniel has recently moved home to California and can be found at Port City Tattoo in Long Beach."
Image: Courtesy Kristin Collins Jackson (2), Sara Salamone (2), Kiwi Laundry (1) A.J Johnson (1), Brittany T. Genius (1), Cate Webb (1) Dominica Montoya (1), Elisabeth Waltz (1), Laurel Adams (1), Annapurna Rogers (1), Kourtney Brown (1), Jordan Rubin (1), Kara McGrath (1)