Stories in ink: a photo essay

If there is anything that could outlast the permanence of tattoos on human skin, it would be the stories beneath them.

Common flash tattoo designs  (Source: Flickr Creative Commons)

Common flash tattoo designs (Source: Flickr Creative Commons)

People across different cultures and times have been tattooed for a great number of reasons. Polynesian tribes in the Pacific traditionally tattooed themselves as rites of passage. British sailors in the days of exploration often returned home with new tattoos from their voyages overseas. Full-body tattoos were sought by the Japanese yakuza as part of their ritual, and to signify their criminal ties.

These days, with greater cultural acceptance of tattooing as an art form, the motivation to get tattooed has evolved from tradition to aesthetics. But somewhere in between are tattoos that touch on the ceremonial, arising from something very personal to those getting them done.

As a living breathing canvas, a person is able to communicate the meaning of his or her tattoo in ways a painting on the wall or a sculpture in the centre of a room cannot. It is these stories that give tattoos their vivid, indelible colour.

Here are a handful of stories about tattoos from people living in Halifax.



(Photos: Bianca Müller)

Jane Caulfield, 29

Tattoo: identical sparrows; “Bye Bye Blackbird” script

Jane’s father was a huge fan of jazz. She recalls a day when she sang Bye Bye Blackbird—a jazz standard of which singer Peggy Lee’s rendition resonates most with Jane—at a church event in Ontario with her father in the audience. It was a moment shared between father and daughter that would take on special meaning years later.

In 2006, Jane’s father lost his left leg because of diabetes. In an effort to keep his spirits up, she joked, "Well dad, now you get to be a pirate." In keeping with the nautical theme, Jane had two Sailor Jerry-type tattoos of sparrows drawn on her chest for her ‘pirate’ dad.

Jane also had “Bye Bye Blackbird” tattooed on her left forearm after her father passed away in 2009. The song, which is about broken hearts and saying goodbye to someone you love, was the last song to be performed at his funeral by the same jazz trio who played at the church all those years ago.

The term ‘blackbird’ is also slang for discreetly leaving a social gathering without saying goodbye to anyone. Jane has since found a double meaning in the phrase as she recounts the day of her father’s death. He passed away silently in his sleep, while everyone had gone for breakfast that morning.


Audio Track: Peggy Lee - Bye Bye Blackbird




(Photos: Bianca Müller)

William McEwen, 27

Tattooold-school sailor’s swallows

Tattoos in the western world have long been associated with sailors. An old tradition among seafaring types is that a sailor with one swallow tattoo had travelled over 5,000 nautical miles, while a sailor with two swallow tattoos had travelled over 10,000.

In his nine years in the Royal Canadian Navy, Bill has served on both the HMCS Toronto and HMCS Halifax vessels. This makes him a bona fide sailor who has earned his two swallow tattoos, having voyaged over 25,000 nautical miles with the Canadian Forces.

Bill was deployed in African waters in 2007 and made a stop in Turkey, where he decided to get the tattoos done. He chose images of swallows because of the mileage he has travelled, as well as their added meaning as a nautical motif: for sailors, swallows represent the freedom of being out in the sea.

“Once you get out far enough, the birds start flying around the ship as a place to land and eat and hang out at a certain area off the coast. It lets you know you’re at sea, and on your way back, it lets you know you’re getting close to home.” Now that Bill is back home, he only needs to look at the mirror to relive the freedom of his days at sea.




(Photos: Bianca Müller)

Kathryn Crooks, 28

Tattoo: Celtic heart with boyfriend's initials

Kathryn was only 23-years-old when she lost a loved one to an aggressive cancer.

She and Iain had been together for just over two months when he was diagnosed with lymphoblastic lymphoma. Young and very much in love, Kathryn became Iain’s caregiver for the next year and half, from the time he began his treatment until his death at the age of 27.

A month later, Kathryn got a tattoo done in the distinct Celtic design style, alluding to Iain’s heritage. The tattoo is of a heart, signifying the bond they shared, with his initials, I and G.

Six years later, Kathryn is able to reflect on that unbearable time with a certain kind of clarity. It has been a long, continuous process of personal healing, in which she expressed constant fears of feeling guilt—guilt over the emotions time has caused to subside or the once-vivid memories time has gradually eroded. Her tattoo, as she describes it, is a “stamp in time” that makes up for this, as it is the one thing that cannot be erased.

Over time, the Celtic heart on Kathryn’s back has become more than just a memorial piece for Iain. It is now a part of Kathryn; its permanence escaping the effects time has on other, more vulnerable things.




(Photos: Bianca Müller)

Meghan Tansey Whitton, 31

Tattoo: father’s poetry in his original handwriting

Meghan traveled throughout Australia and Indonesia for three years beginning in 2004. Before she left home in B.C., she decided to get a tattoo. Her father was a writer and she began a journey of combing through all his writing–boxes and books full of poetry, some even written on wine-stained napkins.

She found what would eventually become the tattoo stretching from under her left arm down to her hip: words of advice from her father, written before she was born. During this process she learned a lot about her father, reading about his time as a Roman Catholic priest and how he eventually left the priesthood after falling in love with her mother.

As with other things, the meaning of the poem-tattoo has grown over time for Meghan. Her father passed away after a long battle with colon cancer last year. Although the tattoo wasn’t originally meant to be a memorial piece for him, the words have proved inspirational for those who have read Meghan’s tattoo:

“It says nothing about cancer, but I think people that were experiencing it--whether their parent was passing away or they were going through it themselves--for some reason, it speaks to people who are going through treatment. It was just bizarre, because it's not about that, but at the same time it is all about that.”

        you want to be
        you are
everything is ready
there is nowhere to go
         anything you do
         is there
because it is part of
         the journey
         is more important
         than anything else
         is worth living for
                      dying for
live is it's own reason
         for living
if you live fully
         death holds
                   no sorrow
                   no fear
sorrow and fear
are the harvest
of a life half sown
as best you can
         with what you have
never being afraid
         to try something different
the only people who count
         are those who care
         more for you
than for what you say
                      or do
                      or don't do
be careful with your life
                        your love
                        your world

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