The Meanings Behind Tattoos

Photo by Kyle Crawford

Senior Haley Hamby waited patiently, excited, as the tattoo artist permanently etched two arrows on the side of her rib cage. One had a longer arrow head; that one represented her father. The other, with a more petite arrow head, was for her sister.

Hamby lost both her father and sister last year within mere months of each other. To commemorate her loved ones, she decided to get the tattoos.

“They were such prominent figures in my life; I feel like I almost owed it to them. The commitment is scary, but the fact that I had such a deep meaning behind it and it just meant a lot to me, it didn’t scare me,” she said. “A piece of them is always with me.”

According to Michelle Yager-French, co-owner of Carmel Tattoo INK, the small business has tattooed customers from the ages of 13 to 90, each of whom have had reasons for their body art, ranging from medical alert tattoos, to celebratory ones, to tattoos commemorating the loss of loved ones much like Hamby’s.

Yager-French said, “(Most) people have a story to go with their tattoo. I feel like people feel like they have to have a story or need to get a tattoo sometimes. And you know what, there is every reason in the world to get a tattoo. There are so many reasons people get tattoos, it’s crazy.”

Co-owner and artist Adam French said oftentimes the tattoo designs customers pick are symbolic of their stories and experiences.

French said an interesting aspect of his job is that many people come in with their stories and feel free to open up their hearts and minds.

“We meet a lot of different people. I feel like I get satisfaction out of knowing that I do something so meaningful for people,” he said.

“The commitment is scary, but the fact that I had such a deep meaning behind it and it just meant a lot to me, it didn’t scare me. A piece of them is always with me.”

Senior Haley Hamby

For Hamby, the symbol of the arrows wasn’t just representing her father and sister. It had a deeper meaning: that one must shoot forward when pulled back in life.

“Pain is inevitable. Everybody goes through pain. Not the same kind of pain, but everyone relates to the feeling of pain. You’ve had your pains, and I’ve had my pains, and it might not be the same pain, but it’s still pain. That’s where the first tattoo comes in. Life does not stop, for anyone or anything. You have no choice but to move on and keep going,” she said.

Both French and Yager-French said they enjoy being part of such a big step in each customer’s life and find it rewarding.

“(A tattoo is) permanent, and it becomes part of (the person’s) life, and a lot of people say to us, ‘This tattoo is for me; it’s not for anyone else.’ So I feel like we provide peace of mind to people, motivation, whatever the case may be. So if we improve their life in that little minor way, it’s fine with me. It’s cool.”

Physics teacher Jeremy Stacy got the last of his three tattoos seven years ago. He got his first one, a Catholic rosary, when he was 18 years old.

“That was the craze in the ’90s. Tattoos were getting pretty hot. Earrings were on the way out and long hair was out,” Stacy said.

His next tattoo was a cross, which he got after college. However, it is the final one that is the most important to him. It is of his daughter’s handprint and his son’s footprint, the pictures taken directly from the hospital’s record prints.

“When you have kids, they are the most important thing in your life. (The prints) were just so my kids were always with me,” he said. “The other two (tattoos) were young and dumb mistakes. Can’t change it.”

French said people of all ages do sometimes make errors in tattoo selection, primarily because of misinformation on websites like Pinterest where certain designs are photoshopped and not realistically possible.

 Graphic by Stephanie Zhang

Yager-French said to make sure customers, especially younger ones, don’t regret their decisions later on, the artists and owners often discuss the design and placement of the tattoo with them.

She said, “(When) 16-year-olds come in and want a tattoo, we are going to be much more strict (about) where we’ll allow them to put the tattoo versus someone that comes in in their 50s.”

With regards to how tattoos are viewed in society, Yager-French said she does believe there is a stigma attached to having a tattoo and that it will not change much in the short run.

“But I mean, to each his own. I’m not mad at people who don’t like tattoos. I think your opinion is your opinion. I don’t think you should be bashing people to have tattoos. It’s a form of art,” she said.

Stacy said he thinks that rather than to the tattoo itself, there is a stigma attached to the number and location of tattoos some have.

“I still do think we pigeonhole people when we see somebody with tattoos in places that we don’t view as acceptable—on the necks, on the face, things like that. I think our society tends to pigeonhole those people before we really even know them,” he said.

However, he said he thinks there is some change in the prevalence of tattoos and, consequently, with the way society views them.

(Left) Aldo Rodriguez, tattoo artist for Carmel Tattoo INK, draws a tattoo on a customer’s ankle.

(Right) The work space of a tattoo artist at Carmel Tattoo INK.

Photos by Stephanie Zhang

“I do think that tattoos are starting to become the norm for mothers, fathers, teenagers. They are getting things that they cherish and putting them in what they feel are appropriate places,” Stacy said.

Hamby said although she hasn’t experienced any stereotyping based on her tattoos, because they are not in a visible place, she does feel there is a stigma associated with tattoos in general.

“I feel like in general, people see tattoos, and they are frowned upon, especially from the older generations like our parents, grandparents,” she said. “But not a lot of people take the time to ask, ‘Hey, why’d you get that tattoo? What’s the story behind that?’”

Hamby said she currently plans to get another tattoo in a couple months to symbolize what she personally went through after her family members passed away.

“When my family members died, I didn’t know how to react to that, and I rebelled. A lot. I felt like the world was out to get me, that it wasn’t fair. I just got myself into a bunch of trouble at one point in time,” she said.

“My mom was so disappointed. The death of our family members affected her so much as is, and when I was rebelling, it was even more added stress. I didn’t want to become a stressor in my mom’s life. I realized that I couldn’t keep doing this. So I worked really hard to get myself out of that trouble, made new friends, stayed away from the negatives,” she said.

Hamby said she wants her next tattoo to represent how she turned her life around. She said, at one point, she felt she was going to stray down the wrong path but is very proud that she came back from it.

“My next tattoo, the meaning behind it is that people can change,” Hamby said. “It represents the overcoming of a struggle to become a new person.”

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Laxmi Palde