I don't like being told to get over dead pets.
A few years ago, a wounded and malnourished pit bull crept into my frontyard, his tail and ribs broken and his skin hugging his skeleton as though he'd permanently lost his appetite. My girlfriend at the time, Tina, pursued him, but he disappeared down the road. She hopped in her car, followed him more and eventually stuffed him into her compact convertible, hoping that the dog suddenly wouldn't mistake her for all the meals he'd been missing. Though we'd only been living together for a week, we took him in, named him Boris for his bull-sized head and pampered him as though he were our first-born.
Boris died the day that we signed a mortgage for a house that we purchased, in large part, so that he could have a proper backyard. While playing in our puny side yard with Tina, he darted into the road in pursuit of his mortal enemy, the UPS truck, and lost.
About a year later, I had "Boris," written in the script of the concert poster that inspired his name, inked down the inner length of my upper left arm. Every day, it's a reminder of responsibility and family, trust and second chances, all of which he gave us and we gave him. The 18 months I spent with Boris count as the most formative and influential years I've spent with any pet. I got the tattoo just in case I ever started to forget.
I asked around and found two more people who immortalized pets that taught them similar lessons with tattoos.
Ashley McIntyre's apartment was too quiet.
Three years ago, after graduating from the small Berry College outside of Atlanta and relocating to Durham to take a job, McIntyre was beginning the transplant process of meeting new friends and building a social circle in a new city. A few weeks after the move, though, she decided to mitigate the silence by doing something her parents had never let her do—adopt a dog. She went to the Orange County Animal Shelter and spotted a four-month-old German Shepherd-and-lab mix. She named him Ollie, but in conversation now, she calls him "one of the best things that's ever happened to me."
"When you move someplace not really knowing anyone, you throw yourself off a cliff sometimes. You're making a life somewhere else, but it gets lonely sometimes," says McIntyre, 25. "It's nice to go to work at this new job with all these new people and then realize someone gives a shit if I come home at the end of the day, something that needs you and depends on you for things. They're happy to see you at the end of the day."
For McIntyre, tattoos have long been a way to capture learning experiences so that their lessons don't fade away too soon. As she and Ollie grew attached, she says she learned to appreciate the things she now has in life rather than pining for the future or longing for the past. What better way to honor that, she reckoned, than by having her fifth tattoo picture Ollie while he was still young and energetic? She considered a portrait and a paw print. But after consulting with Durham's Dogstar Tattoo, she decided to trend a bit more abstract with the work. On the back of her left arm, just above her elbow, the image of Ollie uses heavy lines and interconnected geometric shapes to split the difference between a cubist painting and a technical drawing.
"It's sad to think that you're going to outlive your pets. That's the scariest thing to me, but it's inevitable," she says. "Your first dog is really special, so I wanted to remember that and how dogs appreciate things when they have them—well, with this one, mostly food."