Next time you see a young person with a tattoo, why not ask him or her to share the story behind it?

You might be amazed at what you hear … and be better off for it. Although a little hard to see, she never forgets. She wears the discreet tattoo of a small tree on her right shoulder. When asked to tell the story behind her tattoo, she replies, “After I was born, my father planted this tree in our backyard in honor of my arrival. He was so proud of me. At 10 years of age, he walked out on us. When I turned 16, I got a tattoo of the tree to remind myself that at one point in my life I was very important to my dad. I haven’t seen him in years, and the tree is gone—but he can’t take my tattoo away.”

Young people get body art for a variety of reasons. Some do it because they want to fit in, while others succumb to peer pressure. Many are testimonies to the power of the media’s influence on our choices. For some youth, it is a mark of shock and rebellion. For others, tattoos make them feel sexier. Some simply see tattoos as works of fine art to adorn their human canvases.

Every generation has had a mark that distinguished it from previous cohorts. Over the past 50 years, prior generations have left us reminders of their passing—ducktail haircuts, phone booths, rock ’n’ roll, transistor radios, long hair, drop­ping drugs, dropping out, bell-bottom jeans, platform shoes, polyester pants, pet rocks, disco, baggy pants and backwards hats, hip hop, rap, sex without boundaries, body modification and lives lived out on the Internet.

So what is left to make them unique when we look back on history? They will be the generation remembered for creating the most personal form of media there is—a permanent story painted on young bodies.

Many of today’s youth will look back on this decade and remember it not with fondness, but hesitation, as they recall their struggles to simply survive. They will remember words such as divorce, separation, fatherlessness, abandonment, abuse and blended. In many ways, they are a generation who lost their most special place in that thing called family.

In our research at Youth Unlimited, we have discovered another reason why some kids have tattoos. For a generation of kids consumed by the media, it has in many ways become their closest friend, understanding and listening to the issues many adults miss. In their identification with the media, they, in turn, have become the medium. If you have a story to tell, then why not put it on your body? Why not put it out there for all to see, in the hopes that someone, anyone, might take time to listen to your tale? Why not put an enduring picture on your body about a particular “chapter” of your life for all to read? At least this is one thing your family can’t take away from you. And it is permanent, always there, unlike your family. It is the most personal form of media there is. The medium is the message. You are the medium.



Desiree, 20, says “Getting a tattoo is a right of passage in a time when we’ve lost all the traditional ones that a kid usually gets in a normal family.” Des, as her friends call her, has a pair of angel wings on her back. Growing up in a home where her dad went to jail when she was 18 months old and returned when she was 18 years old provided many challenges. It was life with a single mom that she could only describe as “hell.” Entering her sec­ond year of university, the wings are a constant reminder that there isn’t any­thing she can’t “rise” above.

Meaghan, 20, sees it similarly. “A tattoo is about ‘me.’ It is a form of per­sonal expression—part of the culture shift. Tattoos fill a void for meaning in a post-modern culture. We need permanency in this world of constant transition. It forever expresses how I felt at that moment in time. It captures a point in time when I was alive. It is our longing for permanence in a world of disposable everything.”

Tattoos can reflect the journey, beliefs, values and hopes of any young person. The Youth Unlimited research has uncovered many different “chapters” represented by their body art. The focus of this article is on the family.

Chanel’s father was an executive chef who took his family all over the world. She didn’t move among cities—she moved among countries and cultures. Putting down deep roots at any one time was not the norm, as they lived in Houston, the Bahamas, Vancouver, Jamaica and various other cities in the U.S. during her first 14 years. Chanel’s father was always busy and had little time for her. One Christmas, as best she recalls, he only spent two hours with her.

At 15, Chanel fell into a deep depres-sion. She felt she wasn’t wanted; and having a mother who yelled, “I wished I never had you” didn’t help. As usual, her dad was never around; and being left on her own, using her own judgment and strength seemed the best she could hop for.

This was the beginning of her rebellion. With her green hair and a fondness for the wilder side of life, she made friends with many guys and fell into a life of alcohol, drugs, sex, angry music and dis-appointment. The dark sounds of Korn, Beastie Boys and Nirvana spoke to her empty soul. Her dad was living 7,000 miles away, and her mom worked long hours as an esthetician. The words “It’s all for you!” rang empty because all she wanted was a family that cared. Even a short relationship with Jesus didn’t keep her from falling into darkness.

Chanel got her first tattoo at 17 and now has 10. All of her tattoos reflect her life’s journey, values and interests, including a pair of X-wing fighters from Star Wars on her stomach. Another is of a robot boy who never really knew his father—just like Chanel.

Perhaps the most amazing tattoo of all runs the full length of her right side, starting just below her shoulder and end­ing just above the ankle. It contains the complete lyrics to “Waiting for the Great Destruction” by The Matthew Good Band, a song that questions relational happiness and speaks of longing for truth. Chanel says it is a song about her male relationships and how many of them she has ruined. She sees herself as the great destruction, having lost many friend-ships during her short lifetime. It is a reminder to her about the importance of relationships, including those with her mother and father.

Scot’s name seems quite appropriate for a boy born in Scotland. He is 21 years old and has inherited his dad’s artistic tal-ents. Scot and his dad were very close and shared many wonderful memories. Sadly, Scot’s father, James, died a couple of years ago. Shortly before he passed away, he was quite impressed that Scot had his father’s initials tattooed on his arm. However, his dad was too afraid to get a similar one.

Two months after his father’s death from lung cancer, Scot wanted to find a way to remember his father. The grave­stone has the picture of a white dove with a Scottish thistle in its mouth. Scot decided to use that theme; so he drew a childhood picture of himself releasing the dove, as a picture of his father’s freedom. It serves as a daily reminder of a father he loved deeply and misses greatly.

For Jennifer, 20, a small rose speaks of healing and wholeness in a life that was once marked by depression and hopeless­ness. It is a reminder to never give up.

Jen’s life began to crumble when she was in eighth grade, beginning with her grandmother’s death. As Jen says, “My grandmother was a very, very strong piece of my life.” Three weeks after she died, her grandfather had a stroke. A few weeks after that, her adopted sister decided to move back with her birth parents for what turned out to be a short adventure. At about the same time, Jen switched high schools—a traumatic enough event— and was soon thereafter to suffer a sports injury, which meant she could no longer compete.

Jen says she “bottomed out with depression” in ninth grade when her sister left for good. She still misses her grandmother and feels the pressure of trying to keep the family together. Jen was also sexually assaulted during her later high school years. In her own strength, Jen began to look for ways to heal. It was then she remembered a say-ing she used to share with her sister: “Every rose has its thorn,” from a song with the same name by the group Poison.

Jen shares how she arrived at just the right location for her blue rose tattoo—the color of the rose she laid on her grand-mother’s coffin. As well as being her grandmother’s favorite color, blue also signifies Jen’s love for swimming and water. “Everyone has burdens to carry, and everybody carries them in a different way. My grandmother always said you carry the stones on your shoul-ders, and you carry the bull on your back. The bigger the problems are, the bigger that bull is. And when I started getting rid of my burdens, I realized she was right. And just as a reminder for her, I had the rose put on my lower back.




If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many books may well be written on bodies? We have only covered three “chapters” in abbreviated format. What we cannot capture are their tones of voice—one moment filled with pain and despair and the next minute full of joy and hope. We cannot look into their faces. We cannot feel what they have been through. However, we can be more understanding that some painted people are not who we think they are.



Paul Robertson is the Youth Culture Specialist forToronto Youth for Christ in Canada, where he has worked for 28 years. He is also an associate staff member at Walt Mueller’s Center for Parent/Youth Understanding in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania.



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