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Looking at Stories Inked on Skin

human interest


Boston University


Looking at Stories Inked on Skin

Meet the tattooed undergraduates of Boston University

Barbara Kang


Tattooing has become a large part of American culture, right up there with football and golden retrievers. According to a 2008 Pew Research Center poll, more than 36% of Millennial Americans, in the 18-25 age bracket, has a tattoo. Tattoos are even more prevalent among the preceding generation of Gen Xers — 40% of them have a tattoo. Numerous undergraduates of Boston University explore rising tattoo culture as a form of self expression and as a time capsule of identity.

“So I have 6 tattoos, I think? The first I got was ‘I love you’ in my dad’s handwriting on my left collarbone. I got this memorial tattoo as soon as soon as I turned eighteen. The tattoo I’m probably most recognized for is my half sleeve, whether I'm walking down Commonwealth Avenue, at any party, and just daily. It’s two geometric mandalas surrounding some dot-work roses. It’s a pretty large and intricate piece. I can’t imagine myself without it anymore. I don’t believe that all tattoos need meaning. All of mine have some sort of meaning because you can connect to many things in life or at least make something up if people push it. People are so obsessed with tattoos having to mean something, but honestly, there isn’t much meaning behind ‘$ballin$’ on my inner lip. Definitely, my most random tattoo, but I don’t regret it one bit. I’ve gotten tattoos in Southern California, Las Vegas, New York, and in Boston. My other tattoos include: a wildflower on the top of my foot, four lines below my half sleeve, and ‘the cosmos is within us. We are a way for the universe to know itself’ in Arabic down my spine. All my tattoos have memories attached to them. I can’t regret bringing more art to life. I definitely plan to get more, and I have a few ideas I’m working on to get within the next year.”
-Kylie Jordan, Sophomore

“I wanted something that would always be special to me. My mom and I have this quote that we really love—‘The bird relies not in the strength of the branch it sits on, but rather in the strength of its own wings.’ My dad was a mechanical engineer and had a passion for all things mathematical, so after telling that to my friend, Maddie Durso, she came up with this design. I fell in love with it. I went to the tattoo shop, Fat Ram's Pumpkin Tattoo, in Jamaica Plain and had an artist do the work after being referred by a friend. The tattoo is on the underside of my right forearm and is about four-by-two. I haven't had any regrets yet. I only got it 4 days ago. However basing it off of my parents and having it designed by one of my best friends, I can't foresee myself ever regretting it. I don't have any current plans to get more in the near future, however I could absolutely see myself getting more done on my arm in the next year.”
-Jake Athoe, Senior

“I currently have six tattoos, and I'm getting a half sleeve in January. I have three on my ribs, one on my bicep, one on my chest, and one on my back. I got my tattoos at Stingray Tattoo in Boston and Troubled Soul in my hometown of Newport, Rhode Island. I don't regret any of my tattoos because I always ask myself whether or not they'd still hold meaning for me when I'm 80—even when they’ll look like shit. My most meaningful tattoo is my ‘Boston Strong.’ It's probably my most visually boring inkwork, but it represents a few things for me—my parents' marriage, especially. Over 30 years ago, my dad was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor. On the eve of his surgery, he was watching the Boston Marathon live on TV and made a promise to himself, ‘As long as this procedure goes well, I'm going to run the Marathon next year.’ The surgery went well, and he stuck to his word. He fell in love with running. Before my parents married, my now-uncle of my mother’s side was the best runner in the country, East Germany. He was one of the few from the Communist-controlled country that was allowed to leave. A few years after that, the Berlin Wall came down and my uncle brought my mother to America. Long story short, my dad hosted him so that he could run the New York and Boston Marathons. They became best friends, and my parents met. It was love at first sight. For me, this tattoo represents a phrase that many of us live by—everything happens for a reason. My dad to this day says that his brain tumor was the best thing that ever happened to him. He's the definition of ‘Boston Strong.’ The tattoo also represents the tragic day and ultimately, the display of unity by the city of Boston. I was at the finish line across the street from the bomb—only 20 minutes before they went off. My dad ran the Marathon that year, his 25th consecutive, with a broken foot, so naturally his time was slower than usual. He easily could've been one of the victims. My tattoo honors my family's story and those affected by that horrible day. My favorite is probably my Golden Eagle, which is the bird of Germany. I'm a German citizen, so it represents my German heritage. The bird is made up of musical notes because I write music and plan on doing so the rest of my life. Placement of the tattoo is key here too. It's on my chest, near my heart. Not over it, so that if music doesn't work out for me—it's a reminder that it isn't all that I have to offer. The musical notes on the wing are the beginning of 'Sweet Caroline,' which is a homage to my beloved Boston Red Sox.”
-Kai Nanfelt, Sophomore

“I have a little trio of flowers on the side of my arm close to my wrist. I drew the flowers over the winter of second semester last year. I was sort of going through a lot at the time and wasn’t at my happiest. That’s also when I’m at my most creative. I drew the flowers in the center of this little diary style entry of mine that I really loved. Looking at the flowers reminds me of that time period and that piece of writing. Time and losing memories are somethings that scare me a lot, so there was something relieving and immortalizing about getting those flowers tattooed on my wrist. I came back to New York for the summer and emailed an artist at Brooklyn Tattoo an image of my drawing. I had one of my favorite days ever with my best friend the day I got my tattoo, so I feel like the tattoo also holds my memory of that really wonderful afternoon. Until I go through some kind of phase or period in my life that I really would like to remember with a drawing of mine that I love, this might be my only one for some time.”
-Elsa Herri, Sophomore

“I have two small tattoos—one on my hip and one on the inside of my ankle, both pretty hidden spots. I got my first one during my senior year of high school. My mom and I had both wanted tattoos and decided that after I turned 18, we would go get one together. Neither of us really come off as tattoo people, but we thought why not? So, in November, my mom, my aunt, and I had a girl’s day in Brooklyn and went to get tattoos. I chose to get a small Triskelion on my hip, which is basically the Celtic version of the symbol of Sicily, Italy. It is a triple spiral that is popular in Celtic art, and for me, it also represents the 3 points of Sicily. I am half Italian and half Irish so I wanted to get a tattoo that combined both and reminded me of both my families. My second tattoo spontaneously happened last November during my sophomore year. My friend and I had both been talking about each wanting a second tattoo. Luckily, our classes for the day had been cancelled. We took it as a sign. We went to the tattoo shop across campus. I got a very small 5 on my ankle for many reasons. It is my lucky number. Joe DiMaggio, who was number five on the Yankees, is my Grandpa’s favorite baseball player. We are a big Yankees family. So, my dad always wore the number five when he played baseball. This led me to always wear number five. You could say the lucky number has been passed down. In my mind, a tattoo is not only about the meaning behind the image, but also the people you get it with, and the fun day you had.”
-Maddie Durso, Junior

“My favorite tattoo is definitely the one on my ribs that says, ‘Not all those who wander are lost.’ Yes, it’s a Lord of the Rings quote. I got it when I was in Amsterdam with my mom. I got that quote in particular because I am a wanderer. I love to travel and not quite know exactly where I am all the time. It’s liberating. Just because I’m wandering doesn’t mean I’m lost, aimlessly looking for a purpose. I wander because the most beautiful things are found on accident.”
-Nicole Casimano, Sophomore

“My tattoo is on my right hipbone, and it says ‘always’ with a crescent moon in the handwriting of my grandmother. She died of uterine cancer in August 2011, two weeks after I got back from overnight camp. When we were cleaning out her belongings, we found a letter she had written me at camp earlier in the summer. The letter got returned, and she never had a chance to resend it. The last line of the letter said, ‘I love you to the moon and back, always, always, always.’ A few months after I turned 18, I got it tattooed exactly as she had written it in Boston. But, I knew immediately when I was 12 that I wanted her words permanently. My parents were not thrilled about it, and it hurt like hell. But, I don't have any regrets. I was very close with her and she was and still is an extremely important part of my life. I don't think I would get a second one because I don't think anything else in my life would ever hold this much importance. I still can't believe I went through with it. Every time I look at it, I love it more, and I am so happy I did it.”
-Rachel Silberman, Sophomore