We Asked Our Readers for Their Best and Worst Tattoo Stories—And Wow, Did They Deliver | The Tattoo Issue | Indy Week
Pin It

We Asked Our Readers for Their Best and Worst Tattoo Stories—And Wow, Did They Deliver 

click to enlarge Jon Davies
  • Jon Davies

My eggplant stick-and-poke started as a joke. One blistering July, I piled into a car with a few friends to go to the farmers market. The sign displaying vegetables in season simply said "eggplant." We began to joke that we would buy this one eggplant, cook it, and enjoy. Of course, we found more than a single eggplant in the market, and we began to say that we were going to start an eggplant riot. For a few weeks, we kept adding to this joke, and it escalated until a friend put the eggplant tattoo on me.

click to enlarge Jon Davies
  • Jon Davies

My eyeball and tooth stick-and-pokes have a similar origin: sex, or lack thereof. They were randomly chosen because of my mood when I got them. The eyeball was done by someone I was trying to get intimate with, cajoling her into tatting me in her kitchen. It didn't go as planned. Instead, she accused me of faking my Southern heritage. The tooth came a few years later, after I'd fallen out with someone I had been intimate with. I was sitting in my room, alone, a few beers in, when the proverbial light bulb went on in my brain. Within twenty minutes I was hard at work on my leg, simply because I didn't want to think about the fact I was going to sleep alone that night. —Jon Davies

click to enlarge Dale R. Strauss
  • Dale R. Strauss

My tattoos began in 1963 with do-it-yourself initials on my chest. Various ink designs appeared over time, but the most important occupy my entire right arm, which I consider "one" tattoo, birth to death—my family journal. On top, "Wild Horses" by The Rolling Stones was our wedding song. Next is a portrait of my deceased wife of thirty-four years. The leaves on the vine are our nine children's initials—a replica of the tattoo she had on her hip and thigh. Our children got a variation of the ink on the back of my right hand in memory of their mother. I have an additional tattoo on the other side of my arm (not shown) in memory of an infant daughter who passed away. My ink tells the story of a happy, busy life, full of love and great memories, with no regrets. —Dale R. Strauss

click to enlarge Joyce Baird
  • Joyce Baird

On April Fools' Day, 2012, I was standing in my yard talking to neighbors. Then, for some reason, I woke up on the ground. I had been run over by a car I didn't even see coming. Evidently my face shattered the windshield as I was thrown over the roof of the car. I needed to get up ... I hadn't had my coffee yet. But I was told to lie still and not move. How strange. I remember being loaded into an ambulance and my children telling me that they loved me. I remember bits and pieces of the next few weeks. After it was determined that I would survive, my irreverent children started calling me "Dead Mama Walking." Such wonderful and inventive children, too! I had multiple fractures, weeks in the hospital, months of physical therapy, multiple surgeries, loss of my job ... but I digress. I was fortunate enough to have fabulous surgeons and doctors at UNC, supportive friends and relatives, and a steely determination. I came out the other end with a deeper appreciation of life (and limb!). I had always wanted at least one tattoo. My daughter has some very nice art by some famous tattoo artists on her body, and had been harassing me to get a tattoo. I wanted my "art" to be beautiful and have deep meaning to me.

I was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, hence the Georgia peach. Getting run over took me through both fire and flood, and I am now a "Dead Mama Walking." I get some comments on it: "Are you a fan of the Grateful Dead?" "Is that a memorial to your mother?" I sometimes tell my story, but mostly I just answer yes or no. It will always be a badge of survival and determination, reminding me of how lucky I am to be alive and the "journey" (torture) I endured to get to the other side. I am happy, grateful, and joyful to be alive ... I tell myself that every day! —Joyce Baird

click to enlarge Suzanne C. Miller
  • Suzanne C. Miller

My right arm strikes up many conversations. People love butterflies, and I welcome any opportunity to tell those who compliment them why I have them. The one closest to my wrist symbolizes the spiritual trial I went through in my teens, deciding if this life was really worth living when I survived a suicide attempt. The smaller, middle one symbolizes the emotional abuse I suffered in relationships. The largest one, on the top with hands behind it, symbolizes physical traumas ranging from my self-inflicted addictions to injuries that occurred at work, resulting in two surgeries that caused me to have a disease of my nervous system. The hands are so important—they represent that, through all that I've gone through, I have always been, and will never cease to be, in God's hands. He has brought me through all three types of turmoil and never lets me go. For this reason, I love my tats. They have ignited conversations with many who struggle with their own addictions and physical pain. My butterflies open doors and serve as a daily reminder to me of where I've been, where I am, and, more importantly, where I'm going. —Suzanne C. Miller

I was a senior in college after having been the mascot for four straight years. We were about to go to the Southern Conference basketball tournament, before hopefully going on to the NCAA tournament. My hopes weren't great, but we had a pretty phenomenal player, Steph Curry, leading our Davidson College team. I decided I wanted to get a tattoo in honor of my four years of sweat and dedication. I decided on the design and the location (admittedly, the hip wasn't the most masculine place, but whatever.) We were on our last few days of spring break before heading to Charleston for SoCon. So I got a tramp-stamp-y hip tattoo of a cat paw. On spring break. If I were a coed in Cancun, this story couldn't be more cliché.

When the artist was done (his name was Jesus, nice guy), he told me I had to keep it clean and dry, and keep clothes from rubbing against it, for one week. Only problem: the next day I was off to wear a fur costume for four hours a day for five days, dripping in sweat. By some miracle, and with a judicious amount of baby powder, gauze dressing, and petroleum jelly, I was able to preserve my memento. Soon, of course, the world would be introduced to Steph Curry and Davidson Basketball as the team went on a tear through SoCon and the NCAA, narrowly missing out on the Final Four. Aside from Steph's freakish talent, I like to think my tattoo supplied a little good luck to get us there. —David McClay

click to enlarge Gina Turner
  • Gina Turner

Twenty years ago I briefly lived in a small town in western North Carolina and was ready for my first tattoo. I knew what I wanted, so I went to the tattoo shop behind the Harley dealership. This dude Jim was scary! Cigarette hanging out of his mouth the whole time. Spoke his mind freely with as much vulgar language as possible. It was awesome. As I was getting my very cool first tattoo, a girl came in wanting her nipple pierced. He said "bring your titty over here and let me see it." He pulled on it a little and said "OK, hop up here." He told me this would only take a minute and, puffing Marlboros nonstop, proceeded to pierce her nipple as I waited. Then I got my black panther crawling up my lower back, bloody claws and all. Mom wasn't so proud. I went on to get seven more tattoos. Not with Jim, though. (PS, I would love recommendations for a good tattoo artist to reconstruct a black blob on my upper ass.) —Gina Turner

click to enlarge Cat Albanese
  • Cat Albanese

I spent a good part of my life making decisions based on fear—mostly the fear of making others angry. After breaking free of some longtime abusive relationships, in the midst of the immediate healing process, I fell in love with the idea of an empty birdcage tattoo. But the appeal was in a sort of giving-the-finger to those who had hurt me. That wasn't an attitude that needed cultivating in me. Time passed. I grew stronger. I practiced the art of disregarding Fear's opinion while contemplating my choices. Life felt better. Then, one night in Canada, playing a game in a hot tub after a gig, the question came up, "If you could get a tattoo right now, what would it be?"  "Oh! I know this one," I thought. In another country, as a professional musician in a future I hadn't imagined, the good and the tragic intertwined and my perspective changed. The tattoo would be a reminder of my present—a reminder that I don't have to make my decisions like someone caged in fear. My band mate, Ed, suggested Mad Ethel's in Raleigh, and they executed the answer from my hot tub game: "A branch, mostly bare of leaves. On the branch would be a bird cage. The cage would be empty and the open door would be bent and hanging off the hinges, unable to close again." —Cat Albanese

About six years ago, in my hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, I walked into a shop to get a very simple alchemical symbol, about a centimeter in diameter, on my upper arm. Getting it inked was low stakes—or so one would think. But as a twenty-something who was living in New York City and always skating the edge of cool, the perfect position felt seriously important. The tattooist traced the dainty shape and applied it to my arm in preparation for the prick of her needle. I asked her to move the dainty shape. She did, and carefully reviewed it. Then I asked her to move it again. And again. And again. Understandably, the tattooist I was torturing signaled her frustration with loud huffs. "It's a tiny tattoo," she groaned. Anxious from her judgment, I blurted out, "OK, OK. This is it. This works!" Bzzzzzz. Bzzzzzz. After twenty minutes of indecisiveness and ninety seconds of needle-work, I was tattooed. High on adrenaline, I texted my friends a picture of my new adornment. Of course, I got the response every tattooed human loathes: "So, what's it mean?" one friend asked. "Well, it's the alchemical symbol for earth ..." I began to explain. "No. That's air," they replied. One heart-pounding Google search later, sure enough, I'd tattooed the literal and figurative inverse of what I'd planned. Instead of earth, I had air. There are a lot of lessons in this. But one that always comes to mind when I think about that day is, "Don't take yourself so damn seriously." —Danielle Dulken

Julia Tennant
  • Julia Tennant

On October 15, 2009, my dad was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease). He had been succumbing to the effects of the disease for some time, and the visit to the Duke ALS Clinic only confirmed what we had all been thinking. My dad could no longer move most of his body. When he became unable to speak, he would communicate by writing on a whiteboard, which became harder and harder for him to do. I knew that my dad most likely did not have much longer to live, and I decided that I wanted something so that a part of my dad would always be with me. I had him write "My Urch, Love Dad" so that I could turn my dad's unique handwriting into a tattoo. Ever since I was two years old, my dad had called me "Urch" because I loved to play in the dirt, and I would end up looking like a little urchin. On October 17, the day before my dad's birthday, I went to Blue Flame Tattoo. My dad was never a fan of tattoos, but when I showed it to him, I could tell that it made him very happy. —Julia Tennant

Hold fast, bear down, and grit it out. When I was around the age of twenty-two I took my first notable job as a tattoo artist in Portland, Oregon. At the time I was living in Tennessee. I took the job under certain pretenses that, later on, never surfaced. After about six months the shop shut down. I was left with a one-bedroom apartment and three hundred dollars to my name. It was the very first time in my young-adult life that I felt completely helpless and unable to get myself out of a situation. No car, no money, no resources of any kind. Just my wits and grit to get me through it. After several weeks I was able to scrape up enough money by selling almost everything I owned—except my tattoo equipment—to get a plane ticket home. After I got settled in I decided that was very likely the lowest point of my life. I come from a family of sailors and Merchant Marines, and for my entire life I heard the phrase "hold fast." When things get bad, hold fast. When things get worse, hold fast. That's why I decided to get "Hold Fast" on my temples. I am thirty now and I do not regret my decision whatsoever. —Cody Abell of Glenn's Tattoo Service

Jenn Williamson
  • Jenn Williamson

I stood in a tattoo parlor in downtown Raleigh with my best friend. To be honest, "stood" is not an accurate verb. I move around and talk a lot, especially when I'm anxious. I usually have no idea what is pouring out of my mouth, but I generally think I'm hilarious. I hope I average a funny rate of at least 50 percent. I had wanted a tattoo of a unicorn. I thought it would be ironic and, of course, funny. I wanted my life to be rainbows and unicorns. And, for the record, I still do. Then I contemplated a duck. I thought I should brand myself with the reminder that, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and sounds like a duck, then it's a duck! I seem to forget that on a regular basis. Then I thought I should get the phrase "listen to my funny tummy feelings." My son brought home a coloring page from first grade. The page had a butterfly outline on it with the above phrase typed below. Attached was a business card from SafeChild with the same butterfly and the same phrase. I kept the card. This is the exact moment when having your best friend beside you at the tattoo parlor is key to life. She looked at me and said "No!" She said there was no way she was letting me get that phrase tattooed on my body. I looked at my best friend and made the brave choice to reveal the title of a book I wanted to write someday. She looked at me, smiled, and said she loved it. And that's all I needed. The title of my unpublished, unwritten book is By Any Medium Necessary. I can't take credit for the phrase, but when I heard it come out of Pierce Freelon's mouth during his talk at CreativeMornings, I was forever changed. I had been fighting my custody battle for three years, protecting my child by any means necessary. But I had also been doing something else. I had been showering him with unconditional love, and I had been doing it by any medium necessary. —Jenn Williamson

  • INDY readers reveal the depth, diversity, and poignancy of tattoo culture.


Showing 1-1 of 1

Add a comment

Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-1 of 1

Add a comment

INDY Week publishes all kinds of comments, but we don't publish everything.

  • Comments that are not contributing to the conversation will be removed.
  • Comments that include ad hominem attacks will also be removed.
  • Please do not copy and paste the full text of a press release.

Permitted HTML:
  • To create paragraphs in your comment, type <p> at the start of a paragraph and </p> at the end of each paragraph.
  • To create bold text, type <b>bolded text</b> (please note the closing tag, </b>).
  • To create italicized text, type <i>italicized text</i> (please note the closing tag, </i>).
  • Proper web addresses will automatically become links.

Latest in The Tattoo Issue

Twitter Activity

Most Recent Comments

how might facial Scarification imply the similar sense of the Spirit?

by theseatree on The INDY's Tattoo Issue (The Tattoo Issue)


how might facial Scarification imply the similar sense of the Spirit?

by theseatree on The INDY's Tattoo Issue (The Tattoo Issue)

Most Read

No recently-read stories.

Visit the archives…

© 2016 Indy Week • 201 W. Main St., Suite 101, Durham, NC 27701 • phone 919-286-1972 • fax 919-286-4274
RSS Feeds | Powered by Foundation