Features & Columns

10 Women Discuss the
Meaning Behind Their Body Art

New exhibit on the history of tattooed women maps trends in female ink over the years.
Alyssa Maich with baby. Photograph by Greg Ramar

Anyone with an exposed tattoo, at some point, has been on the receiving end of an inane question about the meaning behind his or her ink. The inquiry usually has less to do with genuine interest than a person simply wanting to judge the validity of the answer. Such a requirement, of course, runs counter to the entire point of body modification.

It's art, it's self-expression, it's a yawning up-your-ass to corporate dress code, it's celebrating one's accomplishments and/or the life of another. Most of all, it's none of their damn business. Women face a greater burden when it comes to explaining, or worse having to justify, their various forms of body modification, whether it's piercing, ink, scars or even biohacking: the recent trend of implanting LED lights under the skin. Thankfully, the definition of what it is to be feminine has never been more fluid.

When we sent Greg Ramar across the Bay Area to photograph women and interview them about their tattoos, we tasked him with the dreaded question with a minor tweak: instead of asking women what their tattoo means, he asked what their tattoos mean to them. What we learned was beautiful.

Ask a woman a real question, with respect, and she'll give you a real answer. These photos and interviews tell the story of life lessons, loved ones lost and the meaning behind art as flesh and blood.

Alyssa Maich Photograph by Greg Ramar

Alyssa Maich

33 | Material Scientist | Berkeley

My chest piece is a Japanese phoenix. It basically symbolizes a new era, rebirth. It symbolizes the yin and yang with the dragon. It's got a lot of different meanings, depending on what different culture your looking at. I chose this one because it was the start of a new era for me. I usually get a new piece around some new point in life—this was for grad school. So, I'm due for another one because I just graduated.

Blanca Panagopoulous Photograph by Greg Ramar

Blanca Panagopoulous

32 | Massage Therapist | Campbell

I have half my sleeve—it's not completed—but it's of a bunch of different things: flowers, hummingbirds and dragonflies. They mostly signify a lot of the family struggle that I had to go through, and persevering through and overcoming all of that by expressing myself through positive outlets, such as singing. And it's about finding positive outlets to kind of pave a way for my artistic abilities, to kind of express my inner angst. And it's a daily reminder to keep going forward and look for the positive things and to constantly try to be that beautiful light in someone's life.

Christine Shea Photograph by Greg Ramar

Christine Shea

37 | Art Therapy Counselor | San Jose

My arm piece is a three-quarter sleeve and the significance behind it is I helped organize a festival in 2002. It was called Lady Fest Bay Area, a five-day festival made by women for women, and I created the logo. Five of the festival's members had surprised me with tattoos at the time. I always swore I would get a tattoo of it when the time was right, and I made it a complete sleeve. It's something to help remind me that I can do whatever I put my mind to.

Alicia Hamilton Photograph by Greg Ramar

Alicia Hamilton

44 | Teacher | San Jose

The biggest one I have was a reward and also serves as a reminder for the learning I gained through two years of weekly group therapy. To kind of come to terms with things in my family, things in my relationships, things that I deal with in daily life; I got it as kind of a graduation gift to myself when I finished therapy. I wanted a reminder to stay true to myself and to be truthful to other people, so it is the Latin word 'VERITAS' on my back in mirror image.

Dana Trauger Photograph by Greg Ramar

Dana Trauger

40 | Dental Assistant | San Jose

The phoenix on my arm is representative of myself. I went through a really hard time: I lost my sister to suicide; I lost my father to suicide by cop and my mother to a massive stroke—all in a really short period of time. So, the Phoenix is me. It's rising from what could have taken me to a really dark place. I feel like it brought me into the light more.

Davi Kerley Photograph by Greg Ramar

Davi Kerley

53 | Inventory Specialist | San Jose native

On my left arm is a tribute to my mom and stepdad, who I both lost to lung cancer. So, it's about lung cancer awareness and they both had a love of hummingbirds, so that's what this is.

Kristen Thoeni Photograph by Greg Ramar

Kristen Thoeni

32 | Photographer | Salinas

My memorial piece for my grandmother is probably the most important tattoo I have. All of my tattoos tell a story, but this one is really special to me, because she raised me and it was really hard to see her go. So, by having this piece I get to look at it every day and know she is with me, because there are some of her ashes in it.

Lindsay Brown Photograph by Greg Ramar

Lindsay Brown

28 | Human Resources Manager | Campbell native

My chest was a significant piece to me, because it took my two and half years to complete—lots of pain, lots of money and ideas went into it. The initial reason why I decided to get it in the first place is really unknown. I just woke up one morning and was like, 'you know what, I really want my chest tattooed.' I started looking up ideas and the guy that I was going to… drew up something really cool and I tweaked it a little bit. He was really perceptive of my ideas, and we just started going to work. Two and a half years later, we just incorporated everything that I find to be beautiful: your heart, the pain that goes behind the things that are in your heart, your soul, love, hate, anger, everything gets kind of shown—and then it kind of branches out to be a beautiful foliage-looking thing. I don't really know how to describe it—it has two of my favorite flowers.

Misty Galvan Photograph by Greg Ramar

Misty Galvan

36 | Tattoo Artist | Moss Landing

Out of all my tattoos, I would choose the memorial tattoo that I got for my Dad when he passed away a couple years ago. I would honestly have to say out of all my tattoos I've gotten over the years, it's the only meaningful tattoo—everything else I have is just random stuff I like, and this is actually meaningful compared to everything else I have on my body. (Galvan actually tattooed someone while doing this interview. —Editor)

Tiffany Rogers Photograph by Greg Ramar

Tiffany Rogers

35 | Airline Provision Agent | San Jose

This is my half-sleeve. There's a lot of family history to it. It's in memory of my great uncles, Meryl and Skippy, and they were both figure skaters, very well known back in their day. They passed away in 2012. They were in World War II and they were in the 10th Mountain Division, the Special Forces of their time, and they were the ski troops. They got released on the weekends to go and figure skate and put on shows. They did everything from slapstick comedy to actual figure skating. Had it not been for World War II, my uncle Skippy would have been in the Olympics—he actually qualified. Uncle Skippy and Uncle Merle were the first to do backflips on ice. They're in Ripley's Believe It Or Not!