Our Readers Share The Stories Behind Their Favorite Tattoos
What Do Your Tattoos Mean?
“A new one, huh? What does this one mean?” was my poor mother’s reaction when I showed up at my parents house with a new wrist adornment. I scrambled to come up with an answer—one I thought would get her right in the feels—about how each point represents an aspect of our family, before my dad walked into the room and proudly called my bullsh*t.
“Alright, alright…I tried!!” was all I could manage to say back, caught red-handed (or wrist-decorated, if you will). Truthfully, it doesn’t mean anything to me, this little wrist piece. I got it on a whim at the tattoo shop down the street from my house, which was offering a $50 Friday the 13th flash sale. Still, it’s my most asked-about tattoo, prompting cashiers, plane seat buddies (remember when?), and everyone in between to ask: “What is that?” (PSA and pro-tip in one: Do not touch people to ask them about a tattoo!)
Now over three years later, the piece’s “meaning” is relative to how I was feeling and where I was at in that period of my life. Truthfully, I believe that’s all the meaning there needs to be—I liked it when I liked it! Other tattoos, much larger than this little wrist ornament, took me months to settle on, and carry more meaning than I maybe even have the capacity to fully understand, especially as it shifts throughout my lifetime. My first tattoo, for example, is an intertwined line drawing of me and my twin, and the meaning has remained constant. Another, a tribute to my mum, is a horse skull (our favorite animal) with her favorite plant laid at the jaw a la Georgia O’Keeffe, but with more grit and definitely more detail. Others are equally as momentous, but more painful to recall. As I get older and contemplate decorating myself more, I’m learning to balance the playful, “in the moment” pieces with the larger, more intentional ones with deeper meanings.
Some tattoos only exist as the memory of what could have been, like the time I thought I’d go to Thailand with my auntie to get matching tattoos (an elephant, her favorite animal). She passed away before we could pinch enough pennies to make it there. Some, I’ve toyed with time and time again, as my interest in the design, or the relevance of the meaning, waxes and wanes. Tattoos can be deeply personal, but they don’t have to be.
I asked our readers and friends if they felt the same way, or if they’d be open to sharing a favorite tattoo story—and they delivered below. If you’re open to sharing yours, leave a comment! And if you’re dreaming of some fresh ink after COVID, head here to check out some inspiring tattoo artists whose work we love.
“I got my first machine-done tattoo (others are stick-and-pokes) the day after my birthday on Friday, March 13th 2020 just before the lockdowns started here in NYC. A very weird time, to say the least. Originally I got the tattoo because I wanted to work with the artist—there wasn’t any meaning behind the piece at first, but as we discussed it that day, it turned into a bouquet of healing flowers like calendula and poppies. Now, it serves as a reminder that 2020 may have been the worst time, but it’s important to be gentle with ourselves and take care.”
“The most meaningful tattoo is on my right forearm, and it says ‘I love you, dad’ in my pop’s handwriting. I got this tattoo a week after he unexpectedly passed away, from my favorite artist and dear friend. It’s something I look at frequently when I miss him and something that reminds me that even though he’s not physically here, he’s in the energy all around me.”
“A boy I was dating was very talented at stick-and-pokes, but you can’t just ask him for one—he will only offer it to you in his own time. I have two from him, one of which is my favorite of all time: a branch of baby’s breath. He said he had wanted to get me flowers for my birthday, but he googled flowers and got too overwhelmed, so he decided to give me an eternal flower instead. 🌾”
“My favorite tattoo is one I have on my left side close to my heart (literally and figuratively!). It’s what my mother always calls me ‘my dearest darling’ and it’s in her handwriting. My mom is basically the most important person in my life, and I wanted to honor that and our relationship in a way I could always cherish. Generally speaking, I don’t think anything needs to have meaning for it to go on your body (your body, your decision!) but for me, all three of mine so far are very sentimental and intentional.”
“My favorite tattoo is my childhood home. I can’t ever go back to it because it doesn’t exist anymore. My family sold it in 2012 and it’s been changed ten times over, but I love that house so much. My second favorite is something my grandmother would say all the time ‘small steps around the corner.’ It’s when you’re coming to a place that’s unknown—physically or mentally—it’s always best to slow down and take small steps.”
“My favorite tattoo is a stick-n-poke on my right ankle that just says ‘Björk.’ It’s my favorite for two reasons: Björk is one of my biggest heroes and her attitude toward life, art, and romance, has so much sincerity and power and having an ever present reminder of her impact is helpful for me in the day-to-day. Also, a good friend of mine gave it to me and having the home-spun, personal quality of a stick-n-poke always includes the extra association of the person who gave it. It can feel like a gift from someone you care about, and that brings extra special significance. All my tattoos are stick-n-pokes because of that reason!
BONUS REASON: I like telling people that I have a Björk tattoo and instead of it being her face or lyrics or an album cover or anything, it’s just her name—there’s something silly about that.“
“I have two favorite tattoos: my little crab that Jen Wong did as I’m a Cancer and deeply connect with that side of myself, and my heart on the back of my arm [with a banner across it] that says ‘books’. That one is a stick and poke that my best friend Kat did for me, so I get to have two things I love all in one. I don’t think any tattoo necessarily needs to have a meaning—I have a lot of silly ones that I like just because they’re fun 🙂 I like to think of getting tattoos like collecting anything else.”
“In 2015, I was in a pretty dark place, having recently experienced a trauma that left me empty. I booked a trip to the US [editor’s note: to visit me, in California!]. Sitting at a burger place (In-N-Out) in the California sun with my closest friends—and the best damn food $5 can get you—I felt warm again.
The promise I felt in that moment is now eternalised on my body. I hope [my friends] know what that trip did for me.”
“My egg tattoo is my favorite tattoo! It’s based off of a painting my grandmother made and I’ve always loved it so much. Plus, it’s pretty novelty so I generally don’t say why I got it, and I can just say ‘yeah, love eggs….’ if someone asks. I don’t feel like tattoos have to have meaning at all!”
“It’s a long explanation, but this tattoo is something I strive to remember everyday—and anyone who knows me knows I have a seriously terrible memory, so it’s almost as if I need to have it on my body. Think of Momento, sans dead wife and the inability to face oneself. All of my tattoos come from something I learned, or something I need to remember, because each painful lesson made me out to be who I may be.
While this is not my favorite tattoo, it is my most recent lesson and it stemmed from an unassuming place. It’s written in Kanji, but in English translates to 1,000 push-ups. I live with a mental illness, and I have episodes that are followed by blackouts where I don’t remember most of what happens. I used to sit through long lectures about my actions, actions that I still agonize over. For 28 long years, I could not trust myself, but that changed for me the day someone I loved shouted at me, ‘1,000 push-ups if I’m wrong!’ It wasn’t some profound book or a notorious someone—the line was from a dinky slapstick show on television, where the character looked at his wife asking her to trust him, and if he was wrong, he would do 1,000 push-ups.
Now this phrase was being used against me to use against myself. The world always feels like chaos to me, and my brain constantly buzzes—and I couldn’t trust myself to make any good decisions. However, I can trust the people in my life: my best friends, the family that I built for myself, and the co-workers who want to see me do my best. That partner told me, if I trusted him, then I (by proxy) trust myself, because he trusts me. That was a perspective I had never thought of before. If I honestly trust in the people around me, then I can believe I’m capable of the potential or qualities they see in me. I love my friends, I respect them, I admire them.
I don’t want to be wrong in believing in myself, because I can’t do even one push-up—never mind 1,000.
“My favorite piece is a floral arrangement on my shoulder, and it’s a love dedication for my 2 step-daughters. It’s the special bond and love that we have for each other, in a drawing. The California Poppy is to match Emma’s, the oldest, tattoo. She also has a California Poppy tattoo on her arm, and the Lily of Valley Flower is for Lily, the youngest.”
“My favorite tattoo is a Pomegranate surrounded by olive branches that I have on my hip. It was my first big piece so I felt like I wanted it to have meaning. Every Jewish New Year my grandma gives me a pomegranate and the seeds symbolize all the good things that will happen in the new year. Pomegranates also symbolize fertility and femininity more generally in Jewish tradition which is important to me since I have a background as a doula. Also funny part of this story is that my tattoo’s meaning deals a lot with my grandma and Jewish tradition and my grandma would hate it if she knew I have tattoos (I hide them from her) and in Judaism, you’re not supposed to get tattoos. Although this tattoo has meaning, I don’t think all tattoos need to! I have a couple that I just like the way they look!”
Alyssa Julian is the Social Media Lead at The Good Trade. She’s LA born and raised, and when she’s not scrolling her phone for the latest trends, she can be found at the farmers’ market, camping out of the back of her Subaru, or searching for adoptable dogs on Petfinder. If she’s not off-grid for the weekend, try looking for her at her home studio, where she’s probably making cups for a new coffee shop. Say hi on Instagram! 👋