I got my first (and so far only) tattoo about two years ago. It is an abstract line drawing of the solar system, on the inside of my right forearm. Often people are surprised when they first see me with my sleeves rolled up. They say something like “I didn’t know you had a tattoo”, or even “I wouldn’t have thought of you as someone with a tattoo” which, while damaging to my pride, is perhaps not unfair. If anyone should be surprised, it should be my parents, who only saw it for the first time this past July.
When I was younger, my one and only dream was to be an astronaut. This can perhaps be identified as the first step on the road that led me to an engineering degree, for better or worse. Between my physical unfitness and the antidepressants it takes to get me out of bed in the morning, this goal now seems less realistic than it once did. But I have never lost my fascination with space, and my tattoo feels like a representation of that sense of wonder, a reminder that not everything can be stripped away by time.
Inspired by this thought, I talked to a few of my fellow students about what their tattoos mean to them.
“She describes these first two as a tribute to her 14 year old self, who would have jumped at the chance to put art on her body, but couldn’t.”
Chiará Morgan is a postgraduate student working towards an MSc in Human Osteology and Paleopathology. She has six tattoos, all but one on her right arm and shoulder; she’s working towards a full sleeve. She started early, getting her first just three days after her 18th birthday, and her second two days later. She describes these first two as a tribute to her 14 year old self, who would have jumped at the chance to put art on her body, but couldn’t. They were aesthetic choices more than anything else.
“All my tattoos come from a place of mental breakdown. Some people dye their hair, I get tattoos.” Some of the pieces were last-minute decisions, and others come laden with meaning and memory. One is the title of the Killer’s “Be Still”, a song that helped her feel “strong” during periods of severe anxiety. Another is a seashell, specifically one found by her mother. It was the second year of Chiará’s undergrad, and she was struggling with homesickness and loneliness. Her mother said the shell, which she found on the beach, reminded her of Chiará. It was an important moment in their relationship, and a source of comfort while she was living in Dublin for college.
“The more I’ve gotten, the more they’ve become personal to me,” she says. And while the importance of the things each tattoo represents may change or fade over time, she says that each one “represents a time in my life” and serves as a memento of the things she’s experienced and been through.
Sophie Furlong Tighe is a Senior Freshman Drama student. She has several tattoos, but the one she is most eager to talk about is just below her left collarbone, and reads “No Roots” in looping cursive. The handwriting itself belongs to Tracey Emin, a British visual artist. Anyone who’s travelled through London’s St. Pancras station will have seen a neon sign, also in Emin’s distinctive hand, that reads “I want my time with you” and was intended as a rebuke to Brexit.
The tattoo was very much a custom piece, however. Sophie collected images of the individual letters “and the tattoo artist at the Ink Factory basically pasted them together. It took ten minutes.” No Roots is the title of a 2016 song by Alice Merton, and describes how the singer-songwriter lived in 12 different places before the age of 24, something that resonated with Sophie. “[My family] moved about five times before we finally settled, and it was a song that I really liked and a song I listened to a lot when we were moving.”
On the day she got the tattoo, Sophie had intended to get something slightly different done; specifically, the phrase “try me”, also in Emin’s writing. But on the bus that morning, she found herself listening to No Roots: “ I thought that was a better thing to get tattooed on me, and I was right. My parents had hated the idea and were very happy when I got something else.”
“All my tattoos come from a place of mental breakdown. Some people dye their hair, I get tattoos.”
Caitríona O’Brien is pursuing a PhD in Deaf Studies. She has a half-dozen tattoos of all different kinds, accrued over almost seven years. Two of them, her first and her last (thus far), commemorate interests that were central to Caitríona’s life when she was younger. On her thigh she has a pair of dancing shoes, and on the side of her torso, a horse: “When I was younger, I was horse obsessed. I wanted to be an equine vet until I realised I was really squeamish.” The tattoo is based on a drawing one of her roommates did for her and she feels it represents “a really big part” of her childhood. Similarly, until a surgery forced her to give it up in her teenage years, she used to dance competitively at a national level, and she wanted that piece as a reminder of how important it was to her.
In 2017, for the anniversary of the death of a friend, Caitríona got the word “Glamorous” tattooed on her right upper arm, in reference to the Fergie song: “My last memory of her is having this heated argument…over which were the correct lyrics to the Fergie song – because this was before you could just google it.” She says it brings back exclusively positive memories of their friendship, which contrasts with how difficult things were in the first few years after her passing.
“I love them…every single one has marked a big time in my life”, says Caitríona, not just in terms of the things her tattoos represent but the memories of the circumstances under which she got them – from being on Erasmus during her undergrad to getting out of hospital after a period of illness. She has worked with the same artist on all six, and she’s always “amazed with what he comes up with” based on the concepts she provides. When asked if she wants more in the future, she’s emphatic: “Oh yeah…I’d love to get a sleeve, but my mum has thoughts.”
And that’s perhaps the theme that unites all the stories I heard. People get tattoos for all kinds of different reasons, and everyone interviewed was unreservedly positive about the experience. Everyone wants to get more and, as Chiará put it: “when I see them, they make me smile.”