November 2013

INK: The Very Personal Reasons Behind the Tattoos

Author: Rebecca Edwards | Photographer: Mark Staff Photography

The first time I considered getting a tattoo was the summer before my freshman year in college. I wanted a sprawling ivy image on my ankle. Rather than a mark of rebellion, it would have been an emblem to signify my entrée into adulthood. I thought of it like a stamp in my passport (because that was when passport stamps were decorative and something to be seen and shared), except on my body. I told my mom, and she surprised me with, “Sure, why not?” Yet, she went on to warn, “But be sure it’s something you want. Draw it on your ankle every day for a few months, and if you still like it afterward, do it.”

It turned out, I didn’t. But the ivy image I had in mind planted a seed. Since then, I have been fascinated by the art of dermal modification and design and curious about the reasons why people “tat it out.” Servicemen do it to be patriotic or to remember a fallen comrade.

College-aged kids do it on spring break, maybe after one too many rounds of beer pong. Love struck people do it to honor their “Old Lady” or “Baby Mama” (or Daddy). Parents do it to honor their children, and conversely, children (age 18 or older) do it to honor their parents (or to piss them off).

The second time I considered getting a tattoo, I was in Asheville, N.C. on a date with my now husband, Lee. Leaving a vegetarian TexMex restaurant, I noticed a neon sign for a tattoo shop and felt compelled to go in. This time, I wanted a monogram in Sanskrit on my wrist. Maybe it was the wine. Maybe it was Asheville’s hip vibe. Maybe it was the fact that I was in my early-20s and thought why the hell not? But I didn’t get it, because it felt too spontaneous. I didn’t want to be “that girl.”

But who is “that girl” (or guy) exactly, and why do I and maybe you have such mixed feelings about tattoos?

Tattoo attitudes
To learn more about the psychology of tattoos, I posted the following question on Facebook: “What do you think about tattoos?” Here are a few of the responses from those who have tattoos:

“I got one that is hidden last year. I was fiercely against them up until then, and got one that is very personal, meaningful and symbolic of my cultural and Western identity. I love it for myself, but never flaunt it or show it to others.”–Anne

“I have four (yep this Mormon has tattoos), and I love two and hate two. The ones I love have very special and significant meaning; the other two don’t mean anything and are dumb. I’m plotting a few more though. Very addictive.” –KB

“I did it as gift to my husband.”–Julie

“I get tattoos because I love decorating my ‘house.’”–Laura Peterson
“When I got mine over 15 years ago, they weren’t a ‘fad.’ I knew I wanted one; I looked at a lot of art, and I wanted to be able to see it but not have it exposed to the public. So this was personal. I still love it, and consider it a part of me.”–BK

And here are responses from some who chose not to do it:
“Here today, gone tomorrow.”–Leisa

“I never got one. Jewish religion is against it and, in general, I do not like the idea of permanently marking on my body. But to each their own; I have no issues with what others put on their body, as long as they can afford it and they do not contract a communicable disease.”—TL

“I wanted a tattoo in college but never got it because my mom kept telling me to wait until I found a design that I could imagine looking good during pregnancy. I never found one.”–Cathy

Tattooing today
I recently visited Incredible Ink on New Orleans Road, and 19-year-old Kiefer Clear was getting a tattoo. “I wanted something to remember my aunt, Marilyn Daly,” he said. Marilyn died 14 years ago and Clear is now of age to legally get a tattoo.

Clear’s experience was very different from what I and maybe you might imagine of a tattoo session. His tattoo artist was Gavan Daly, Marilyn’s son and Clear’s cousin. In tribute to Marilyn, they played one of her old records on an iPod hooked up to a speaker. Her voice was throaty, earthy and forthright like Janis Joplin’s, and the words and rhythm worked well with the staccato buzz of the tattoo needle. There was no blood. Clear did not appear to be in pain. And he and Daly bantered back and forth, telling stories about Marilyn. The room felt full. Not crowded, but full. It was full with something beautifully understated, something rich with intent and thoughtfulness, and something moving and momentous. As Daly skillfully inked Clear’s calf, I knew I was witnessing skin-deep art in the making.

Daly describes tattooing as “enigmatic.” “Tattooing is a super old craft,” he said, “super-taboo, too. Did you know it was basically underground until 2000?” Daly laughed and added, “Now, it is almost impossible to get an apprenticeship, because the market is so saturated and selective. Most of today’s tattoo artists have advanced degrees in design.”

There is a difference between a tattoo parlor and art studio. The equipment and procedures of art studios now resemble those of medical clinics—particularly in areas where tattooing is regulated by government health agencies (such as in South Carolina). Daly said he had “to learn about germs, cross-born contamination, blood-borne pathogens of serious diseases, aftercare protocol, autoclave sterilization and handling of medical equipment, as well as become certified in adult first aid and CPR.”

Twenty-three percent of Americans have a tattoo, according to a Pew Research poll from 2010, and 32 percent of people ages 30 to 45 have at least one tattoo. reports, “Tattooing today is the sixth-fastest-growing retail business in the United States”; and “The single fastest growing demographic group seeking tattoo services is, to the surprise of many, middle-class suburban women.”

The Macy star was actually taken from a tattoo that founder R.H. Macy wore on his forearm. Macy acquired the tattoo in his youth while working on whaling vessels.

Temporary tattoos don’t carry the stigma of permanent ones and are one of the top selling items for children’s birthday goodie bags, Valentine’s Day cards and Easter eggs and are dispensed in gumball machines in supermarkets.

Although most tattoo ink is made using bone char (burnt animal bones) and sometimes the resin of shellac beetles, vegan tattoos are also available.

To tat or not to tat?
The last time I considered a tattoo was today. Watching Clear and Daly, and feeling Marilyn hovering (in a friendly spirit kind of way), I was swept up in the moment and Daly sensed it. “You want one?” he asked. My muse Marilyn was in the background being groovy; I paused, and Daly read me. “Yeah, think about it,” he said. “Or don’t. I’ll be here if you need me.”

To contact Gavan Daly, visit To learn more about Incredible Ink, visit or call (843) 686-INKS.

Let Us Know what You Think ...

commenting closed for this article