The stories behind CC ink
Words and photos by Kathleen Hallgren, guest writer
We all remember our first time. Maybe it was a whimsical skull and crossbones we found after digging through a box of Cracker Jacks, a party favor from a friend’s birthday party, or an image of Scooby-Doo we scored out of a cereal box. No matter what it was, or where we found it, we all had at least one temporary tattoo. These little slips of paper with food-dye images provided days of bliss, and an ego boost for whoever applied a tattoo in the finest location with the perfect balance of spit and patience.
The tattoos in this article are a different story. These aren’t food-dye ink that will surrender to a vigorous scrubbing, and they cost a good bit more than a box of Apple Jacks. These are some of the inked bodies of the CC community and their stories.
The mark that tattoos have left on human history is as deep, varied, and indelible as the images they exhibit on our bodies. “Tattoo” comes from the Tahitian word “tatau,” which means, “to mark something.” Upon landing in Tahiti in 1769 and witnessing tattoos for the first time, Captain James Cook used the word “tattow.” In 1991, the “Iceman,” carbon-dated to be around 5,200 years old, was found along the Italian-Austrian border. He sports fifty-seven tattoos scattered across his body. According to a study in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the tattoos were created with fireplace soot containing sparkling, colorful, precious stone crystals. Their placement is consistent with evidence of strain-induced degeneration, which suggests the tattoo’s therapeutic function of alleviating joint pain.
Tattoos were also found on three Egyptian women dated to 2,000 BC. The designs of the tattoos resemble a delicate beading along the lower stomach. They are assumed to have functioned as fertility symbols, expanding with pregnancy to resemble a net around the womb. Spanning at least 5,200 years and multiple cultures, evidence of tattoos has been found in ancient remains from all over the world. Today, tattoos are often associated with deviant culture or the military, especially the Navy. King George V of England (1865-1936) got his first tattoo—a blue and red dragon on his arm—while serving as a midshipman in the Royal Navy. Even Winston Churchill’s mother was inked, and proudly sported a snake around her wrist.
A common attempt to dissuade someone from getting a tattoo is an emphasis on the word “Permanent.” Paul Turner, an ink-free CC sophomore, seems to find this aspect of tattoos most daunting. “Actually, it’s really kind of a narcissistic thing to do,” he says, “drawing on yourself, focusing on your body like that. It’s too much of a commitment. It’s like marriage. When I get married and I’m ready for something that permanent maybe I’ll get a ring tattooed on my finger. My thoughts and opinions change way too much for that, though. If I don’t know what I’m going to like tomorrow, how could I know what I’ll like in years?”
Commitment is the perfect term. Sophomore Max Bennett has spent about four and a half hours under the needle since he designed his tattoo a year and a half ago, and he has seven hours to go before it is complete. When asked if it was something he ever regretted, he chuckled and responded with an emphatic “No.”
Senior sociology major Julia Sick expresses similar sentiments: “There’s no reason to regret it. Even if I did regret it for a second, or even wanted to, it’s so permanent that you realize once you have it there’s really no room for regret; it’s done.” Sick proudly wears two fish, one a vivid turquoise and the other bright orange, engaged face-to-face around the symbol for infinity.
Frances Jaquez, a senior history major, defends her five tattoos as “a way of expressing yourself. People will either understand it or misinterpret it just like anything else, but if it means something to you then that’s what matters.” Her tattoos fall in a neat, somewhat cyclical pattern around her back. A Celtic knot of motherhood (Jaquez’s 20-month-old daughter took her first steps in a tattoo parlor) on her left shoulder, and a star and moon on the right, frame an intricate set of angel wings. Below the wings, which symbolize Jaquez’s love for angels, sits a cross with her last name in the center surrounded by symbols for love and protection. This was her first tattoo, made even more meaningful by the fact that her sister designed it. The blue flowers that lithely weave up Jaquez’s left side are her most recent.
Sophomore Erik Rieger has a tattoo on his right shoulder, a colorful display of roses around a skull with a banner that reads “Nave Ir Drosa.” Rieger explains, “It says ‘Death is Certain’ in Latvian, and it’s a constant reminder for me to live passionately. I also grew up listening to punk rock and have an obsession with skulls.”
The tattoo on sophomore Sammi LaBue’s right shoulder is a dedication and a memory. “It’s an image of my dad, who died when I was fifteen. I drew him as a sort of Beatles, Abbey Road image. I like to think he crossed into heaven in that way. I got the tattoo shortly after my eighteenth birthday.”
Tattoos on the Colorado College campus are a particularly interesting sample. “Everyone tries so hard to be such an individual, a CC personality is really driven to be unique, and I think it’s the same way with tattoos,” says Sick. “It’s like, ‘Who has the most original tattoo that really captures something in a way that no one else has thought of?’ Tattoos here are really dramatic.”
This raises the question of the major motivation to get a tattoo. At my public high school of around 1,500 students, eighteenth birthdays marked a freedom that could only be expressed in ink for many students. Tattoos became a sort of machismo rite of passage among many of the boys, and the more menacing, massive, and badass the tattoo, the more respect they were given in the locker room and hallway rush hour. The tattoos generally lacked creativity, ranging from ferocious bulls with steaming nostrils (the school mascot) to names written in intimidating font, but what they lacked in imagination, they made up for in the amount of street cred they provided.
At CC, the same standards of what constitutes a badass do not apply. Sick, whose uniquely tatted shoulder confirms the creativity of CC students, is humble about her ink. “For me, it’s almost like I don’t really care what anyone thinks of my tattoo. I got it for myself and the meaning is something I don’t really tell people very often because that’s just not part of why I got it. I’m usually just like, ‘Oh, it’s a long story,’ or I give them some short answer. I don’t really want people to know what it means.”
Bennett agrees, asserting that he always knew he was going to get a tattoo, and it was simply deciding what the image would be that kept him from getting one sooner. More than a year of thought brought him to the intricate tree design that gracefully sprawls the entirety of his back, framed by the words, “Never say you walk the final road” in Hebrew. Bennett, who designed the tattoo, explained that the images are “based on following one’s heart, one’s insight, and one’s life in general, and going where they take you.” He says that the tattoo, which is not yet colored in, continues to evolve with him.
Separating him from the CC majority that devotes months to years’ worth of consideration to its ink, sophomore Brendan Lang decided to get a tattoo spontaneously. Ironically, he was the only student I spoke to who hadn’t been entirely seduced by the needle. (This seduction is a phenomenon experienced by many people who set out with the intention of getting a single tattoo and become addicted to the rush of the experience, acquiring many more over the years. Jaquez, who got her first tattoo four years ago, had originally planned on only having one. Today, she is planning her sixth. “It hurts for a little, and after a while it goes kind of numb, but it still feels kind of good.”)
Lang got his tattoo, a simple and charming outline of an elephant on his wrist, while he was working in an elephant sanctuary in Thailand. “This was kind of a spur-of-the-moment, once-in-a-lifetime chance,” he says, “so I decided to go for it, but I don’t know if I’d do it again. I’d have to be pulled really extremely in one direction. This was very spontaneous; I was told that day that I could get a tattoo by a woman who had been working at the sanctuary for three years. She had a tattoo parlor back in the States so I talked to her briefly about getting one and I’d heard that her work was awesome. I guess that conversation was what really sparked my interest.”
It is not only students of the CC campus who have such uniquely inspired ink. Anthropology professor and archaeologist Christina Torres-Rouff has three tattoos, the most recent of which took ten hours to complete, including detailed touch-up work.
Torres-Rouff explains that her research on ancient sites focuses on “questions concerning human interaction with their societies and how this manifests in the body, and exploration of the active agency of human groups by investigating the way that the body was used as a social symbol and a marker of identity that was influenced and modified by the world around it.”
When I ask for details about why she became interested in this field, Torres-Rouff says, “My dad was an archaeologist, so since I was little we’ve been going around and seeing all these things . . . I was never so much interested in people’s stuff as I was interested in what people did to themselves.” Her main focus is cranial deformation, through which she raises the fascinating point that “the practice is just quite remarkable because tattooing, piercing, all these other things are representative of adulthood on some level, or at least are personal decisions, your body, your decision. Cranial deformation is a thing of your parents, really an imposition on your body.”
Torres-Rouff got her first tattoo, which she laughingly describes as “cheap and fast,” after graduating from college at age twenty-two. It is a small replication of a pendant found on the sternum of a stela in Tiwanaku, Bolivia, one of the sites where she studied. The final design, which she started thinking of in her first years in college, was actually drawn out by her mother. Torres-Rouff got her second tattoo at twenty-five, shortly after she got married. Her final tattoo, a stunning spread of bright blue flowers that curl over her shoulder, was recently finished and took about a year of work, bracketing the time between her thirty-third and thirty-fourth birthday. “I got this one a while later because I knew it was going to be much more expensive, and I knew I wanted to have it done by the person who had done my second tattoo, which is back in California, so there was a scheduling game in trying to complete it.”
Like Rieger, Torres-Rouff attributes some of her interest in tattoos to the cultural climate in which she was raised. “I think that with the grunge era of the nineties, the whole tattoo scene became much more exciting” she says. “So then you have people like me, who grew up in the ’90s, becoming adults and representing it within white-collar work and upper middle class work. I think then for your generation, you never started with it as sailors and prostitutes; you have a much broader view and understanding of tattoos.”
The truth of Torres-Rouff’s statement is clearly embodied in the unanimous response of everyone to whom I posed the question of whether or not it was reasonable to ask for tattoos to be concealed in a professional environment. All were in agreement that if the tattoo could be deemed “offensive,” then a company is acting within reason in asking an employee to hide their ink. However, if the tattoo is a neutral expression of creativity which no one could take offense to, there is no sense in demanding that it be veiled.
Torres-Rouff expresses this opinion as well. “I don’t think it’s reasonable to ask that tattoos be concealed in professional environments, but I have chosen a career path in which that’s really not a question that I have to face. I think, in particular, that rules in places like Blockbuster, where not even a tiny nose piercing is allowed, are just preposterous. I mean, I don’t really care who I rent my video from.” When asked if she was ever put in a situation in which she felt that covering her tattoos was necessary, she replied, “I don’t usually, but going to religious ceremonies with my husband’s family, I have felt like that’s kind of a line for me in terms of exposing tattoos. They’re Jewish, and his father, who is more religious, will not speak to me about it. His mother finds it almost shockingly intriguing. She will perpetually come to talk to me about it, she’s just mortified by the element of pain and that sort of thing.”
Tattoos have taken on various social roles; they have been identification markers for the wealthy, for those who reached a higher plane of wisdom and consciousness, for prisoners and petty criminals, for sailors, and for prostitutes. They have been interpreted as vessels of healing, protection, decoration, and self expression. After suffering a thirty-six-year ban in New York City (from 1961-1997) due to a Hepatitis B scare, more than 2,000 tattoo parlors are currently operating in that city alone. In a show of parlor resilience, Boston’s Christian Science Monitor recently published a story entitled, “Tattoos remain a must-have accessory, even in recession.” Tattoo parlors are seeing steady profits, as consumers shift spending toward purchases that are more meaningful. This is reflected again in a mantra, which Jaquez shared with me, that hangs in tattoo parlors across the country: “The tattoo is the mark of the soul. It can act as a window through which we can see, or it can be a shield to protect us from those who cannot see past the surface.”
While opinions about tattoos range from extreme zeal to fury, one thing is for sure: the flexible nature of tattoos is evolving just as fast the culture that surrounds them, and they’re not going anywhere. And for those who aren’t quite convinced that hours under the needle is their scene, temporary tattoos are not just for kids! ∼