Under Vanderbilt’s ink: Students tell the stories behind their tattoos

Around the time students get to college, they experience their first few tastes of autonomy. Often, they express this newfound freedom through body modification. The Hustler decided to talk with several students to discuss their tattoos and what they mean to them.

Brenna Garmon (’17)

It’s kind of been a tradition of mine to do something rebellious over fall break ever since I was a freshman (I’m a senior now). I grew up with two military parents so of course I turned into the quintessential hippie child. So I was like “I’ve always wanted my nose pierced, fall break I’m going to get my nose pierced.” I was going home for fall break, I was like “I’m going to get my nose pierced right before I go home.”

I got my first tattoo fall break of sophomore year; I got it here. All of my tattoos I designed myself, and I have reasons behind getting all of them. Personally, I’m never going to judge someone for their tattoos because I look at tattoos the way I look at jewelry; it’s just another way of accessorizing yourself and expressing yourself to other people.

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The arrows were something that I had been thinking about for a while. I know now it’s become a cliche tattoo, I feel like a lot of people have that as a trend, and mine’s not part of that trend at all. I follow astrology stuff, and my sun sign is Sagittarius, which is an archer, and arrows are a symbol of strength, and I think I’m a very strong person- that’s always been something that I’ve admired about myself. So I was like “You know what? I think I want some arrows.” The top one is the Sagittarius symbol, and then these two- obviously you can tell one of them is inspired by Native American stuff, and this one is based on a Celtic design, so that kind of symbolizes my heritage, like my family is a mix. My great-great-grandmother was Cherokee, and a lot of my family is Irish, and my name is Irish. And then I wanted a really simple one just because I’ve always been one to enjoy the simple things in life and I think I’m really close with nature and things like that, I don’t know. And then this one was actually a design I saw on a piece of art by this guy that I follow and I was like “That’s actually really retro, like that’s pretty cool.”

So I got this at Icon, and a lot of people go there and I have mixed feelings on why people go there. They specialize in very classical tattooing, if you think of like Ed Hardy kind of stuff, like bright colors and that kind of stuff.

And then I got this one (the arm band with bears) fall break of last semester. Obviously, this is my first forearm tattoo. So I’m a geology major, and I spent last summer in Alaska doing an internship with the Geological Society of America. They do like 150 internships every summer for college students and I got one. A lot of this is mapping symbols for the area that I was focused on, I was living on this really remote island and I saw black bears like everyday and I just love black bears so much. My friend in Seattle has a similar forearm band-style tattoo that he designed himself and I’m always like “Dude, your tattoo is awesome, it makes me want a tattoo.”

Vanderbilt Hustler: You mentioned that your parents are military parents and are very conservative, how do they feel about your tattoos/do they know?

BG: They don’t approve but I don’t care. They don’t approve in a way that they would never disown me or say “Who are you? We can’t love you anymore.” They’re just not the type of people that would get tattoos themselves so they just don’t understand; that connection is lost.

IV* (’19)

So, unfortunate story about this. So I go and I tell the guy- I was drunk- “I want a real tattoo.” Everything seems to be going well, there’s a needle, it’s a legit place. And then two days later it’s simply gone, it’s not there anymore. So I was like “The fuck?” So I called and complained, and I was like “What the hell? I paid $80.” It was supposed to be a legit tattoo. They made up some bullshit excuse, and I wasn’t really that with it at the time, but my friends told me that the guy who was giving the tattoo was like drinking beer, so I think that he didn’t go deep enough. So it’s now gone, but I still have the experience of getting a tattoo. They’re supposed to last like a year, and then they go away, not simply two days. I literally got home from Mardi and I was like “Well, this is awkward, it’s now gone.”

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VH: What made you want to get a Zeppos tattoo on your lip?

IV: So, we’re like going up to the shop, it’s like in between the parades and going out at night, so it’s a weird dinner time at Mardi Gras, and I’m like “Guys, what tattoo should I get?” And my one friend was like, “Zeppos,” because she had seen one of the Dank New Rand Meme things where it was like “When you get a small tattoo that has a lot of meaning,” and it was a wrist tattoo. And she was like “You either have to get ‘Zeppos’ or ‘Daddy’.” And I was like “Jesus Christ, I don’t think I can do ‘Daddy’, that’s really aggressive.”

VH: You’re famous, now!

IV: It was so weird, because I was not with it, and then my friend made the meme and put it in the group. So we’re driving back from Mardi Gras and my sorority GroupMe and all these GroupMes that I’m in are blowing up, and I was like “This is not what I had intended, what’s happened?” And then the next day I was late to all my classes because I would be just walking around campus people would be like “Let me see your tattoo!”, which got really bad as the tattoo faded away because I have to explain why it’s not there anymore, it was real, this isn’t a scam.

VH: Is that your only tattoo?

IV: Yeah. I mean, I probably would get another lip tattoo. They’re expensive, I would make sure it was a legit one that lasted more than two days. I don’t think I would get a tattoo anywhere else.

*initials used for privacy

Bekah Lovsness (’19)

VH: When did you get each of them?

BL: I got this one (the quote) in June after I graduated high school. I got this one (the tree) a year ago, now. And I got this one (the sasquatch) this summer. So this- it’s in Latin, it means “She flies with her own wings”- and it’s the state motto of Oregon. I didn’t grow up in Oregon but I moved to Oregon. So when I was in fifth grade and I still lived in California I had to do a state report and I chose Oregon just because I didn’t have a state to pick, I didn’t have any connection with any other one. When I was doing research about Oregon I found this as it’s state motto and it stuck with me. Then after graduating high school I was leaving Oregon and I don’t think I’m going back, so I was just like “Oh, I’ll just get this because it’s sweet.” Also it’s just a cool quote and I like it a lot.

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BL: So me and my grandpa were really close, and when I was little I would just sit at the kitchen table with him and he would tell me stories and he would draw while he would tell me stories. And last year when I was home for Christmas break I found a folder with a bunch of his drawings in it, so I decided to get one after I found that. He passed away while I was in I think seventh grade.

VH: What does it say on the back?

BL: It says “In a little”, and that’s his handwriting. It’s like “I’ll see you in a little”, you know?

VH: So what’s the sasquatch, then?

BL: The sasquatch is kind of silly, I don’t know. I’m a firm believer that sasquatch is real, for one. And then me and my dad have always been the type to watch weird shows together, like we’ll watch Ghost Hunters and we’ll watch shows about sasquatch and stuff. My friend was going to get one and she was like “Want to come with me?” and I was like “Alright!” And this was just something silly and funny.


VH: Does your dad know about that one, or any of them?

BL: He does, he knows about all three of them. I didn’t tell my parents I was getting them; my dad doesn’t like tattoos at all. So he didn’t know that I was getting it, and after I got it I texted him and was like “Hey, I just want you to know I got a tattoo today,” and he was like “You’re joking right? This better be a joke.” The second one was his dad, so he couldn’t get mad at me for that one, you know? And now, when I just tell him about how I might get another one, or when I got this one, he just rolls his eyes and he’s like “Whatever.”

VH: What about your mom? How does she feel?

BL: My mom is like “Whatever, do what you want to do.” I told her before I told my dad that I got my first one, and I was “How do I tell him?” and she was like “You’re on your own.”

VH: So where did you get each of them? Like, where were the tattoo shops?

BL: So I got this one (the quote) when I was in Oregon still, and then I got this one (the sasquatch) in Oregon this summer, too. And then I got this one (the tree) here in Nashville.

VH: Where in Nashville?

BL: I went to the place called Gold Club Electric. They used to be right by Lonnie’s and then they moved to East Nashville. They were really cool, they were all a bunch of alternative guys with beards. It was a fun experience.

Payton DePalma (’19)

VH: What is the design?

PD: So it’s an autism puzzle piece. I have yet to see the actual proofs, but the general idea is there’s gonna be a tree coming out of it and a bunch of birds that are the colors of the autism ribbon. It’s because I have a little brother who has autism, and he’s the reason that I’m here and he’s the reason that I’m studying neuroscience and the reason I do autism research. When I was sixteen, that was when I first had the idea. That’s when I first decided that I wanted to get a tattoo because neuroscience isn’t an easy major, and autism research is not an easy field to be in, so it’s a permanent reminder of what I want to do and where I’m going. Even when it gets tough, it’s a permanent part of me.

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VH: How do your parents feel about it?

PD: They don’t know, and they will never know hopefully!

VH: Does your brother know?

PD: My little brother does not know. I have an older brother as well. I told my older brother. My little brother is nonverbal. I don’t know that it’s something that he would necessarily understand. But one day, my parents will probably see it, and they’ll probably be mad for a minute. But it has a lot of meaning. We’re all very very involved in the autism community. They are also two of the biggest people in my life who have inspired me and inspired me to do autism research specifically. I think if I am able to justify it to them, it will be less jarring.

VH: Is this the only one you think you’ll ever get? 

PD: Maybe. I love tattoos. I feel like I would totally rock a sleeve, but I feel like doctors don’t often have sleeves. 

VH: Where did you get it?

PD: Safehouse Tattoo. It’s next to Marathon Music Works. It’s right next door.

VH: Is there any reason why you went there? 

PD: Eric [Zhuang] recommended it to me. They have a bunch of artists that work for them, and you look at each artist’s work and find which one you think you vibe with and email them specifically. I emailed my artist. I just schedule my first appointment.

Rachel Erbrick (’19)

VH: So I was told that you gave yourself your own tattoo.

Rachel Erbrick: Yes.

VH: What is it?

RE: Really I was like, on Wednesday last year I was like I feel like I want a tattoo, but I didn’t feel like paying for the premium which was honestly really dumb but whatever. [laughs] I was like I’ll go to Michael’s on Thursday, so I got non-toxic ink and gave myself a tattoo. I was trying of think of what I wanted. I went with what everybody thinks is a lowercase alpha, but it’s actually a black ribbon for narcolepsy awareness. [laughs] 

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VH: Why narcolepsy awareness?

RE: Because I have narcolepsy. [laughs]

VH: I figured, I just wanted to make sure.

RE: That was the only thing I could think of that I would not mind looking at every day.

VH: How long have you had narcolepsy?

RE: I started getting symptoms when I was 16, but I got diagnosed last year.

VH: While you were in college? So you got diagnosed here, on campus? That sounds terrible.

RE: Nah, it was fine. I remember I was going to an Alpha Chi date party, and I got an email about it, and I was like “Oh, yeah.”  

VH: How did you do it? 

RE: I felt like if I was gonna do it myself, I was gonna make sure it was very clean and everything. I had a needle, and I took a match and sterilized it. Then I used rubbing alcohol and then you just dip it in ink and repeatedly stab yourself. [laughs] Took like an hour.

VH: Did it hurt? 

RE: I mean, it wasn’t comfortable, but I feel like I have a fairly high pain tolerance. 

VH: Would you ever do another one professionally or would you ever give yourself another one?

RE: No! I just wanted one, and I’m good. 

VH: What’d your parents think about that? 

RE: I told my mom, and she didn’t believe me. I was like, “What if I told you I had a tattoo.” And she was like, “You don’t.” And I’m like, “What if I told you I gave it to myself?” And she’s like, “That’s not possible.” She kinda laughed about it. I told my dad and he’s like, “I’m glad you saved money.” 

VH: I know people that have done that, and it didn’t end well.

RE: No, I was very deliberate with Neosporin three times a day. Yeah, that’s about it. [laughs]

Rejul Bejoy (’17)

VH: So, first of all, what do you have? 

Rejul Bejoy: I have four tattoos. This is a protea flower, which is the national flower of South Africa. I got that because I lived in South Africa over the summer. This is the last one I got, a month ago after my tax returns came in. And then I have two on collarbones. One says, “So it goes,” which is from Slaughterhouse Five. I got that sophomore year in January. That was the first one I ever got. Slaughterhouse Five was my favorite book back then, it’s not anymore. Guess I still have it on me. Then I got, “This too shall pass” in Farsi. That was also sophomore year. That was a phrase I heard a lot from a Persian friend of mine growing up that really helped me through a lot of stuff. And then I have a five-headed snake on my back which is Hindi deity. I got it as a symbol of being tied to my background. I got that this summer.

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VH: Do you have plans for any more?

RB: I don’t know. I didn’t really plan this one out. I felt like as it’s gotten more and more, it’s become less of a big deal as long as I can look professional. I don’t think I’d ever get anything that’s on the face or neck that I wouldn’t be able to cover up if I wanted to. So maybe. 

VH: Where do you get them done?

RB: I’ve gotten three of them done in Nashville at the same place, Kustom Thrills. It’s in East Nashville, it’s a pretty good place. 

Rejul Bejoy 1.JPGVH: So there’s always a meaning to your tattoos?

RB: Yeah. For this one, I’d been thinking of getting one on my arm for a couple months. Tattoo shops do flash sales. It’s usually for a charity or something. They’ll have generic ones that you choose from. A couple hours, the artists will tattoo each other, and people are picking. I was thinking of doing that. That wouldn’t have really had any meaning, but I was down.

VH: I’ve heard of people doing gumball tattoos. I’m talking someone tomorrow about that. You just get a random design or something.

RB: I can see myself doing that as long as I liked the design even if it didn’t have any meaning.

Ben Wexler (’17)

Ben Wexler: There’s this tattoo place over on Elliston by Samurai Sushi called Flash City and my friend and I went there in order to get her a nose piercing, I think. The receptionist there who did piercing was super cool and we were talking to her for a while, and she mentioned that there’s this gumball machine in the front lobby and that you can put like 50 cents into it and it will spit out a random design. And so you can get that design and it’s way cheaper actually going and designing your own tattoo, it’s like $50. The deal is you have to get whatever design comes out of this gumball machine, so you have no idea what you’re getting and you have to agree to it. 

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And so originally we were supposed to go together, but she ended up being busy and I felt very impulsive, so I kind of went on my own. And so it spat out this design of a crab actually. Crabs, at that point meant nothing to me and I was like “Ok I guess I’m getting a crab” and I really didn’t care because I was just like “I’m going to get a tattoo anyway.” But it was cool for me, I actually ended up going by myself because I had a friend go with me because I wanted to have someone there because I thought it was going to hurt. So I’m like “Please have someone there at the beginning so I can freak out if I need to freak out.” She ended up leaving the second the guy put the needle on my arm, and I was like “Ok thanks.” It actually felt really good, it was really surprising, I actually really enjoyed that feeling, which is probably not good, because it means I’m probably going to get more. I’ve already gotten a second one.

VH: What’s your second one?

BW: My second one is actually one that I planned out. It’s going to get colored in at the end of April. This one’s way more expensive, so I had to divide it into two sessions in order to afford to do it. This was at Black 13 which is a big tattoo place in Nashville. The design is called a firebird, which is a creature from Russian folklore- I’m a Russian major and I’m moving to Russia after I graduate, so obviously I’m like in love with Russia. But the firebird specifically, it has this connotation to it of it’s this object that you have to go through this super difficult journey to get to this firebird- very typical of a fairytale, you have to do this crazy journey and get help from all these people- and then you end up getting it, and you’re supposed to take a feather off its tail, that’s the point of the fairytale. But then that feather brings misfortune to your life, and it’s kind of like this curse from this beautiful creature that for some reason people still want but it kind of curses you. Not to get melodramatic, but it’s kind of symbolic to me of my time here at Vanderbilt, because Vanderbilt has not been easy by stretch of the imagination. I think it’s the same for a lot of people, honestly. You have this idea about what Vanderbilt’s going to be like and you work really hard to get into here, and then it just becomes insanely stressful and things happen in your life that you don’t expect and all of a sudden life is crappy. I’m on the other side of that, now, because I’m a graduating senior, so I kind of wanted to look back on it and be like “I worked really hard and it didn’t turn out how I wanted it to but I’m happy that I did it in the first place and I’m happy that I went through all these struggles to come out on the other side”, which isn’t necessarily the point of the fairytale but that’s what it means to me and what this means to me.

I never thought I was going to [get a tattoo] because I was raised Jewish and that’s obviously something you’re not supposed to do. I’m really happy that I did it, I have to hide it from my rabbi.

VH: Do your parents know?

BW: Um, no. But you know, ignorance is bliss. They don’t really need to know. They don’t know about a lot of things really. What’s the point of telling them? It’s just going to make them upset, and it’s my decision and my body.

VH: Do you plan on getting more?

BW: Yeah, first I need more money. But yeah, I think that as long as I have some sort of disposable income I would save up more money to get more tattoos. I’d like to get my arms tattooed, and maybe my back a little bit. I want like a good job, so I can’t get it all over the place, but if I wear long sleeves no one can tell. But I think the stigma of tattoos making it difficult to get a job is ending, I think a lot of people our age are getting tattoos and we don’t think negatively about it.

Evan Lyons (’19)

VH: First of all, what do you have?

Evan Lyons: I have an ampersand on my forearm.

VH: Is there a story behind it?

EL: It’s just sort of a rant that I have behind it to explain it. So, the ampersand is, first of all, just pretty. There are a lot of really cool fun facts in history about it. Starting with what it literally is, it’s Latin. It’s a stylized “E” and a “T”. Some styles look more like an “ET” than others but that’s the latin word for “and”, “et”.

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So there’s a nuance of how it’s used, as well. This is especially in bibliographies- in film credits most specifically. When two names are credited for the poeple having worked on the screenplay or anything like that, if two people are credited with it, and it’s written “So-and-so AND So-and-so”, then they just both worked on it and that’s all. But if it’s “So-and-so & So-and-so”, it brings their name closer together because there’s less stuff in between them, and the nuance is that it implies that not only did they both work on it, but they communicated, they collaborated, they worked on it at the same time. So the way I think of it, it’s just a very intentional symbol of unity and inclusion, and that’s sort of the main reason why I got it.

About the style, it’s not connected. But since the entire shape is implied, when you look at it from further away, it just looks like a Times New Roman ampersand. The way that I look at that is it’s my unity with my girlfriend, or my fiancé now (yay!). We’ve been long distance, and so like this part right here is when we’re away from each other, because we’re not with each other, but it still is a part of our union. So, that’s kind of the mushy-gushy part.

VH: Your fiancé obviously knows about your tattoo. How does she feel about it?

EL: She likes it. She actually got a tattoo before I did. Her favorite animal is the elephant, and so she’s got a little elephant on her right ankle, because it’s her favorite animal and because they’re good luck when their trunks are pointing up. She likes my tattoo though, she thinks it’s hot.

VH: How do your parents feel about it?

EL: My dad isn’t the biggest fan, but I think that they know that I’m responsible enough not to get something that I’ll regret, so they’re fine with it as long as I’m fine with it.

Mac Ploetz (’18)

VH: I see you have those two tattoos, do you have any others?

Mac Ploetz: No, it’s just these two, but I plan on getting another one soon.

VH: What are you planning on getting?

MP: It’s kind of a mountain thing. I don’t know, I just like it, there’s no reason for it. And that’s like a majority of the reason why I think these are interesting. A first-year that I know drew it.

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VH: So tell me about these then.

MP: A very common question that I get asked is “What do those mean?”, and the cool thing is that they don’t actually mean anything, which is kind of baffling sometimes, because they’re so simple, they don’t scream meaning or anything, so it’s like “Oh, it must be some deep meaning.” Actually, there’s nothing, there’s no reason that I have them. I guess my 14-year old self thought that these would be cool, and there used to be a reason for it, it had to do with like past and present and future stuff, but when I turned 15 I didn’t like that reason anymore but I thought they were cool still. So this past September I got them finally, kind of just to let my 14 year-old self know that it happens eventually, but I don’t really like assign a meaning to it. The meaning is that there’s no meaning, if that makes sense. My whole thing about tattoos is that I don’t really understand why we always have to assign a very specific meaning, like why can’t it just be there for the sake of looking nice? I tell jokes a lot, actually. One is that it’s pointing to my left hand, like arrows. Or that the three points represent the Holy Trinity: God, Jesus, and Casper: the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. That’s my favorite one.

VH: Is the mountain thing your only idea right now?

MP: So the goal for this arm is to transform it into something with a little bit more meaning. I want it to be like a black and white-type geometric sleeve. I don’t really know where I’m going with it yet, but I think it speaks to how it’s hard for me to stay simplistic about things. For me tattoos didn’t have a lot of meaning but getting them was more meaningful.

VH: What did that mean to you?

MP: So when I was a kid my parents were always like “You can never get a tattoo or we’re going to disown you.” And then they disowned me for other reasons last year (laughs). It seemed like one of the first steps that was a permanent thing that symbolized my separation from them because this was something that my parents said they would never, ever, ever let me do and I’m doing it now because they did all that stuff. 

VH: Were your parents very religious in any way?

MP: No, actually they’re not religious. Neither of them were very well off. They grew up in a culture where you really don’t get piercings and you really don’t get tattoos, because of job prospects I think. I think the other part of it was once they realized that they had a kid that could go to college they didn’t want to hurt that chance.

The other piece of it for me is this idea of a reclamation of my body, because I am trans. For a really long time, everyone is feeding the narrative of like “Oh, he was just born in the wrong body”, and it’s like, I wasn’t, I was born in my body and my job is to be comfortable with that, and I feel like this is part of that.

VH: Where did you get them done?

MP: Icon. It’s something really cool to me, because I could never get them. Piercings weren’t really an option to me, and tattoos weren’t an option, which is weird because my parents weren’t like, “Show no skin, dress modestly.” I think it was just tattoos and piercings and body modification, I guess. They hated when I had blue hair. I think it all bleeds into autonomy, if that makes sense, and I think that’s what college is, is autonomy, and this is a representation of that.

Eric Zhuang (’19)

VH: You’ve already shown me your tattoo, can you explain it to me? You said it’s from East of Eden.

Eric Zhuang: So it’s “Our devils aren’t very bright. We can outthink them. That’s some progress.” I wanted to do something from East of Eden when I first decided that I wanted to get a tattoo, because it was like one of my favorite books and it was very meaningful to me. But I also didn’t want to get a quote that everybody had from East of Eden. So I wanted to pick something obscure that no one else would have, because I’m kind of a hipster like that. It’s a little bit out of context, and I still think it’s kind of a cool, profound thing about the strength of the mind. I like it personally, and I like it because I don’t think it’s a quote that’s used, so I don’t think it’ll be a common tattoo.

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VH: When did you get it?

EZ: I got it over fall break, actually, I went to Chicago with some friends. I wasn’t even planning on getting a tattoo then, I just knew that I wanted to get it as soon as possible, and then someone just happened to say “Hey, you should get a tattoo now, this is the perfect opportunity!” and I was like “Why not?” And so we looked up the nearest tattoo areas and found the one with the best Yelp reviews and went and got it at like 11pm and finished it at like 2am.

VH: How do your parents feel about it/do they know?

EZ: They don’t know and I feel like they really wouldn’t understand a tattoo, they’d probably just freak out.

VH: What happens when you go to the beach?

EZ: That’s actually something I’ll have to figure out, because they keep telling me that they want to pick me up after school ends this year and go to the beach or something for a little while. So I’ll either need to buy one of those swim shirts or find an excuse not to go.

VH: Would you get another one/do you have plans to?

EZ: I probably would, but not before college ends. Not until I’m out of college and have had a couple years just being in the real world, and then I might feel like “Hey, it’s time to get another.” But I definitely don’t want to cover myself in tats.

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