How Calgarians use tattoos to symbolize meaning in their life

What makes someone decide to get a tattoo? For some the idea of getting ink permanently marking their body can be a turn off. For others, the practice of body art is a beautiful, unique and visual way to celebrate their personal life achievements, or to remember those they have lost.

Jake DeSade, a tattoo artist at Bushido Tattoo said, “A lot of people get small text pieces done just because it’s got some meaning or remembrance for them; and then people get tattoos just because it’s simply beautiful.”

While travelling in Papua New Guinea, DeSade spent some time with the tribes in the Northern Sepik Province. There he experienced a complete culture shock when it came to the meaning of tattoos. 

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Documentary produced by: Matthew Hayhurst, Anna Majowski, Courtney Urbani and Angela Wither

“Almost everyone there had facial tattoos, full body scarifications, and they’d see my tattoos and ask me what they meant to me,” said DeSade, whose only noticeable tattoo is a large “X” on his wrist, with numerous others hiding on his chest, legs and side.

In a culture where tattoos and scarifications are practices that contain deep meaning, it was clear the tribe’s people didn’t understand DeSade’s reason for getting tattoos simply because they were beautiful.

“It got to the point where they would ask and I would be like, ‘It’s from my tribe in Canada.’

They would look at me, nod and totally understand.”

While it’s undoubtedly popular to follow DeSade’s concept of getting tattoos simply for beauty, many people see the meaning behind a tattoo as more important.

Looking into the lives of three people who used tattoos as a way to express loss, life experiences, and passion for work and family it becomes clear that while tattoos are pieces of art, they are also incredibly meaningful.

Kielan O’Brien

As the needle touches down to his skin at Bushido Tattoo, Kielan O’Brien’s body slightly twitches from the unexpected pain. Carrying her mom on her back in the form of a butterfly, her best friend on her left wrist in the form of an anchor and her grandfather on her right foot in the form of a shamrock, O’Brien is now commemorating all those she has lost in her life with a new tattoo in the form of a pocket watch surrounded by flowers. O’Brien said the watch symbolizes that, “No matter what happens in this life I will see these people again, and it’s just a matter of time.”Her first tattoo, the butterfly on her back, symbolizes freedom as O’Brien’s mom battled brain cancer for four months before passing away in 2006.

With her mom diagnosed when she was only 12, losing her was incredibly painful.

“You feel like there’s this piece of you that’s missing and you’re never going to get it back,” O’Brien said. “And that’s really hard to come to terms with because you are never going to see them again, or hear their laugh, or hear them tell you their favourite joke, or even hear them walking down the stairs in the morning.

“I am never going to see my mom at breakfast again and that’s really painful. It hits me at random times that she’s gone, or their gone and they aren’t coming back.”

With consent from her father, O’Brien got the tattoo for her mom when she was just 16, and while many would disagree with getting a tattoo so young, O’Brien said: “I felt like I was forgetting the little things. I was forgetting her laugh, or her smile or what she looked like — just little tiny things that you have one day then suddenly their gone, that you take for granted. You might think ‘I’ll remember that forever. I’ll remember what she looks like forever’ but it does go away and pictures don’t always do it justice.”

Robert (Joe) Green

Coming from a military family, Cpl. Robert (Joe) Green said he joined the Canadian army at the age of 19 because he felt it was always in his blood.

In 2005, he left for Afghanistan where his company, a section comprised of about 150 soldiers, lost seven members.

After coming home, Green wore a bracelet in remembrance for the seven who were killed. But he knew that wasn’t enough to honour those who had fallen.One day at work, he left for lunch and got a tattoo in their memory.

Insisting it was not an impulse tattoo, he said: “It came to the point where I had been saying I was going to get this for so long, I’m going to do it right now. I just had to.”

Starting with the first member killed on his tour, the tattoo goes up his arm in a spiral pattern, each line starting with a poppy, the initials of one of the soldiers, followed by the date he was killed.

“Back in the day, it was less common, and now you see everyone with them, especially with the military, you’ll see lots of guys with remembrance tattoos or unit tattoos.”

Green said a common Canadian military tattoo is of the C10, which stands for the Canadian 10th Battalion. “A lot of guys in our unit get that. It represented our unit during World War I.”

Andrew Stelmaschuk

Growing up as the only boy in a Ukrainian family, police officer Andrew Stelmaschuk takes pride in his last name.

“People express themselves through piercings, or dying their hair (or) wearing a fashion statement,” he said. “That’s not permanent; that’s generally just a phase for most people. A tattoo lasts for life and my family’s there for my whole life.”

With his parents’ names on his arms, a big piece with “Mom” and “Dad,” on his back, and his last name across his chest, Stelmaschuk’s inspiration for getting tattoos comes from “the commitment to make that decision that you want to express who you are, that commitment that you are willing to show what you have your feelings towards, what you care about – things like that make it worthwhile to me.”

Unlike DeSade, Stelmaschuk sees a greater importance in having tattoos with a strong meaning.

“To me, tattoos always meant something of your own life experience – maybe a path that you have taken – things that have happened in your past, things you hope will happen in the future,” Stelmaschuk said.

“But how can you fill up your entire arm by the time you’re 19 or 20 years old and say it actually means something to you?

“Generally when I get a tattoo my mind is in a state of calm, I know that the end product is something I am going to cherish for a long time, for the rest of my life obviously, so I don’t sit there having any regrets or wonder what my family or friends are going to think about it, because it’s all about what I want and what still represents my family.”

The tattoo experience

While O’Brien sits to get her latest piece of body art, she winces through the obvious pain that comes with getting a tattoo on her side – an incredibly sensitive part of the body.

She said, “I think that this is an hour of pain, when for my mom (it was) months and months of pain. So if I can do this little thing in order to remember her, then to me it’s not painful. It’s good, and it’s a really comforting experience.

“I am very much influenced by the people that I have lost,” she said. “At the same time though, I have to keep living my life. If I completely shut down and all I am is sad about it, I’m not going to go where I want to go.”

awither@cjournal.ca