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“My favorite tattoo is in my armpit” and more stories behind the ink

As a tattoo artist, my job is to help clients narrow down their ideas and understand how the imagery and themes they’re interested in relate to their life’s journey. We explore the larger symbolism. One time I had a client come in for a full-rib piece. He wanted a Roman centurion fighting two demons — one slain and one ready to be dispatched. After speaking to the client further about the inspiration behind his tattoo, it became clear that he wasn’t just trying to get a cool-looking tattoo, but he wanted to express and symbolize the pain and suffering he had gone through over a former lover. As his inspiration became clearer to me, so did the images; his rib piece became a full-back piece.

Once we began his tattoo, our ideas continued to flow, and we soon realized that there was more to his story than the back could express. So we decided to do a full-body tattoo, with Roman gods as a theme to express the virtues and lessons that were important to him. His centurion warrior became Mars, the god of war. The client also mentioned that he wanted an owl tattoo at some point, due to some personal experiences with the animal and the personal connection he felt. I pointed out to him that Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, medicine, art and warfare, among other legacies, is associated with and symbolized by the owl.

There are many layers to the tattoo experience. At their deepest level, tattoos are a means to consciously connect with ourselves, to others and the great beyond.

Matt Jessup, who goes by the name Fatty, is the founder of Fatty’s Tattoos in Washington.

Sabrina Elliotte, 25, of Rockville:  “My favorite tattoo is in my armpit. I used to work for sideshows, and people used to staple money to me. People used to staple it in my armpits and on my face and everywhere. I just thought it would be funny to get a staple gun in my armpit. For me, [pain] is just a mental thing. I like to know that I can get over it on my own. It’s empowering to know that I can make myself calm and centered and I can handle it and that it will be okay, it’s only temporary.”

Eddie Akeem Johnson, a.k.a. Ak, 40, of Pikesville, Md.: “My father passed away, and he always used to say, ‘My son, my son’ when he called me. It always gave me such warm feeling when he said it. I have two sons, and I was going through something when he passed away. So the design started with that. I’m a Sagittarius, and if you follow the arrow there’s a circular, turbulent piece that reflects my emotions. Sagittarians are emotional people.”

Alvin Chan, 38, of Laurel, is a certified strength and conditioning coach and personal trainer: “My tattoos read as an autobiograhy of life events and a story encoded within an artistic tapestry. There are half-truths I tell most people, but the real story is only for a selected few. In 2014, I had a new tattoo done by a monk in Thailand using a method called “sak yant.” Sak meaning “tap” and yant meaning “chant” or “yantra.” The process was done by a monk using one very long needle dipped in ink while a chanting a sacred prayer. The end result is a geometric pattern believed to carry magical properties.”

Lola Toleque, 40, of Rockville: “I’m working on a body suit. I started with a very small tattoo on my right arm, but I didn’t like the experience. I had a friend draw me a picture of a tattoo that I wanted for my back. I took it to [Fatty], and he was like, ‘Let’s do this, let’s do that, let’s make it more feminine’ and then 15 years later — still working on my suit! It’s a combination of memorial tattoos, Maori tattoos, African tattoos and Fatty’s vision.”

James Haun, 40, of Fredericksburg, Va., is a tattoo artist: “I got my first tattoo, a simple skull, with some friends while I was in the military 22 years ago, and I’m still actively getting new tattoos today.”

His girlfriend, Erin Bunker, 23, of Glen Rock, Pa.: “The tattoo on my forearm, ‘holding on to hope’ was something that I had wanted to get done for quite a while. I went through some hardships a few years ago and hope was all I had to help me get through them. So that’s when I came up with my first tattoo idea. The tattoo on my upper arm is the Norse goddess, Freyja. My reasoning behind her was to celebrate my Viking ancestry. I love the old Nordic stories of the gods, and Freyja stood out to me most. James is still in the process of finishing her for me, and I couldn’t be happier with it. My tattoos are special to me solely for the reason that they’re my stories, my heritage, things that have gotten me through tough times and art that will be forever on my body. I can look at them and remember where I came from as well as where I’ve been. Too many people seem to forget things like that nowadays. I’m proud to say I’m tattooed and plan to get many more.”

Jamie Roman, 21, right, and Aaron Beattie, 25, of Washington, D.C.

Jamie: “One of the reasons why I started getting work done on myself is because I hated my skin. I didn’t appreciate it. So I thought, once I started loving myself, this was an opportunity for me to remake myself and blossom into the person that I am really. ”

Aaron: “I sort of graduated my way up to getting a sleeve. I just got small pieces here and there. I just kept liking them the more that I got, so I just kept getting more and more. It’s an ouroboros serpent, a self-eating infinity symbol. There’s something about the idea of eternity that’s satisfying to me.”

Anne Ashurst, 35, of Waldorf has a tattoo of a Persian fairy: “I actually didn’t know I was Persian until a few years ago. My grandfather came to America in the ’20s and changed his name to Douglas and didn’t tell my dad anything about that side of his family. It was kind of like a newfound part of my identity. That and the fallen angel aspect of it; I really identify with light and dark and good and evil. They kind of always go together. I went with the theme of fallen angel, and I knew I wanted something Persian, and that’s what fell into place.”

Nancy Dove-Smith, 59, center, of Centreville, Va.; her son, Justin Blake, 36; and his wife, Mandy Blake, 35, of Winchester, Va.

Nancy Dove-Smith: “I just love skulls. It’s just a piece of art to go with me always. To show who I am, to reflect what I feel. That’s my dad’s writing. My dad’s gone, so having that tattoo I always have him with me now. I can look down and always see his writing.”

Justin Blake: “Pretty much it’s just my love for the medieval. I’m a huge fan of ‘Game of Thrones.’ I’m going to get a medieval sleeve, I’m gonna get a castle up top.”

Mandy Blake: “We all got our first tattoos together. I like music, and I like to be able to represent that on my body. And I love my dinosaurs! They remind me of my childhood and I loved dinosaurs. It’s nice to have tattoos to commemorate memories.”

Justin Blake: “As far as the knuckle tattoos, I mean who doesn’t like sandwiches? Everybody loves sandwiches.”

Jamie Roman: “One of the reasons why I started getting work done on myself is because I hated my skin. I didn’t appreciate it. So I thought, once I started loving myself, this was an opportunity for me to remake myself and blossom into the person that I am really. Regardless of the social conflict that artwork like this has, it is what you make it. For me I always chose pieces that meant something to me. It’s just things that define me and I keep on doing it. It helps me love myself more. I feel like more of what I’m supposed to be. With my chest piece, I cried after the second session because I felt beautiful. That’s something I’ve always struggled with.”

Jon Delbrugge, 28, Glenelg, MD is a mixed martial artist: “Tattoos are cool because it’s a piece of art that you can make yours and is going to be on you forever. Tattoos are a really good way to put what you’re about on your body and it just kind of sets you apart from average, normal society. Of course, nowadays it’s changing but five, ten years ago you were crazy if you got a tattoo below your elbow or on your neck or something like that. I like tattoos and I don’t care at all about the norms of society or anything like that. It just becomes part of you. I don’t wake up in the morning and look at my tattoos and look at each and every one of them and think this still looks cool to me, you know? Once I get it, it’s there. I don’t even think about it.”

Janine Draven, 34, of DC works the counter at Fatty’s and is in nursing school: “I kind of was alone as a kid and music was always there for me. It was kind of like therapy. No matter what I’m going through, or what I’m feeling, even if I don’t have a friend who understands, music always does. As it’s part of my soul, I wanted to project that on my skin. My inside is now my outside. It’s about expressing myself, but it’s not for other people even though it’s visible. It’s definitely for me. [The tattoo on my leg] is Cthulhu from H.P. Lovecraft who represents darkness and anxieties. I like bringing that darkness out of me and letting it go. Not only is it a beautiful tattoo, it reminds me of a time in my life that I went through. It reminds me that there’s nothing insurmountable.”

Lauren Dusold, 39, lives in Marriottsville, Md.: “My back piece is a Buddhist deity, the White Tara. Tara is often called the mother of all Buddhas. Her color signifies purity, wisdom and truth. She has seven eyes to see all of the suffering in the world and is the goddess of compassion. She’s also associated with overcoming obstacles. I was diagnosed with cancer in 2008 and decided to get tattooed in between treatments. My tattoo took six sessions spread out over approximately six months. Four weeks of healing in between each sitting.”

James Haun: “To me, tattoos can mean many things, but they’re all a milepost for a time in your life: a rite of passage, a memorial for a person or pet, a reminder of a special event, or even just something goofy between friends.”

Upkar Chana, 37, of New York, grew up in Howard County. Her tattoo means “ ‘the neverending possibilities of freedom.’: “I saw these five letters printed somewhere and took a picture. I had that picture for years until I found someone who I thought could do the work properly. I knew that I wanted them negative. I wanted it to look like an old scroll, and I wanted negative space. I was just coming out of living with my parents and was just starting to live on my own. I wanted something more permanent. Freedom is forever, and freedom is a state of mind.”