Every tattoo tells a personal story. For these women, they stand for strength, empowerment, triumph, and so much more.

By Erin Reimel
January 31, 2020
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Heather Hazzan

We’re far past the days of hiding the butterfly on our lower back and chalking it up to a teenage mistake.

“In the last two decades, tattooing has evolved from a subculture to pop culture,” says Mike Rubendall, a tattoo artist and the founder of Kings Avenue Tattoo in New York. With that shift, body art is no longer about breaking boundaries or being edgy, rebellious, or unladylike. Instead, tattoos have taken on a wellness point of view: Self-love tattoos help define who you are to yourself and others. They also offer the opportunity to share some personal history.

“The more our culture lets people accept themselves, the more body art is going to reflect that,” says tattoo artist Mira Mariah, whose celebrity clientele includes Ariana Grande. She gets 800 applications a month for her feminist, fashion-inspired artwork at Fleur Noire Tattoo Parlour in Brooklyn, New York. “I think women, especially, relate to the images I create because they’re symbolic of how we’re feeling these days,” says Mariah, who is focusing on artwork that symbolizes power. (These celeb tattoos show some serious strength.)

All the women interviewed say their self-love tattoos are talismans of inner strength and personal growth. Each one tells a story—from depicting the most heartfelt, thoughtful decisions to completely spontaneous moments. “People ask me if I’m going to regret my tattoos. I think, Well, yes, maybe a bit. But I also think they’re like a scrapbook—a representation of me at different ages and stages, and I won’t regret being that person or having those experiences,” says fitness pro Bethany C. Meyers, the founder of the Be.come Project. "The line that runs from my finger to my toe is simply a representation of me. I think of it as being a part of my body, like a birthmark that I got later in life." (Related: Breastfeeding Tattoos Are the Latest Trend in Ink)

Heather Hazzan

Another theme in our interviews: Tattoos make us feel powerful. “A recent study from the University of the Free State in South Africa found that the main motivation for getting a tattoo was to mark an achievement, a milestone, or a loss,” says Vinita Mehta, Ph.D., a psychologist in Washington, D.C. They can also improve your self-esteem. “Much like working out, tattoos are an investment in yourself,” says Rubendall. “You’re enhancing your body with the hope of creating a better version of you.” He says some of his clients describe the tattoo process as therapeutic. It can even be a symbol of self-care and self-love. “I often hear from women who want to get tattooed as a way to do something nice for themselves,” says tattoo artist Amanda Wachob. (Use these tiny yet powerful tattoos as ink inspiration.)

But the placement of your ink can be just as meaningful as the tattoo itself. “Deciding where you want your tattoo is incredibly empowering,” says Mariah. “I have tattoos on my hands that I see every time I get into downward dog during yoga. They remind me of how strong and worthy I am.” People often choose an area for one of two reasons: “They want a tattoo on a section of their body that they celebrate, or they want it on a body part that they want to learn to love,” says Mariah.

And for some, finding the most flattering spot is key. Jessica Fox, a CrossFit coach and trainer with 21 tattoos, always considers her physique when getting inked. “My tattoos make my quads stand out and show off my strong, defined shoulders,” she says. “My tattoo artist tailored the shape of my rib tattoo to accentuate my core.” Keep in mind that the areas without tattoos work alongside the areas with them. “I love how the negative space creates flattering shapes on my body,” says Tayler Smith. (You'll love these fitness tats.)

Heather Hazzan

“Still, some people use concealed tattoos as a private reminder of something they’d rather not explain to other people,” says Mariah. Regardless of your MO, she warns that certain spots will change or fade faster than others. “If the skin moves a lot as you raise your arms or bend over, or if it comes in contact with other skin—between the fingers, on the tops of feet, on the ribs where a bra might rub—you may run into problems when it comes to healing and maintenance. Remember, your skin will adapt with weight and muscle fluctuations and age, so choose a design that you'll love even if its proportions change.

The most ideal places for a well-preserved tattoo: “Flat surfaces will always look beautiful,” says Mariah. “The insides of arms, the tops of forearms, calves, and legs are spots where body art really stays intact, since there’s not much change there.” (Wait, can tattoos affect your workout?)

If a permanent mark on your body feels like too much or if you want to test-drive a tattoo before committing, the options are far better than the temporary tattoos of your childhood. Brands like Inkbox (Buy It, $14, inkbox.com) let you choose from thousands of designs or create your own; they last for one to two weeks. Scented options like Tattly last for a few days (Buy It, $5, tattly.com), while Amkiri Scent & Design (Buy It, $60, amkiri.com), a “visual fragrance,” lets you paint perfumed pigment onto your skin with stencils or freehand to create luxurious-smelling designs that wash off.

What About Cosmetic Tattoos?

Tattooed brows and eyeliner are not new, but the technology to create them has vastly improved. Old techniques for permanent makeup could sometimes cause unnatural and harsh features. “It’s totally different now,” says Christopher Drummond, the cosmetic tattoo master at PFrankMD and Skin Salon. “Today’s cosmetic tattooing deposits ink into the epidermis, which is more superficial than a typical tattoo that drives it into the dermis. This creates a more subtle, natural look.” Another improvement: “We now use semipermanent, organic, titanium dioxide-free pigments that slowly slough off over time,” says Drummond.

Microblading, the most well-known brow-tattooing method, is done by depositing pigment into the epidermis with a manual, pen-like tool rather than a machine. “You tattoo little hair strokes, one by one,” he says. It takes at least two appointments to get the look just right, and the final product can last eight months to a year before it needs a touch-up.

Lip blushing is a newer technique. To enhance the shape of the lips and make them appear fuller, a tattoo artist applies diluted pigment to the lips with a machine, giving them a flush of color. Drummond can also fade the appearance of undereye darkness, acne scars, hyperpigmentation, and dark spots by mixing pigment that matches your skin tone. “It’s not a magic wand. I can’t make your scar disappear, but I can blend the skin tone so that inconsistencies aren’t as obvious,” he says. These micropigmentation treatments and microblading start at $950, while lip blushing starts at $1,200. (Yes, you can even have your dark circles inked.)

A word of warning: As exciting as these advancements are, cosmetic tattooing is still an art form. Before you book an appointment, do your research. Analyze your technician’s before and after pictures, ask how many clients they have had, and make sure you have a thorough consultation.

The Stories Behind These Powerful Self-Love Tattoos

Heather Hazzan

Marissa Johnson

“I’ve struggled with an eating disorder and self-harm. Tattoos are something I’m always going to love, no matter how I’m feeling about my body. This skeleton surrounded by healing flowers signifies rebirth.”

Heather Hazzan

Jessica Fox

“If you’d told me years ago that at 41 I would meditate and have a Hindu goddess on my body, I would not have believed you. My tattoo of Kali celebrates my spiritual transformation.”

Heather Hazzan

Brooklyn Mullen

“I suffer from a lot of nerve pain in my hip, so I got this shark jaw to prove that I’m not letting that pain define me or take over my life. And the boot reminds me to move my ass.”

Heather Hazzan

Liz Pagedas

“I’m a marathon runner, so I got this tattoo of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, which is the start of the New York City Marathon. It reminds me that I did that. I got through it.”

Heather Hazzan

Tayler Smith

“I’m a very confident person. But I wasn’t feeling great about my stomach, so I got a tattoo of two jungle cats there to protect me. My love for that area of my body has skyrocketed.”

Shape Magazine, January/February 2020 issue
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