Interviews by Eliza Fitz
Art by Kat Gentry
Tattoo: Five orchid flowers, on her right shoulder
It’s a remembrance of my grandpa. He was an orchid farmer for his whole life, and he died of lung cancer three years ago, and I wanted to have [orchids] on my body forever. My grandpa had one type of orchid that eluded him—these black orchids. He could never plant them, so technically it’s a black orchid on me. It’s a tradition in my family to have an orchid in every room of the house, and we only have this type of orchid in every room. So it makes me think about home, too. You wouldn't understand the tattoo just from seeing it.
Tattoos: “We are all. Free. To do. Whatever. We want. To do.” on his bicep, a cloud on his calf, a fig tree on the other.
My tattoos are of things I want to hold more closely in my ideals. I forget a lot of things, so keeping my ideals on my body is nice. They make me think about big things and just about having my body decorated.
It started when I was turning 18 and wanted to get a tattoo, but my whole family was against it. My mom and dad were against it, and early on in high school I read this book by Richard Bach, and there was this quote in there, and I was like, “Yo, I need to live by that.” So I did, for the rest of high school. It was my mantra for three years, and I thought, “I want this to be a part of me,” so I got it. It makes me think about free will and whether I actually have it, because philosophy has messed me up on how to think about free will.
The cloud was a bit of an impulse. Whenever I see the cloud tattoo, it brings me the joy I feel when I look at clouds, which is peace.
The fig tree was another kind of mantra. It’s from Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar”—it was another lesson I wanted to keep with me. There’s a fig tree in the poem, with figs all ripening, and Sylvia Plath is sitting at the bottom of the tree, and she wants to pick the figs because they’re choices in life, but she doesn’t because she’s depressed, so she just sits there, and they all wither away and die. But I got one with ripening fruit on it because there are still options. It makes me think of the hopelessness she felt in the poem, that I had felt, and it makes me excited for growth.
My grandmother didn’t agree, though. I actually hid my tattoos from her for the first three years, but I got the one on my leg, the fig tree, and I couldn’t hide it anymore. The first time she saw me with it she said, “Oh…I hate it.” She doesn’t like me as much as she used to, because when she was my age the only people who had tattoos were in the army or out of prison.
Amy Daugherty, tattoo artist
Tattoos: Flower on hip, “m” on he calf, and some multi-colored freckles.
I asked a tattoo artist what tattoo gun I should get to start doing it myself, and then I did a month and a half’s worth of research, calling him for unsolicited advice. I spent about a month tattooing on fruit—bananas, grapefruits, oranges—because a lot of citrus fruits have thinner skin than humans. You’re supposed to practice on fruit, which has more sensitive skin, and more obvious pores, to develop a gentle hand. I gave my first tattoo to myself, then started tattooing other people. By now I’ve tattooed a lot of the Colorado College rugby team.
I did a little apprenticeship this summer. I want tattooing to be a part-time job, a way to make a little extra money during veterinary school. I really enjoy the moment before you start tattooing. You have everything set up, it’s all out on your work space, everything’s clean, everything’s exactly how it’s supposed to be, you’ve tested the machine, everything’s working. And you’re just waiting. Then you put the stencil on, and readjust the stencil a million-bajillion times, and then you start. I love that first line. Especially for people who have never gotten a tattoo before and they think it’s going to be worse than childbirth and they get the first bit and say, “Oh, I can do this.”
I actually tattooed my mom this summer. The best tattoo I’ve given I gave to my mom. And I tattooed a friend this summer, too, and he was so happy with it. I also gave a set of arrows to a girl. Kind of basic—no offense to those with arrow tattoos—but she said, “I just want to go forward!” Anyway I managed to talk her into some detailing and she was so happy. It’s like giving someone a Christmas present that you know they’ve wanted for a long time but haven’t been able to get, even if it’s small and they don’t remember I gave it to them. But the point is that they’re happy with a certain part of their body that they’ve never been so happy about before.
Tattoo: His dog’s face, on his lower left stomach.
I don’t thank a tattoo has to be this super sacred thing. It does have permanence, and in that way it has gravity, but you can give gravity to lighthearted things. So my tattoo is kind of a symbol of lightheartedness or trying to think lightheartedly. There’s an appeal to the permanence of it. And also you’re carried by the winds of the time, and there’s certainly some romance around getting tattoos these days.
How it happened was that one summer my friend and I were hanging out on a lawn with our dogs, Rudy and Willy, and we’d gotten them at the same time, and we thought, “Shit, let’s get tattoos of our dogs!” And we went into a tattoo parlor and had a woman do some drawings for us, and we tweaked them a little bit but basically went in the day after and got these tattoos. It was pretty spontaneous, definitely spur of the moment, but the idea of getting a tattoo had been tossed around.
From an artistic standpoint, it’s a very lighthearted tattoo. It’s just a dog’s face, you know? I’m always charmed when I look at it. I smile. I think of [my friend] Jacob and being back home and the shenanigans we got up to.
It’s funny, every once in awhile, someone will ask you if you have a tattoo and you have to give your spiel about how you got it. Some people are surprised when I take off my shirt and they haven’t seen it before. They’re like, “You have a fucking dog on your stomach.” I think people who know me well aren’t that surprised, but [I’ve] definitely had some interactions with people seeing it for the first time and I’ve noticed a moment of realization in their faces like, “Whoa, there’s a side of this person I didn’t know.”
Rick Furtak, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Colorado College
Tattoos: Owl and cuckoo bird on either outer-bicep, a feather on each forearm.
I guess you could say the main reasons for my tattoos are to symbolize something that I want to have a permanent meaning for me, and also to mark a kind of wound, like a trauma. It’s fitting because tattoos are a kind of wound, and also a very permanent way of marking your flesh. So I guess I came to think of them in both ways. They’ve been symbols of things I wanted to stay with me.
So an owl is an obvious bird symbol for philosophy; it has ancient connotations and associations with philosophy. I like birds, and the bird theme, and I thought, “So what would be a good bird to symbolize poetry?” One of the oldest and most beautiful poems among the oldest anonymous lyrics in the English language is the poem “The Cuckoo Song.” And so I took it from that, basically, and said “Okay, the cuckoo, that’ll work. That will be a good symbol of Anglophone poetry.” No one knows who actually authored the poem, so it’s sort of tracing back the heritage of poetry in the English language about as far as it goes.
All the images are in pairs. I have ten tattoos. I had eight until this summer. I’ve thought at several times I was finished and there wouldn’t be any more, and it had been ten years since my last ones, but it turns out I needed to kind of mark something and signify something, and so I got two more small tattoos this summer. But let me tell you where they began.
So this, as you know, is the tail of a bird, the owl. The owl on one upper arm and the cuckoo bird on the other upper arm were my first two tattoos, and they symbolize philosophy and poetry, respectively. And I wanted to get these images to signify my dedication to both poetry and philosophy, and I got them in Chicago a month before graduate school. I’d moved there preparing to start school, and I picked out a place that had a really good reputation called the Chicago Tattooing Company that had been around for awhile, that had, like, people with MFAs in drawing that were their tattoo artists, and these are the people that just wield the pen.
The drawing itself for those two birds was done by a friend of mine. And I described what I wanted them to look like, and I gave him some actual images of the birds in question, so it would be like an artist’s depiction of those birds. I had known about this a while in advance. It was actually the previous summer that I’d given him the bird designs and described how I wanted them to appear, and he had done the ink drawings for my tattoos. And then he died, that year. So by the time I actually got the tattoos, his death had intervened between the ink drawings and my getting the tattoos, and that meant they had an added significance. They also were a tribute and memorial to my friend who drew them. So I have these two drawings of his as a permanent part of my body.
When I wanted to reaffirm both the emblems, of poetry and philosophy, that’s when I got these feathers further down the arms. I liked the idea of a thicker-line design, but it was also just to extend the meaning of the two tattoos on my shoulders that I got. When I got these two feather designs, I originally planned that it would be a set of four, and that the other two would actually be here and here, on the sides of the neck, so that even on my fully clothed days, I would have tattoos showing. The sheer amount of ink on the feathers really made an impression, so after I got them I changed my mind about getting the other two. They make me think about experiences that have really made a mark on me, and they make me think of my sense of location and the pursuits to which I’m dedicated.
I think it’s fair to say tattooing has always flourished kind of in the margins of society, among subcultures, like sailors for example. And, I’m a pretty civilized guy, actually. I have a PhD, and a very respectable career and so forth, and yet, I think by having tattoos, it shows that I somehow identify with those who are more on the margins of the culture, and that that’s at least a part of who I am, that there’s something subversive about me that makes me want to be someone with tattoos. Although in other respects I’m someone you wouldn’t expect to have them, at least not at this walk of life, probably.
They remind me that I want to be someone who doesn’t conform too easily to any categories or stereotypes, and yet I don’t want the most interesting thing about me to be simply that I have tattoos, so in that sense, it’s like something to live up to. You don’t want to have only the appearance of personality or eccentricity, you want to walk the walk to go with it.
Natanya Pulley, Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Colorado College
Tattoos: Sugar skull memorial on forearm, spider on neck, bird and flower on chest, cancer astrological sign on the inside wrist.
There are times when I think of covering the one on my wrist, or getting something new there. But I get to a point when I look at it where I think of who I was when I got it, which was very naïve. Back then I needed to see something of myself on myself, and there’s a lot of embarrassing things about that person I was. Sometimes I wish I could find that person and wake ‘em up. But at the same time, I didn’t know any better back then, and I want to embrace that person. When people say, “Oh but it’s so permanent!” and I think, it is. But what they’re really afraid of is recognizing how impermanent identity is. You’re always changing, and it’s so much easier to imagine that all the versions of myself are gone, and not have to look at parts of my body and remember, “Oh, this is twenty-year-old me.” I remember who I was, what I was thinking at the time. And I still find new things in them, like, “Oh I really like that line!” or, “That’s a really pretty color!”
I had a tattoo artist who talked to me, and—I’d have to look it up but I’m pretty sure it’s a Japanese approach—he said there are several different reasons why people get tattoos, the word tattoo has a couple different definitions that each mean something different, so for the purpose of pain, for pleasure, for memorializing, to represent something. They all come from different reasons, some I got for memorializing, some for a friend, some of them because I got bored.
And I do enjoy the sensations of them. I like the pain, but then I also find it really relaxing. The pain comes, and this feeling of needing to brace for it: “Oh no, this is really going to hurt.” And then, it does hurt, but after a sustained amount of time, maybe some endorphins get let loose, or there’s a relaxing into it. The only way to deal with it is to give in to it. So there’s a moment of giving in, of no longer resisting, of accepting what’s happening, which is a weird thing to need from time to time. And then the repetitiveness, especially when they’re doing shading. Like I fell asleep during one. I really like that feeling, and I go through a bunch of different feelings and sensations when I get them. And everyone says the collarbone hurts the most, but I actually got so ticklish and kept giggling, and the tattoo artist at first was like, “Haha,” but after a while was like, “You need to stop laughing.” So there was a new moment of having to relax out of laughing!
Sometimes people walking by will ask or say something, so sometimes it’s a way to meet people, if they’re interested and I’m willing to talk about it. Sometimes the negative will be, especially when I have the one on my chest, if somebody wants to see it sometimes people will grab and yank my shirt to see it. It’s very odd, a really weird response. But meeting people who ask about them is fun.
I’ve been concerned in the past and will cover them up if I don’t feel comfortable showing them, depending on the company I’m with, but I think the stigma is moving away from what they may have represented before. But there are moments when I have that old, traditional kind of feeling about them so I hide them.
Sometimes I don’t even see them anymore, they’re just me. Sometimes I feel very outside of it, and I think, “Who is this person with this skin?” It’s a disorienting feeling. Sometimes I feel a little shy or embarrassed about them. When I was growing up tattoos were a sign of delinquency, going back to sailors and prisoners, and my mom’s religion had strong opinions about tattoos. Every now and then I feel an embedded shame that’s not really mine whether it’s societal voices or religious voices, and I don’t feel like I have to beat those away. It’s just the thought, “Oh yeah, that’s that weird societal voice that’s saying something about me.” If somebody makes assumptions about me because of them, and I spent my time running around trying to correct those assumptions, I’d be really, really tired. That’s not how I maneuver myself in the world. That tattoos are associated with marginalized people doesn’t occur to me as much because I am a marginalized person—by gender and race most predominantly. And typically, creative writers and artists live in the fringe. Thrive in it. If anything, I try to find things that show I’m not totally on the fringe of things despite my tattoos and creative work and lived experience.
These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
Part of the Ego issue