Body Image – Tatoos: a skin-deep reflection

Tattoos: A skin-deep reflection

of adolescent life

By Paul Robertson

Although a little hard to see, she never forgets. She wears the discreet tattoo of a small tree on her right shoulder.
When asked to tell the story behind her tattoo she replies, “After I was born, my father planted this tree in our 
backyard in honor of my arrival. He was so proud of me. At 10 years of age, he walked out on us. When I turned 
16 I got a tattoo of the tree to remind myself that at one point in my life I was very important to my dad. I 
haven’t seen him in years and the tree is gone, but he can’t take my tattoo away.”

Young people get body art for many reasons. Some do it because they want to fit in, while others succumb to 
peer pressure. Many are a testimony to the power of media to influence our choices. For some, it is a mark of 
shock and rebellion, while tattoos make others feel sexier. Some simply see tattoos as works of fine art to adorn 
their human canvas.

Every generation has had a mark that distinguished it from previous cohorts. Over the past 50 years, prior 
generations have left us reminders of their passing—ducktail haircuts, cramming phone booths, rock’n roll, 
transistor radios, long hair, dropping drugs, dropping out, bell bottom jeans, platform shoes, polyester pants, 
pet rocks, disco, baggy pants and backwards hats, hip hop, rap, sex without boundaries, body modification, and 
lives lived out on the single mom that she could only describe as “hell.” Entering her second year 
of college, the wings are a constant reminder that there isn’t anything she can’t “rise” above.

Meaghan, 20, sees it similarly: “A tattoo is about me. It is a form of personal expression; part of the culture shift. 
Tattoos fill a void for meaning in a postmodern culture. We need permanency in world of constant transition. It 
forever expresses how I felt at that moment in time. It captures a point in time when I was alive. It is our longing 
for permanence in a world of disposable everything.”

Tattoos can reflect the journey, beliefs, values and hopes of any young person. Many different “chapters” are 
represented by their body art. One of those “chapters” is the family.

Chanel’s father was an executive chef who took his family all over the world. She didn’t move between cities; she 
moved between countries and cultures. Putting down deep roots at any one time was not the norm as they lived 
in Houston, the Bahamas, Vancouver and Jamaica during her first 14 years. Chanel’s father was always busy and 
had little time for her. One Christmas, she recalls, he only spent two hours with her.

At 15, Chanel fell into a deep depression. She felt she wasn’t wanted and having a mother who yelled, “I wished I 
never had you,” didn’t help. As usual, her dad was never around and being left to her own, using her own 
judgment and strength seemed the best she could hope for.

This was the beginning of her rebellion. With her green hair and a fondness for the wilder side of life, she made 
friends with many guys and fell into a life of alcohol, drugs, sex, angry music and disappointment. Korn, The 
Beastie Boys and Nirvana spoke to her empty soul. Her dad was living 7,000 miles away and her mom worked 
long hours. The words, “It’s all for you!” rang empty because all she wanted was a family that cared. Even a 
short relationship with Jesus didn’t help her.

Chanel got her first tattoo at 17 and now has 10. All her tattoos reflect her life’s journey, values and interests, 
including a pair of X-wing fighters from Star Wars on her stomach. Another is of a robot boy who never really 
knew his father—just like Chanel.

Perhaps the most amazing tattoo of all runs the full length of her right side starting just below her shoulder and 
ending just above the ankle. It contains the complete lyrics to “Waiting for the Great Destruction” by The Matthew 
Good Band; a song that questions relational happiness and longs for truth. Chanel says it is a song about her 
male relationships and how many of them she has ruined. She sees herself as the great destruction in having 
lost many friendships during her short lifetime. It is a reminder to her about the importance of relationships 
including those with her mother and father.

Scot’s name seems quite appropriate for a boy born in Scotland. He is 21 years old and has inherited his dad’s 
artistic talents. Scot and his dad were very close and shared many wonderful memories. Sadly, Scot’s father 
James died a couple of years ago. Shortly before he passed away, he was quite impressed that Scot had his 
father’s initials tattooed on his arm. However, his dad was too afraid to get a similar one.

Two months after his father’s death from lung cancer, Scot wanted to find a way to remember his father. The 
gravestone has the picture of a white dove with a Scottish thistle in its mouth. Scot decided to pick up on that 
theme so he drew a childhood picture of himself releasing the dove as a picture of his father’s freedom. It serves 
as a daily reminder of a father he loved deeply and misses greatly.

For Jennifer, age 20, a small rose speaks of healing and wholeness in a life that was once marked by depression 
and hopelessness. It is a reminder to never give up.

Jen’s life began to crumble when she was in eighth grade, beginning with her grandmother’s death. As Jen 
says, “My grandmother was a very, very strong piece of my life.” Three weeks after she died, her grandfather 
had a stroke. A few weeks later, her adopted sister decided to move back with her birth parents for a short period. At about the same time Jen switched high schools, a traumatic enough event, and soon suffered a sports injury that meant 
she could no longer compete.

Jen says she “bottomed out with depression” in ninth grade when her sister left for good. She still misses her grand
mother and feels the pressure of trying to keep the family together. Jen was also sexually assaulted during her 
later high school years. In her own strength, Jen began to look for ways to heal. It was then she remembered a 
saying she used to share with her sister, “every rose has its thorn,” from a song with the same name by the group Poison.

Jen shares how she arrived at just the right location for her blue rose tattoo, the color of the rose she laid on her grandmother’s coffin. As well as being her grandmother’s favorite color, blue also signifies Jen’s love for swimming
and water. She says, “Everyone has burdens to carry and everybody carries them in a different way. My grandmother always said you carry the stones on your shoulders and you carry the bull on your back. The bigger the p
roblems are, the bigger that bull is. And when I started getting rid of my burdens I realized she was right. And 
just as a reminder for her, I had the rose put on my lower back.”

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many books may well be written on youthful bodies? We only have 
covered a few stories in abbreviated format. What we cannot capture is their tone of voice—one moment filled 
with pain and despair and the next minute full of joy and hope. We cannot look into their faces. We cannot feel 
what they have been through. However, we can be more understanding by realizing that some painted people 
are not who we think they are.

Next time you see a young person with a tattoo, why not ask them to share the story behind it? You might be 
amazed at what you hear … and be better off for it.

The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding grants permission for this article to be copied in its entirety, provided the copies 

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