The Meaning and Importance of Teacher Tattoos

It began as an idea. Students would speak to them about tattoos. Soon, it blossomed into heartfelt and beautiful stories from college students about their lives as well as the factors that influenced their decisions.

The perspective of young Gen Z students was different. Students were able share their opinions on tattoos. They shared how they could express themselves, remind themselves of something important or simply whether they just wanted a design that was meaningful or cool.

In this conversation, the perspective of the millennials (or Gen X) and specifically teachers was missing.

According to Chicago Tribune articles, half of millennials are tattooed as compared with just 13% of boomers. A third of 40-year-olds were tatted in 2015, a rise from 14% back in 2003.

Peace and Flowers

Lori Clark is an English professor who sat down with us to talk about the significance of two tattoos that she had. Her first tattoo was a peace sign that she wore on her shoulder at age 28.

“I think I was a little bit nervous [about getting a tattoo] but I was also excited,” Clark said. “I was with some friends who were also getting tattoos, so it was more of a fun experience…”

Clark saw the symbol as a sign of the end to a relationship and the things she wanted from that separation.

“[The peace sign] tattoo I got when my divorce was final…,” Clark said. “It was sort of meant to represent the peace that I was hoping to have after that bad relationship.”

Her inner forearm is covered in a purple flower. It is engraved with the names of her grandparents.

“This tattoo is a memorial for my grandparents,” Clark said. “When my grandmother died in 2011, …my youngest sister and I decided that we wanted to get tattoos to honor [our] grandmother. …My grandmother loved flowers and we knew that [the tattoo] was going to be a flower.”

The pair of sisters ended up finding a picture of one of their grandmother’s flowers that their uncle had taken.

“We included my grandmother’s name, Pauline, and my grandfather’s name, Pete, with the tattoo as well,” Clark said. “… My youngest sister has the same tattoo on the back of her neck.”

Clark sees tattooing as a way of expressing oneself just like any other expression.

“I think that it’s important for people to know that tattoos are not necessarily an act of rebellion; they’re an act of expression,” Clark said. “… Every generation has had a way they express themselves whether it was through music or dance or whatever it happened to be, and so now for younger people- and even older people- there’s a lot more expression through tattoos, so I think it’s just a different form of expression and what people are used to.”


His tattoo is explained by Travis Linville (Professor of Photography). It’s a black-and white design of a moth that he has tattooed on his inner forearm.

“I think it was pretty laid back,” Travis said. “It’s something I’d intended to do for a long time, and it mainly came down more to finding the time to carve out in a day. I’d say there was a degree of anticipation, but it’s something that I’d kind of had on my list of things I wanted to do for a while.”

Linville’s photo was the inspiration behind the design. Lifespan Vanitas-style paintings are his inspiration and he compares the life of a moth to that of a tree.

“[The tattoo] is from a photograph I took and it’s a detail of a moth, and the [photograph] is a combination of different imagery,” Linville said. “It’s a combination of…this macro photo I took of a moth, and then the encyclopedic illustration of a tree ring. …It’s comparing the relatively brief life of a moth like this to the longevity of a tree.’

Linville discussed the Vanitas themes, and Linville explored Linville’s view of moths through photography.

“The concept behind [Vanitas paintings] It was about carpe diem, like ‘seize the day,’” Linville said. “Life is fleeting, you know, [and] It was a gentle reminder to live your best life. [and] It is important to live a full life because time is quickly passing. …The other thing was the moth, especially for photographers is something that’s always going towards the light, and light is our primary material in photography. That was important to me.”

Linville explained how he didn’t face any scrutiny for getting a tattoo but that he still kept the history of tattoo stigmatization in mind, and how he didn’t want a tattoo to interfere with his professional aspirations. Linville spoke out about tattoos that work in the creative industry and the differences between workers and creators.

Queequeg & Ishmael

Kellen Bolt is Professor of English and Advisor for Students Who Are Not Silent. He spoke about his tattoos and the meanings. The first tattoo was a lightning bolt that went across his ribs. The second tattoo was a conflower and sunflower in his outer forearm. Both of these tattoos were done for him this year.

He was very happy with his first tattoo.

“The first [tattoo] I got is a little lightning bolt on my ribs,” Bolt said. “Ribs because I always thought ribs look cool, also because it didn’t look good on my arm when they placed it. …Where I got it was a tattoo placed in Chicago called Wish Me Luck, …a black queer trans-owned business, so that’s part of the reason I did it there and I wanted my first tattoo to be from that place.”

Bolt was able to get his second tattoo in the home of an artist that he discovered via Instagram.

“I just really liked the work that they did,” Bolt said. “They didn’t have, like, a studio or anything, which [was] That’s fine with us. That was just an interesting experience.”

Bolt’s love for the agriculture of his home state and his eventual decision to move during his adult life led to his decision of getting the tattoo on his outer forearm. Bolt told how he was born in Kansas in the Midwest and eventually moved to Illinois.

After spending over a year in California, he felt inspired to get a tattoo that honored his home in the Midwest.

“Trees aren’t that big of a deal [in the Midwest],” Bolt said. “They’re not, like, everywhere, like they are in the Eastern United States, …but what is everywhere is prairie grasses and prairie flowers. …If you’ve ever seen, like, actual prairie grass and prairie flowers, they’re super tall and cool. …So when I moved to California, I realized all of the plants were different because it didn’t rain in California, …so I wanted something that would make me think of Kansas and Illinois.”

Bolt stated that coneflowers are a symbol of Illinois and Kansas. His various flower designs are represented by the prairie grass.

The novel Moby Dick, written by Herman Melville, serves as Bolt’s “weird” understanding of tattoos.

Bolt described the book in detail and contrasted the themes between Queequeg, Ishmael. Bolt explained that Ishmael, an American, is trying to overcome white supremacy as well as internalized homophobia. Queequeg is a Polynesia Native with many tattoos. He represents the rest, including the indigenous people.

Specifically, Bolt’s philosophy and idea of the art of tattoos come from the yin-and-yang of two distinctly polarizing characters.

“I was reading [Moby Dick] It struck me. [because] Ishmael is this person in the mid-19, the mid-1800s, when tattoos are very stigmatized and when tattoos are a sign of, you know, you don’t belong, you are foreign, you are queer,” Bolt said. “He chooses to tattoo his entire body as a way of sort of dis-identifying from the racist, sexist, and homophobic structures of the United States in a way that he’s actively choosing to dis-identify with them by tattooing his body.”

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