Look around you. How many people standing near you have tattoos? It may be more than you would think. Permanent tattoos have become increasingly common in the United States, with 21% of adult Americans now sporting at least one. In 2010, NBC’s “The Today Show” listed Richmond, Virginia, as the third most tattooed city in the United States, citing the city’s high number of tattoo shops per capita. Inspired by this statistic, the Valentine Richmond History Center teamed with local photographer Terry Brown to document the city’s tattoos. A public call for participation resulted in close to one hundred individuals volunteering to be photographed.
Tattooing, a method of body modification with ink or other materials, is found in every culture. For thousands of years, tattoos have expressed beliefs, shown status, preserved memories, and even been used as a form of punishment. In the past, western culture associated tattoos with those individuals who lived on the edge of society; however, today they are recognized as a legitimate art form and widely accepted in mainstream culture. As these images show, you never know who may have some ink.
This online exhibition shares highlights of History, Ink: The Tattoo Archive Project. Participants not only shared their designs, but also their associated stories and meaning. The images and others will be added to the History Center’s extensive photograph collection, which documents both Richmond’s past and present.
"“...I was born in Richmond, at MCV actually, and RVA means everything to me.. my family, my life is a story written in and around the city...”"
Anthony Clement II
"“I love Chola culture and I love Candyland, so we combined the two for the back tattoo...two ex-boyfriend tattoos and three different states are represented [on the sleeve]...”"
"“...a cluster of bats swooping up from my wrist [to meet] a highly stylized jellyfish...it is important to me aesthetically...”"
"“...I've always found cephalopods' intelligence and adaptability very intriguing...the stitching represents my pierced together philosophy of life...”"
"“...modern interpretation of George Orwell's 1984...my husband and I devoted approximately 100 hours to the completion of this tattoo...it is intended to reflect both my concern for modern society and my hope for the future...”"
"“… I’ve always loved all of [Salvador] Dali’s work but by far my favorite is his tall elephants…”"
"“…Main Street Station clock-tower and cardinal…represents my love for Richmond…the cardinal is not only our state bird but also my late grandmother’s favorite bird, and the time on the clock is my late mother’s birthday…”"
"“…in Florida, I saw lots of interesting creatures in Fort Myers and Key West…an octopus was something I always wanted because I would like eight arms to get everything done...”"
"“…ram and nittany lion brought together by eagle eyes…the lion signifies Penn State (undergrad)and the ram signifies VCU (MBA)…”"
"“…this tattoo is based on a painting by my favorite artist, Audrey Kawasaki, and was a gift to myself for graduating from VCU…it celebrates freedom and my long-awaited escape from the confines of institutionalized education…”"
"“…five different faces are all connected and each face puts emphasis on a different sense…these two faces depict smell and sight…”"
"“…Zodiac by Alphonse Mucha, an art nouveau artist…I’ve always been interested in astrology, and I immediately fell in love with the piece…the details were tough to get through on both ends, but it was without a doubt worth it…”"
"“…lock and key…started planning tattoo with artist just as something cool, inspired by neurotic mom…doe and roses [were] inspired by my dad and being called ‘doe eyes’ all my life…”"
"“…I got the knuckles, ‘gain’ on right hand and ‘loss’ on other, in reference to electricity, as I was an audio engineer at the time…the rose I got because it was beautiful, and was sick of even trying to hide my tattoos at work…roses are to remind me to refrain from violence…”"
"“…I am a librarian…the thought of a pin-up librarian tattoo made me laugh…”"
"“…it’s all odd numbers (kind of a running joke)…I’ve always loved black birds…when we moved into our new house, I found a dead one in our fireplace…thought it was very fitting…""
"“…a bicycle wheel with Richmond, VA circling it: I had no car so traveled around town on my bike for a few years…robot: from the movie/book The Iron Giant…he is a fabulous role model…hope in a scroll: I had a moment where I had hope so I got this so I could always have it…two bears, Native American, with a tribal thing between: my first tattoo, because I was clueless…”"
"“…the phoenix represents rising from ashes after experiencing three deaths in my family…the dragons are because a nephew was crazy about them…”"
"“…landscape of a dying tree with vibrant part…fence and rope swing are [my] favorite details and represent my life at the time…dying section represents inability to have successful relationships… vibrant part represents my business success…rope swing and fence represent my daughter…tombstone represents my view of Darwinism…”"
"“…I produce various RVA events such as the Richmond Folk Festival and Friday Cheers…I love this city…the company I work for helped design the RVA logo…”"
"“…Marilyn Monroe…just love her...”"
"“…as a social studies teacher, this piece is important to me…it speaks to my belief in this country and wanting us to live in peace…”"
"“…I was born on [Abraham] Lincoln’s birthday, so I always received Lincoln books and became really interested in him…”"
"“…the tattoo on the inside of my arm is inspired by the March 1954 cover of Time magazine....the needles at the top represent the polio vaccine and the leg braces represent polio victims…the circles around the braces represent the actual virus itself….my mother was born July 10, 1949 and was diagnosed with polio when she was just two…two years later the vaccine was administered across the country…my mother spent her childhood in hospitals and hot springs treatment centers across Texas….the irony of my mother’s lifelong suffering and Salk’s discovery has always perplexed me…”"
"“…I just love to be creative [with] pieces that fit the body…a lot of my work is freehand…”"
"“…[the] birds and cherry blossoms connect to a Geisha in robes on back…I just wanted a beautiful piece of art….my arm is a continuation of my back…”"
"“…zombies: myself as both a zombie and zombie hunter…as a zombie, I have become part of the horde, the crowd…and as a zombie hunter, I’m trying to remain an individual by killing off my zombie self….Alice in Wonderland: my ex, now my husband, compared me to Alice – I guess I was a bit of a lost girl in high school…very first tattoo!…”"
"“…Don Quixote de La Mancha y Sancho Panza with the windmills…Don Quixote was one of the first novels my mother, who is from Spain, got me…the story speaks to me…”"
"“…I got this ship for my grandfather…he was a dockworker in Liverpool…I bannered the ship with the word Liverpool and the year I was born…”"
"“…inspired by Zalgo, an elder god believed to cause insanity, death and destruction of the world, similar to the creature Cthulhu created by H.P. Lovecraft in the 1920s…it’s my first and only tattoo…”"
"“…plum flower blossoms with ravens…purely aesthetic…visited China and admired the watercolor paintings…”"
"“…I liked the 'wow' factor of a Confederate flag on a black man's skin…I wanted to challenge the notion of fear - even of images and symbols typically intended to frighten me - and I had black ants over the flag to represent a proletariat army…”"
"“…I’m vegan and anarchist so I strongly believe in both animal and human liberation…I’m also a huge fan of the Black Panther Party and that movement…”"
Moriah ‘Mo’ Karn
"“…banner with Latin ‘commemini letum in,’ which translates as ‘remember annihilation’…remember those who have died…”"
Charles J. Thorsen
"“…[my] tattoo started as a wind-up key that I wasn’t happy with – [the] idea evolved into steampunk wings…steampunk and burner culture [are a] life and style that liberated me as a creative professional and performance artist…original wind-up key by a separate artist, and Charles transformed it into something amazing…”"
"“…[a] ‘secret garden’…started as a cover up…I love the fantasies of falling in love and finding inner strength…”"
"“…the saying is one of my favorites and is about never giving up…the ‘T’s’ are not crossed at the end so I remember that life isn’t perfect…”"
"“…train bridge over the James River…[from a] mural a friend painted…”"
"“…the tattoo, a hand holding a microphone that is connected to a human heart, represents the power of a microphone and voice to truly express yourself through song, storytelling, spoken word, and free speech…”"
"“…owls are cool…so I got one…”"
"“…these words are important to me because they represent my personal philosophy and the way I try to live my life…’respice finem’ literally means ‘look to the end’ in Latin, but is more accurately translated as ‘consider the outcome’…in other words, think about the consequences of your choices…the ink on my arms is a permanent reminder of the kind of person I want to be…it was a birthday gift from my wife and it always reminds me of her, and home, when I’m away…”"
"“…wise owls were my late grandmother's favorite animal...we both took each other for granted, so it's a reminder to enjoy what you have while you have it…”"
"“…my brother, Jarrett, was one of the 32 victims on 4-16-07 at the Virginia Tech massacre…I chose the sparrow for my tattoo because it is a classic icon for honoring a loved one, and it symbolizes flight, which captures the spirit of my relationship with my brother…the colors in my tattoo remind me of meaningful childhood experiences with my brother and eternal love…”"
"“…Day of the Dead piece on my arm…I wanted a big awesome tattoo with a skull…”"
"“…[these are] letters my grandparents wrote when first dating, in their handwriting…”"
"“…Our Lady of Guadalupe…every bit of color and detail has significance – the blue of the sky and stars, her crown, and the flowers all connect with the miracle of Guadalupe…”"
"“…the RVA Beard League captured my heart, which I proudly wear on my sleeve…”"
Robere del Follicle
"“…I grew up on the Eastern Shore of Virginia where seagulls are a constant…after both of my grandparents passed, I got the tattoo to represent them…”"
"“…we have herons that randomly come to the lake near our home, and it always makes me happy and excited to see them…they’re one of my favorite things about Richmond…it was designed by my fiancé Matt Wolford…”"
"“…a mixture of Virginia pride and personal ethos…male and female cardinals with a heart shape in the center represent my parents… “Share What Ya Got”: the words are an album title and just good words to live by…”"
"“…I had a scar from my appendectomy…I figured I might as well get further scarred with a tattoo…the pre-existing scar is sort of a stripe on the big fish…the design was originally from a ska rock band from Boston…”"
"“…I have been getting tattoos that represent each of my five children…this one represents my 19-year-old Gabriel…he gave me the cross…”"
"“…it came to me in a dream…a tree from a J.D. Salinger children’s book and a boy composite from a 1950s children’s book…people think it is The Giving Tree…”"
"“… ship themes signify safe travels, safety…”"
"“…gypsy: the idea of love as a game of chance…pirate: inspiration to embrace adventure…nurse: need for healing…sugar skull: embrace mortality without thinking it macabre…top of feet: each foot reads “Best Foot” so no matter which foot leads, I always put my best foot forward…”"
Nathan S. Cushing
"“…I got this shortly after I began my career as a make-up artist… it symbolizes my passion for and commitment to make-up artistry…”"
"“…an Adinkra symbol pronounced “Sankofa”…it means “return and get it,” which is a suggestion to look back and learn from the past…for me, it’s a reminder of how far I have come in life…”"
"“…I liked the idea of having a protector [Medusa] facing behind me…she’s smirking, which gives her the impression of being harmless… appearances can definitely be deceiving...I'm a nice person but I’m a lot tougher than what people initially think… ”"
"“…DNA, fire and eyes [are] based on Alex Grey [and a] spiritual belief of universal knowledge…”"
"“…chest [represents] biomech…left arm [shows] ravens…right arm [shows the] Iraq War…”"
"“…I’m a strength and conditioning coach and fitness and health [are] my life, so the tattoo, the muscular anatomy of the shoulder and arm, represents my lifestyle…”"
"“…it started with just the Tin Man, my favorite movie character (sappy, I know), because he wanted a heart and then he “knew he had one because it was breaking”…I wanted more elements from the movie and Ed came up with the design…”"
Teresa G. S. Kinsey
"“…I lived in Korea for a year…while there I got a name stamp made for me using Chinese characters that roughly correspond to Knight, my last name…”"
"“…never surrender: never give up or give in, never back down…one swallow was a cover up and I got two because they come in a pair – also [they are] not facing each other…brass knuckles filled the spot between the swallows, and the wind and clouds pulled it all together to make it one whole chest piece…”"
"“…Virginia with cassette tape: Richmond is marked on the state and surrounded by a mix tape with my wife’s initials…we made mix tapes on our first date…my daughter drew the hearts…Carrington had drawn one for Shaun previously…Ouroboros sun: the art is from the last Souvenir’s Young America album…”"
"No quote provided"
"“…when I moved to Richmond in 2006, I was in a place in my life where I was searching for who I really was and what I wanted…I found that in the history, culture and fabric of RVA…the peacock represents the beauty that I found in this city and how I was changed by it…”"
Rebecca Anne Muhleman
"“…white rabbit and skeleton…rabbit is a nickname given to my father and all his sons…”"
"“…a cartoon depiction of my son riding a big wheel with my animals in a wagon on my back and ribs…I’ve always wanted [Jesse Smith] to tattoo me…I gave him the basic concept and some reference pictures…I let him do the rest…”"
"“…my son Jaxon standing with his best friends Smokey, Diesel and Eddie…”"
"“…I got pregnant a year or so after and my little swallows looked like swans…I got [the anchor] when my second son was born…”"
"“…a black and gray feather quill…I am a writer...it’s symbolic…”"
"“…a seven-headed Hydra…”"
"“…portrait of Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom and knowledge…other arm has a portrait of Hermes, Greek god of travelers…patron deities of two parts of my life: graduate school and Richmond cycling community…”"
"“…details revealed in splashed ink suggest that even careless or messy actions can have beauty and significance…”"
"“… the lightning bolt comes from Elvis Presley’s logo: TCB, or Taking Care of Business…I love rockabilly, Elvis, and the sentiment…I also like that it’s implied…if you know TCB, you’ll get it even without the letters…”"
"“...my birthday falls on the 13th, so 13 has always been lucky to me…my mom gives me black-eyed susans on my birthday…I got the tattoo to commemorate my 30th birthday…a year later I got married on 13th too…”"
Susan Bollinger Wolfe
"“…the state seal of Virginia… I am a very “statriotic” person, and this helps show my Virginia pride…”"
Sponsors—Tom and Wendy Rosenthal