We asked six women to share the stories behind their tattoos – how they went about choosing the design, where they went to for inspiration, how they decided where to place it, how much time went into planning it, why it’s significant to them and how their relationship with it has changed over time.
Getting a tattoo is a big decision given it’s something that will be on your body for the rest of your life. It’s why consideration is key to make sure you have a design that you’re happy with, that’s meaningful to you and that will stand the test of time as your tastes change.
From overcoming cancer, to symbolising change and mementos that simply bring joy, the reason behind each was significant, thoughtful and personal.
I got my snake tattoo in Bali 3 months ago. I chose to get it on the inside of my lower arm, as I wanted it visible, but still somehow hidden (if you look at me from the side you don’t see it). I have always wanted a snake tattoo, but I struggled to find inspiration for years – most snakes look aggressive or their design isn’t minimalist. I researched on Pinterest and Instagram frequently and one day a picture of a beautiful, minimalist snake popped up on my Pinterest Explore feed and I knew it was the kind of snake tattoo I wanted to get. I took a screenshot and saved it in a folder on my phone.
Snakes are my favourite animals. I know most people dislike or fear them, but I honestly think they’re such interesting and beautiful creatures. A snake symbolises change, because they shed their skin whenever they grow (and they grow their whole life). This really spoke to me on a spiritual level. Another thing I implemented into the tattoo was the moons, suns and stars. I lost my mom to cancer in 2019 and she always said, “I love you to the moon and back” and one of her nicknames for me was “sunshine”. I wanted something on my skin, that reminds me of her everyday.
I’d thought about getting a snake tattoo since 2016, found the perfect inspiration in 2018 and then finally got it in November 2019. My trip to Bali and getting the tattoo there at this time of my life was really fitting, because it somehow helped me to deal with my mom’s death. The crazy thing about this is, that I planned to get it done in Bali, but I wasn’t sure which tattoo artist to choose. I asked some friends, who live in Bali for recommendations and my friend Candela mentioned Mayo (@mayo.ttt). When I looked at her work I was immediately sure that she was the right one, then whilst looking through her Instagram feed, I found the exact inspo picture I’d taken a screenshot of over a year before in her feed. She was the artist who’d inspired me and she was also the artist who did my tattoo. Such a crazy coincidence.
Mayo did a perfect job. It honestly couldn’t be any more perfect. I was happy when I got it and I’m still so happy to show it off, whenever I have the chance to. It reminds me of my love for snakes, my mom and the changes I’ve been through and it is just so beautiful. I have eight tattoos in total – all done on my travels – and I love them all, but this one is definitely my favourite. My sister always tells me “this tattoo is so you” and that’s definitely true.
Almost seven years ago, I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma in my left breast. I went through cancer treatments that included chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. I lost my hair in the process, and what I felt was the control in my life. The ambiguity continued for seven months until I was deemed in remission on October 8, 2013.
I knew I wanted a tattoo to conceal my breast cancer scars, but I had to wait until I was done breastfeeding my two post-cancer babies with my remaining breast to really concentrate on who was going to do this, and where I was going to get it completed.
As a five year remission gift to myself, I decided I wanted to get a tattoo covering my left breast. On social media, I discovered David Allen, a tattoo artist in Chicago who specialises in tattoos for women who are in their post cancer journey. Allen has tattooed some fairly prominent people like Lady Gaga and the Biden family (all which he will disclose when he tells his own stories during the process).
I chose David Allen because he uses a different amount of needles to do his work as he has heavily written about the trauma that women go through during a breast cancer experience and does not want to trigger that trauma with pain during the procedure. The amount of needles he uses when tattooing is four versus the ten used in a regular procedure.
The unique thing about this is experience, is you have Allen all to yourself for an entire day. Because the work is exhausting and so detailed, he only does two of these a month and the waitlist to see him is long. Women from all over the world fly in for this experience. I was chosen because my story inspired him.
Allen only does black and white tattoos and you don’t choose a design in advance. Everything is completed from start to finish the day you go to his studio. I was fine with that ambiguity. He only works with black and white because this allows him to cover scars more efficiently and work his art into the existing scars that many women have after their surgery. He also only tattoos floral art on the breasts for this type of tattoo, as he finds it is the best way to conceal and “trick the eye” into not seeing the scars. He can also make two different sized breasts look equal in size, head-on, with his art (and that was the case for me).
David sat down with me to learn more about me, took some photos, and began designing a tattoo based on my life, my body, and suggestions. He had a few different designs that he drew while we sat there, and then applied them to my photos with his computer so I could see what the design would look like on me before he started his work. I decided on a bouquet of daffodils. He also did a partial sleeve with the bouquet running onto my arm.
The process once he started tattooing took around seven hours. I was nervous but so excited to see what it would look like. It was an amazing and beautiful experience that day. My husband and I both cried because of the intense emotions the process brought forward. For the first time, I felt I was taking some control back over something that had littered my life with uncertainty, pain, and trauma.
When I stood in front of the mirror, I was astonished. He had worked my scars into art and I couldn’t see them anymore. I felt so beautiful in that moment. I still feel that way when I look at my tattoo now. I have no regrets on the decision to place this immaculate work of art on my body. Many women that endure breast cancer deal with the post cancer fallout and trauma related to the process. This absolutely helped me with my own healing process, and every time I look at myself in the mirror, it reminds me that I am a strong, beautiful breast cancer survivor.
My most significant tattoo to me is the elephant on my left upper-arm. I found the design after searching online for the perfect style for months, then added my own personal tweaks and details to the inspiration image I’d found. I try not to ever copy a tattoo inspiration image outright. I had been thinking about getting an elephant tattoo for a few years and it was also one of the first tattoos which actually started off my full sleeve.
My elephant tattoo is significant to me because I’ve always been drawn to elephants and their nature since being a little girl. I used to watch dumbo on repeat (and I mean until the videotape started to frazzle) as little as age 3 and this is also why I requested the detail of my elephant holding a feather – as a personal little nod to my love for the classic Disney film Dumbo.
It’s my most favourite tattoo and I often talk about it with my 3 year old daughter. Every time I ask her what my favourite animal is she points at my tattoo and says “elephant!” and it’s like it’s come full circle. I guess I see myself in elephants – calm, strong and loving.
I have a few tattoos, most of which were teenage mistakes but there’s a small one on my ribs with a lot of meaning. My stepdad died from suicide when I was fifteen and he was always covered in tattoos. Mostly, they were ones he did himself (before stick-and-poke became cool). When I was seventeen, armed with a fake ID, I went for my first tattoo; they were something I associated with him, and I wanted to have a permanent reminder of him that was thoughtful and positive, rather than marked with grief and pain. I picked a simple line drawing of a four-leaf clover as my stepdad would always find them in the garden and bring them to me. I still have a massive one he found which he pressed and framed for me. Even now, when I catch it in the mirror, it fills me with joy and helps me remember the good times we shared.
I’ve always loved tattoos – the first one I ever got was a butterfly design that I created myself on my leg. When I was pregnant I realised creating tattoos and working with women was something I wanted to pursue, so after I had my daughter, I went all in. [Mira has worked with some of the world’s most famous celebs, including Ariana Grande and has almost 200,000 followers who admire her designs on Instagram].
I have a ton of tattoos all over my body, but my favourite is a handwritten note saying “Frida is special” on my wrist. It was the first full sentence my daughter ever wrote and it was about our hero, Frida Kahlo, who we both love. I kept the paper she’d written on and had @nothingwildtattoo [co-owner of the tattoo parlour where Mira is a resident artist] trace it exactly so that she could recreate it on my arm. It’s very special to me because of the meaning attached to it.
As someone who is terrified of needles, I didn’t think I would ever get a tattoo, then almost two years ago, I was going through a depressive episode and taking antidepressants. At the time, I’d recently left my job of four years as a school administrator and after having my little boy, I was struggling with post-natal depression. I had gone from all the feels, to feeling absolutely numb. I made the decision to have a tattoo at that time (which was totally out of character), thinking that at least I will feel the pain. I designed my tattoo around the Buddhist unalome with a lotus flower and four dots. The unalome representing life’s trials and tribulations, the lotus flower symbolising the strive for perfection and the four dots being my husband and three children. It’s great – other than the fact that it is upside down. I didn’t have the confidence to tell the tattoo artist after he had already started!
After, I was quite shocked that I had through with it and it prompted me to come off antidepressants and try other ways to manage my depression. I do really like my tattoo – its design is symbolic to me, but it also represents a time when I wasn’t quite myself. It’s a permanent reminder that the dark days will pass and that maybe I am stronger and braver than I think.
My dad was emotionally abusive when I was younger. I’m from the south [in America] where women pledge their virginity to their dad until marriage. Looking back I sense my dad thought he owned me and my body. When I was 19 I decided to get my nose pierced and he told me, if I went through with it, not to bother coming home. When I moved to the UK, he disowned me and told me I’d never come to anything without him. The summer I finished my masters, I got three small birds on the back of my neck as a sign that I’m free from his negative control over me. I felt a huge sense of empowerment – letting go of him and excelling without him. The birds represent that freedom.