We tell our tales and hold our secrets. Our stories come out on paper, in spoken words, even in the things we choose not to say. And then, with little fanfare, some stories are told in ink on skin, walking with us as we share both secrets and dares indelibly marked onto our bodies.

Over the past few years more and more people, particularly but not necessarily, young, are finding or creating images to be sewn into their skin with needles and ink.

Once the province of sailors and gangs, these images now proudly shout out from the arms, backs, torsos and every other body part of rich kids, poor kids, their mothers and fathers and millions more.

Walking through some neighborhoods is to be strolling through an art gallery of humanity, a visual cornucopia of color, design and emotion calling out for attention.

“This is me! Don’t look away!” Each individual blending with the next to be noticed individually as unique, even as the uniqueness is repeated by each passer by. What once was exotic now is normal and we scarcely notice the images flying past.

And yet, taking the time for a closer look, each truly is unique, each story individually told as the paths of lives are traced through the line of ink surrounding skin.

Or do you judge them, clinging to stereotypes that comfort us from change? Be careful, there are many hidden tattoos, perhaps on your friends, or family, beneath business suits and bathing suits.

As a photographer, the visual pull is magnetic, so I stop, listen to the stories and photograph the talismans of individual spirits, sharing their world for all to see.

Images from top: Jake, a tattoo artist with Jesus tattooed onto his head; Sarah, who makes her own clothes; Jennifer has been working on her back for over a year; Donald, praising Allah and love. Below: John, a retired high school biology teacher with tattoos strategically placed to be covered by his clothes; and Kristen, preparing for her wedding: Phil and his son; Katie, who designed her tattoos after breaking up with a boyfriend; and Elizabeth, a gifted artist who has chronicled her life experiences in body ink.

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Billy Howard

Billy Howard

Billy Howard is a commercial and documentary photographer with an emphasis on education and global health.

11 Comments
  1. Robert Lamb

    Interesting story, interesting photos. Great job, Billy.

  2. Because they are so permanent, it took 30 years to decide what I wanted tattooed on my arm. One of my sons has many tats including his deceased mother and grandfather on each of his calves. I told him that if he planned to have me added to his collection please do so before the only place left for me was his behind.

  3. Billy, as usual your photographs are breathtaking. I confess to be one of the ones who still has a hard time with body art…mainly because of my children, and their desire to participate…and the continued prejudice I see for people that do participate. Hard to be in support of something that may bring them hardship…thanks for making me think.

    1. Billy Howard

      Had tattoos been the thing in our day we would have had them all over, instead of long hair. Alas, I did eventually cut my hair! Thanks for the kind words, Songbird!

  4. My mother’s admonition: no tattoos. Period. End. Now go eat your breakfast. One of her grandsons, as it happens, has found a career as a tattoo artist. The thing is, he’s such a wildly talented artist that I am fully confident if Mom were still with us, she would be more enthusiastic about his craft and less worried about the pallet. And she’d start imagining what the grand could tattoo onto her!

    I’ve always been anti-tat, too, but I must say that with age and family in the biz, I’m warming to it. Beautiful photos help. Thanks!

  5. Noel Holston

    I try not to let old, negative associations color my response to tattoos, and all of my kids have them, including my oldest son, who has a remarkable rendering of a squid on his rigth arm reaching from his shoulder to his wrist. But I can’t help but wonder, when I see a teenager or young adult heavily tattooed, how they’re going to feel about their body art when they’re older. I mean, I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing the watchband or shoes I wore when I was 20.

  6. I remember that long hair! Never had a desire for body art myself. With my surgical scars, I’ve got enough I think! Wonder what it will look like when these folks are senior citizens!

  7. Alex Kearns

    Wonderful, though-provoking article.
    I have a small unicorn on my left upper arm and a dragonfly on my right ankle. The former is a result of turning 40. At that time I also (on separate occasions) jumped out of a plane, walked 35 miles for no apparent reason and joined a band. The latter is the product of running away from home at age 47.
    Last week I watched a glorious young woman try on wedding dresses and weep because the massive skull on her shoulder ruined the pure and ethereal effect that she wanted. As one of my daughter’s bellies swells with child, the large smiling sun tattoo grows apace and I must wonder if it will become a raison after the birth.
    I rather like my tattoos – each one represents one of my children – but there are downsides if one choses certain images or placements.
    As a Public Service Announcement I shall warn you all that a tattoo on an ankle (or any other unpadded location) is exquisitely painful. The poor guy did half a dragonfly body and a wing and I almost bolted with what would have looked like an eviscerated bug on my body. All in all, I love the fact that my 21 year old daughter has no tattoos, no piercings at all (not even her ears) and adamantly refuses to get any. Good child, that :)

  8. Billy, Thanks for the insiteful article. I have a good friend who is a plastic surgeon. We were discussing tatoos one day and he told me that he could spend twenty four hours a day seven days a week removing them. Most of the removal requests come from young women. Just do it if you are sure you want to live with it when you are 60.

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