Andrew McCarthy had seen his share of tattoos, from the “drunken sailor” images to “Friday the 13th specials,” where the tattoo artist chooses the design for a mere 13 dollars. But the assistant professor of humanities couldn’t hide his fascination with the body art he witnessed at Anna Maria College in central Massachusetts. What he saw were elaborate family portraits, traditional quotations, and religious symbols, and so he launched a study to try to understand what it all meant.
Prior to the start of the study, McCarthy assumed that cultural tendencies accounted for the body art, but after conducting some 30 interviews, he changed his viewpoint. “My first thought was that this might be a predominantly Latino expression of spiritual connectedness, but I quickly concluded that I am working across a generational border — the Millennials — and not any form of racial, ethnic, or cultural border,” he says.
In spite of the diversity in spiritual principles, responses to a series of questions — significance of each design, its permanency, and if, over time, that significance had changed in any way — revealed a common theme. “They all connected with something — the self, a higher power,” says McCarthy.
While some of the body art represented overt religious expressions, many of the images, poems, and sayings commemorated living and deceased relatives, particularly a grandparent, a boyfriend or girlfriend, or a close friend. For example, one student had the words to “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” inked across the tops of her feet. The song had been her grandfather’s favorite. Another student wore on his arm the basketball jersey number of a classmate who had died. Although he was not particularly close to this individual, the body art served as a reminder of his own mortality. “These tattoos keep the spirit of the loved one alive,” says McCarthy. “It is a way of honoring them.”
Initially, students were wary of McCarthy’s motives, but any fears were quickly allayed. “These students demonstrated a willingness to share their stories. There were lots of tears.” He adds that he became so mesmerized by their tales that he often forgot to photograph the tattoos.
Participants received a small fee to participate, but that was not a primary motivator. “In fact, many of the students tried to give back the money. They felt it was important just to tell their story,” says McCarthy, pointing out that without those stories, the meaning of the tattoos would be lost on the observer.
In other words, a tattoo is often a symbol of a story that is waiting to be told. So if you meet someone covered in tattoos, the easy way to start a relationship is to ask what the stories are about.