The ‘why’s and ‘who’s behind students’ tattoos

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Illustration by Kayla Roberts.

Among all the forms of self-expression that have come and gone, tattoos have stood the test of time. Many UNLV students, alumni and faculty have gone under the needle, choosing body art as a way to express themselves. While the practice seems commonplace, the meaning behind one person’s tattoos could vary wildly from another tattoo.

Many find comfort in commemorating their loved ones through tattoos, the ink serving as living tributes. Occupational therapy (OT) student Ka’iulani-joy Conlu chose to dedicate a tattoo to her late father, a rose intertwining his birthday written in Roman numerals. “It’s my favorite tattoo by far,” Conlu said. “I love my other ones, but this one just goes deeper.” 

However, others use tattoos to commemorate milestones, seeing the tattooing as a rite of passage. Journalism student Mikayla Tuzon got her first tattoo the day she turned 18, attributing her “excitement of being a legal adult.” 

However, her favorite tattoo commemorates a different milestone. “My most favorite tattoo that I have is my bandaid tattoo on my left side,” Tuzon wrote in an email. “To me, the placement of it is symbolic of how much I have healed as a person.”

Some people, such as OT student Alyssa Soliven, have tattoos that reflect their heritage. Soliven’s first tattoo was the Filipino flag sun with her last name written in alibata, the traditional script used by the indigenous Filipino people. 

But not everybody assigns deep symbolism to their tattoos. Alumna Kristal Raquel recalled one of her first tattoos from her time at UNLV. Raquel remembered running to her car right after class with a friend and speeding down the street so the two of them could get tattoos during their four-hour break. When I asked her why they had to go between classes, she laughed hysterically before answering, “We got our tax refunds that day.”

Regardless of differing meanings and motives, everyone considering a tattoo should all consider one factor: what artist should they choose?

Soliven heard of a tattoo parlor from her friends for her first tattoo, but she did not give much thought as to who she would see specifically. “I didn’t realize that there were that many different artists,” Soliven said. “But I talked to all of them, and they chose who would be the best fit to slay the design.”

While there are tattoo parlors with accommodating tattoo artists like Soliven experienced, many still prefer to ask around to find a particular artist before getting the tattoo. Tuzon outlined this process, saying she would ask her friends and sister for recommendations.

Besides traditional word-of-mouth, it seems like social media is the preferred way to find a suitable tattoo artist. Raquel swears by Instagram, explaining she likes “being able to see their portfolio first before deciding to get art from them.” Many tattoo artists nowadays provide current portfolios of their work on their Instagram for prospective clients to see.

But beware the clout trap; a large following is not always a reflection of skill. Conlu remembered falling for this trap. “She was the most popular tattoo artist at the time,” she said. “Was it good? Meh. But when you’re 18, is anything really going that good?”

Instead of engagement, Raquel recommends judging for skills and fundamentals. “Look for artists with solid linework and shading,” she stated. “You can see a lot more than you’d expect if you zoom in a bit, and always try to find pics of the tattoos fully healed.”

But the last bit of advice Raquel had was to avoid analysis paralysis. “If you stress for perfection, you’ll never make the jump. Get your second favorite idea done by a decent artist in an inconspicuous spot. The perfection will come later.”

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