Owners, artists share experiences, meanings of tattoos

Student models tattoos for photo illustration on the culture of tattoos. With a tattoo under the lower portion of his left arm.

Adam Sodders

Religion, music and friendship have all found a permanent home on students’ skin around campus. Tattoos are an aesthetic form of self-expression with a history dating back more than 5,000 years.

“My tattoos are all pretty adventurous,” said Shiara Crilly, junior in journalism and communication. Her foot, collarbone and bicep all feature a tattoo.  

Thirty-six percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 have at least one tattoo, according to online research institute Statistic Brain. Additionally, the U.S. tattoo industry makes about $1.66 billion a year. 

Other statistics about inked Americans show 45 million people have at least one tattoo, and 17 percent of them say they regret their choice of permanent skin art. 

Crilly said she is happy with her choices of ink and that music played an important role in two of her three tattoos.

“I got my first tattoo the weekend after I turned 18,” she said of the tattoo on top of her right foot.

It reads, “Walk Like Thunder,” the title of the 2011 anti-folk song by singer Kimya Dawson. Crilly got the idea for the tattoo after seeing Dawson sing the song live.

“I was like, ‘Wow, this is an awesome song,’” Crilly said.

Her collarbone tattoo is another musically-inspired piece. The black ink reads, “Patient, Fine, Balanced, Kind,” and refers to lyrics from the 2007 indie-folk song “Skinny Love” by singer Bon Iver.

She said both song-based tattoos have very deep, personal meaning to her.

“Those [song-based tattoos] inspire me every day,” Crilly said. “They remind me that everything will be alright.”

Crilly’s third tattoo depicts a black, old-style bicycle, with the front wheel much larger than the back. It is located on the inside of her left bicep.

“That one’s inspired by the [Albert Einstein] quote, ‘Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving,’” Crilly said. To her, Einstein’s quote means never giving up, no matter how hard life gets.

Erica Henderson, sophomore in global resource systems, is another inked-up ISU student. Like Crilly, Henderson has three tattoos.

“I’m a Christian, so all of my tattoos have a lot of inspiration from my faith,” she said.

The black pine tree design just above Henderson’s left ankle was her first tattoo.

“I got that one in Seattle, where there are a lot of beautiful pine trees,” she said. “[The tattoo] is also inspired by Jeramiah 17:8.”

The Bible verse from the book of Jeramiah uses a tree metaphor while talking about the devotion of Jesus’ disciples.

Henderson also has a black Christian cross on her left ring finger. She said it was her most painful tattoo, and it symbolizes devotion to her religious faith.

“I would give the cross a nine out of 10, pain-wise,” Henderson said. “Luckily, it’s so small, so it only took about 20 minutes to complete.”

Henderson’s most recent tattoo has several parts, all linked to her faith. The tattoo is in black ink and is located on her left wrist. It has many small designs, including three dots — one filled in with black — and two vine branches.

“The three dots represent the Holy Trinity,” Henderson said. The vines are inspired by the Bible verse John 15:5, which compares God to a vine and his followers to the vine’s branches, she said.

Tattoo culture in the United States is different than in other places around the world. Tattoos in India are often seen as taboo or inappropriate. One Indian ISU student decided to ink his skin with many symbols, despite possible misgivings in his home country.

“I had to hide my tattoos for a long time,” said Viraj Muthye, graduate student in ecology, evolution and organismal biology.

The Mumbai native has received tattoos in India and the United States.

Muthye’s six tattoos are all located in one area on his upper back. Symbols of music, religion, friendship and introspection can all be found in a few square inches of his skin.

“I like my tattoos to build on each other,” he said.

Some of his first tattoos include his birthdate, “15/3” (March 15), and astrology-inspired art. His birthdate places him as a Pisces on the Zodiac circle.

“I decided to get the Pisces symbol because it’s important to me,” Muthye said.

The symbol is flanked by two fish tattoos, which also represent Pisces. The words “LUKKHAS UTD” are printed above the astrological symbols.

“Lukkhas is a friend of mine from India,” Muthye said.

The tattoo symbolizes their friendship, and a reference to religion can be found next to the tattoo. 

Muthye’s religious beliefs inspired him to also get a design of the symbol of Ganesha. In Hinduism, Ganesha is the deity of success, which Muthye said he hopes to achieve in his career and life.  

Muthye said music is also a big part of his life. He is a fan of bands like Slayer, Anthrax and Nirvana. The uppermost ink of the group of tattoos reads, “ed Lithium,” a reference to the song “Lithium” by Nirvana.

“I just really love that song,” Muthye said.

His sister provided him with inspiration in both musical taste and interest in tattoos.

“[My sister] got a cool tattoo of a Pink Floyd album cover design,” he said. “She also introduced me to so much of the music I listen to today.”

Differences between tattoo culture in the United States and India are interesting, Muthye said.

“Tattoos aren’t banned in India,” he said. “Conservative values are common at home, and much of the culture is not accepting of tattoos.”

Muthye said he usually hides his tattoos while visiting his home country.

Despite being frowned upon, advantages do exist of getting a tattoo in India instead of the United States, Muthye said.

“I usually put off getting a new tattoo ’till I go to India because it’s super, super cheap there,” he said.

Muthye also said he likes to correlate a new tattoo with a special occasion in his life.

Tattoo artists are tasked with interpreting what a client wants for a tattoo design. They are asked to create a variety of designs and give their artistic influence to tattoo pieces.

“I really like having these interactions with people I never would have otherwise come into contact with,” said Emily Veach, shop manager and tattoo artist at Heroic Ink.

With nine years of experience in the tattooing business, Veach said she sees many different reasons why people get tattoos.

On campus, tattoos can sometimes be seen on passersby. While some peek out from under clothing, others are conspicuously placed. Tattoo owners sometimes choose to keep their permanent art completely hidden from public view.  

“On one end of the spectrum, tattoos are part of the culture now,” Veach said. “Many people get them because it’s popular and trendy.”

On the other end of the spectrum, she said, are people who get deeply personal tattoos, which they often choose not to have in a noticeable place.

Since Heroic Ink is located farther away from campus than other tattoo shops in Ames, Veach said she sees mostly people in their 40s and 50s come in for tattoos.

“We mostly get females, and mostly middle-aged people,” she said. “Our record for oldest first-timer was 87 years old.”

The Asylum Tattoo is another tattoo shop located closer to Iowa State’s campus. Five-year tattooist and resident artist Berry Schnetter gave a few tips to aspiring tattoo owners.

“Make sure the artist is capable of what you want for a tattoo,” Schnetter said. “Not all artists are created equal.”

Schnetter said the clients at Asylum tend to be in their 20s. He said this younger crowd is a result of being near campus. 

Other tips Schnetter gave included researching and preparing properly when the time comes to get inked.

“It shouldn’t be a rush to get a tattoo,” Schnetter said. “Get good sleep, stay hydrated and well-fed and bring a conversation partner with you to get your tattoo.”

He said bringing a friend may help distract the client from the discomfort of the tattooing.

Crilly, Muthye and Henderson all mentioned the pain from a tiny needle making thousands of pricks in the skin, injecting ink.

“The one inside my bicep hurt the worst,” Crilly said. She described it as being between an irritating, scratchy feeling and a very painful sensation.

Henderson said her ring finger cross was her most painful tattoo. Muthye said his tattoos hurt somewhat, but it never deterred him from getting more.

“[Getting the tattoos] hurt, obviously, but it’s not as bad as pop culture makes you think,” he said.

Veach said factors determining pain are a person’s pain tolerance and how many nerve endings are in the area of the tattoo.

Veach and Schnetter said tattoo artists have safety training to prevent the spread of blood-borne pathogens and basic first-aid experience. This training is required by the state of Iowa, and without proper training an artist cannot get their tattooing license.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has a webpage about tattoo safety. Risks listed for tattoos include infection, ink allergies, problems when getting an MRI and tattoo dissatisfaction, among others.

Veach said the most important piece of advice was about quality, not cost.

“Never, ever get a tattoo based only on price,” she said.

Schnetter agreed that getting a cheap tattoo is not a good idea. He said to decide on a tattoo shop based on research, not prices.

Tattooing has been done for thousands of years, and to many tattoo owners, the permanent art is a special form of self-expression.

“Tattoos are fun and can have deep meaning,” Crilly said. “You can connect to people on a deeper level.”