State Press Magazine interviewed three University students who felt compelled by their culture to put aspects on their skin each day. Sophia Crevelt is a junior studying mass communication and journalism. She shares her tattoo which was inspired by a trip to Italy. Allison Hawn is a tattoo artist historian who graduated from ASU in 2022 after completing a Ph.D. degree in communication. She wears traditional tattoos of the Indigenous peoples of northern Scotland and continues to preserve what it means for Pict. Sasha Park is a senior student in ecology, conservation, and biological sciences. She explains how her tattoos helped to accept her body as transgender and her fascination with niche cultures.
The following conversations have been edited to keep them short and simple.
When did you get your tattoo?
Because my mom is from Naples, I received it right after I returned from my first trip to Italy. Last summer, I was on vacation with her. I was able to see her childhood home and finally got to meet my family in Italy. It was a way to connect with my culture, and it opened my eyes to the value of travel.
Your tattoo is located where? What does it represent?
It’s currently on my arm. It’s the same as the necklace that I wear all the time. It’s called a cornetto or cornicello, but it just translates to “horn.” It is a small horn pendant. It’s an Italian talisman. Similar to the Evil Eye found in Greek and Turkish cultures. It works as a spiritual shield.
It is compared to red chili pepper, according to some. People say things like “I love your chili tattoo” and I reply “Thanks.” Because I was traveling for the first time, I bought it as a tiny postage stamp. There’s a plane, then there’s 22. This is the year I traveled.
What does it represent?
It is a symbol of my mom and my connection to her culture. It also represents me meeting my family in Italy, which I am proud of. It’s an ongoing learning process for me as I am Italian American and have lived here all my life.
Your mom immigrated from Naples to what?
It’s a fascinating story. She is an Italian immigrant. She immigrated to Italy when she was 27 years old. She was 27 years old when she arrived. She was born and raised in Naples, and she was studying law — she was a law student and worked in the law offices there. Then her mother, my grandma, traveled to Arizona or Las Vegas — somewhere in America — on vacation, and met someone and decided that she was gonna get married.
My mom met my father when she visited her mother in America. They decided to marry. My mom moved over to start a new chapter in her life. It was her first trip back. We were on our most recent trip.
What was the first time you knew you wanted to get a tattoo after a trip?
It was something that I knew I wanted, but I wasn’t sure what. It was something I had always wanted to remember my trip to Italy with my mom. Then, when I arrived, I realized how common it was. [the symbol] was. This is the first time I’ve ever seen it. [necklace] for a few years, but it was like every street corner had somebody selling them — every jewelry shop had somebody selling them.
Everyone had them on their cars — my cousin herself had four hanging from her neck. It is possible she was studying for school and needed extra luck. But it was especially present in Naples. Then, I thought, “This seems like a good symbol of the whole trip and the entire city.”
Would you be willing to share some of your cultural tattoos here?
Pict, the Indigenous people of northern Scotland is my family. I have been tattooed since childhood. If you can read it, you will know roughly how old you are.
This arm has a family crest. The meaning of the wording is “success breeds hope.” We were able to resist British oppression because of the place we lived. It’s also because of our identity.
This is a Z rod. Two circles represent the interplay between water and air. The top circle shows a tree with a sphere at its bottom. This sign is that you are in safe or friendly territory. My ancestors did a lot of tattoos, and many of them are still in use today. They were concerned with our relationship with nature. They are a reflection of our relationship with the world, and how things interact.
This is a boar. Boars can be dangerous. Many people would rather face off against a bear than a boar. When I finished my Ph.D., I bought this one because I knew I was going to be a major force in the world.
I have my grandmother’s favorite cup of tea with a subtle variation of Wadsworth poetry. Because she had such an influence on my life, I was able to get that poem. In that we are a matrilineal culture in which we gain a lot from the women in our lives, it is very counterintuitive to much of American culture.
Is there a specific name for this type of tattooing?
It was initially called woading because of its blue color. It was made of a particular kind of plant. They used to be a stick–and–poke tattoos. But it’s hard to find someone willing to do them these days.
Why is it important for you to have these tattoos?
Picts on both sides of my family are my heritage, so I have a strong cultural identity. I was raised in America, but my culture influenced me a lot because we are a small group. It’s also vitally important to keep the traditions alive because much of our land — we were removed from our lands by colonizers. It was an awful time in our history. Many of our cultural artifacts cannot be seen in British museums because of the glass, which unfortunately is the case with many other cultures. These tattoos allow me to honor my heritage, respect my ancestors, respect those who have come before me, and keep a little bit of that culture with me since I don’t get to experience it daily like I would in the past.
Would you be willing to share some of your cultural tattoos here?
This is a fish person down there, and this is a mushroom person here. It’s intended to be androgynous. Its focuses on themes of duality as well as masculine/female. It was inspired by the Pacific Ocean salmon. Salmon spawn upstream and this is a link between land and water. The salmon run is a massive feeding event that brings together a lot of organisms from the forest. The forest is where salmon babies first started to grow, so the design was meant to show these connections in ecology.
This one has fungi on it — I just love fungi. One of my other ones has a frog and mushrooms growing out the back. This was something I thought was cool. I am also interested in mycology. Many of my tattoos have a nature theme. However, this one is a tattoo I got while I was questioning my gender identity. It was important to me that I had something feminine and delicate. My body acceptance was made possible by tattoos.
Do you remember a time in your past when you had these tattoos?
This one right here — I got this in 2021. My dad is Korean, and my mom is Indian. This is a sketch I made in Korea. The flowers are Indian and were drawn by a man named “Dude”. This one is a combination of a fish scene and a wave, with some duality themes. It was the realization that I truly love nature that led me to it.
It’s named after a particular diving trip, and many of the fauna were taken from it. It’s the idea that something so chaotic and hostile to human life can be a place that is full of life for other organisms. This was my first tattoo. It’s like a volcano with coordinates. When I was 17, I spent six weeks living in Ecuador, in an Andes community. It was an experience that made me realize how independent I can be and it is something I won’t forget.
Are you a fan of tattoos that portray nature?
Yes, it is. However, it can be a bit complicated. Since I got my first tattoo, it was a desire to get more. I’m not sure if the meanings I came up with were justifications for getting them or intentional meanings. The stories resonate strongly with me now. They were new to me when I got them. One thing I learned from my experience with tattoos was that I often have flashes. However, over time, they have gained meaning for me, even though they were not meaningful when I got them.
Why is it important that your tattoo represents your Korean Indian identity?
Because of a few different aspects of my identity. Being Asian in America or not being “fully” Korean, “fully” Indian or just being trans has always made me feel like I have walked between two worlds. I have never felt at home in the Korean immigrant group. I never felt like I belonged in the Desi community. It was difficult to find a community with which to relate, and it was also difficult for my pride in the culture I was from. So this was one way I tried to get back that little bit.
What function does your tattoo serve?
Since they are so beautiful, I love to show them off and receive a lot of attention. While I don’t always go the extra mile to get it, I do love sharing my tattoo stories with anyone who sees them. It’s fun and makes a great conversation starter. It also helps me to connect with my body. I had a lot of depression when I first got them. The tattooing releases adrenaline and endorphins, making you feel good for a while.
But I spoke about getting in touch and feeling my body. I think the reason I am not against tattoos, especially when I’m young, is because I believe that tattoos can be a reminder of who and what I once was.
How do your tattoos represent culture? What do you think culture means to you?
Trans people have a different culture. Transgender people must deal with many things that most people don’t know. It’s great to find a community that can help you understand these things.
Before I came out, my first thought was, “What is your identity?” As in, I don’t feel like a person with an identity. Then I realized that it made sense. It’s all here. It feels like culture is closely linked to identity. These tattoos helped me to form my identity and they have been very important to me. This is my connection to culture.
Edited by Sam Ellefson and Camila Pedrosa.
This story was published in The Culture Issue on February 8, 2023. The entire publication is available here Here.
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Savannah Rose Dagupion works as a reporter at State Press Magazine. She moved to Arizona from Hawaiʻi to study Journalism and Mass Communication at the Cronkite School.
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