Tattoo artist Kat Von D once said, “I am a canvas of my experiences, my story is etched in lines and shading, and you can read it on my arms, my legs, my shoulders, and my stomach.”
Tattoos are stories -- marked in ink and blood -- quietly traveling around us all day on shoulder blades and wrists and across entire backs. These stories can be powerful, uplifting and even heart-wrenching. They can symbolize a life-changing event, they can be in memory of someone special, or they might exist simply because they're beautiful.
We spoke with 26 women who shared photographs of their tattoos and the varied reasons they got them. Some tattoos came out of heartbreak, others from moments of celebration.
Here are 26 gorgeous images of women's tattoos and the stories behind each of them:
"My dad (that adopted me) had a boat and camping and that boat are some of my fondest memories. I gave him a hard time growing and he would always ask where my brains were at. It's a non traditional 'in memory of' tattoo."
Lauren Toys Husser
"My dad passed away unexpectedly from complications during surgery. After about a year of mourning and trying to understand why, I decided no pain could be worse so why not get a tattoo in his memory. When you get that phone call from the hospital that no family wants saying, 'We tried everything we could do to save him,' you think to yourself did they really try everything? My tattoo reads: 'If love could have saved you, you would have lived forever.' I truly believe that."
Destinee Dos Santos
"The big one on my arm that you see in the picture on the left is a pinup homemaker I have put in a Guadalupe type setting. She represents who I try to be, and what I believe... that domesticity is something to be proud of. That being able to create love through domestic acts like sewing something such as a dress, or mending a pair of pants for someone -- baking a cake to celebrate, or a big meal to bring your family together, raising kids, grandkids, etc. Without these domestic acts, without the home maker -- in whatever form he or she takes -- there would be no home. The world would be a much colder place."
Kasey Rose Barger Orr
"I was born with a genetic disease called, Cystic Fibrosis. Early on in my life, I was diagnosed at 18-months, they teach you how to say, Cystic Fibrosis by saying: 65 Roses. So that was my dream: To stop being embarrassed that I was covered in scars and embrace who I was. This tattoo reminds me that I'm strong, that I'm blessed, that I have one hell of a family and one hell of a story to tell. I will never be ashamed of who I am because of the scars that cover me, scars I never asked for but saved my life, or the art I've gifted to my body that reminds me to be proud of who I am, and what I've overcome."
"I am originally from Hawaii and I feel a strong connection to the land and sea there. I now live in Chicago, so I wanted a larger piece so I could always remember where I come from and carry a piece of the spiritual connection that I feel to the earth with me at all times. The different layers of the tattoo have different pieces of hawaiiana, both land and sea."
Cassandra St. John
"I have suffered from an eating disorder for as long as I can remember. I read The Bell Jar shortly after being diagnosed and I found I somewhat connected with Plath's character. I have good days and bad days, and I never know when this 'bell jar' will come over me again. Sometimes I have to take a deep breath and remind myself that I am stronger than food & my warped relationship with it. So when I finally reached a goal weight of just above 100 lbs I decided to tattoo a snippet of a quote from The Bell Jar on my wrist: 'I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart: I am. I am. I am.' I am stronger. I exist for a reason. I now look down at my wrist and remember that beyond anything, all I need to remember is that I am."
"All real, all me. Very much proud of them."
"The anchors on my chest are a nod to my service in the Navy, I was in for 6 years before I decided to get out and start a family."
"This is a tribute to my late grandfather, who when I was a child, he would chase after me (with his false teeth out) and go 'FEE FI FO FUM, I smell the blood of an english man' then catch me, throw me up in the air, while I was laughing hysterically. This tradition kept on with next generations of grandkids, they all remember him fondly."
"For most of my life, I was really unhealthy. I ate a terrible diet, was not very active after childhood, felt pretty awful physically and I had very sad self-image to match. When I was 21 I decided it was time to work hard for something. I changed my diet to include more plant foods and less animal products, and I became much more active. After nine months of really hard work, learning how to cope with a compulsive eating disorder and going completely plant-based for ethical reasons, my life was totally changed. I lost 65 lbs, had never felt better in my life, was gaining confidence and had finally come to an agreement with myself that self-love was the way to go. For me, that meant listening to my body and doing the things that made me thrive. This tattoo symbolizes the physical, emotional and spiritual transformation I've gone through - the dedication it takes to live my truth, and the hard work and mystery of learning myself. After 22 years I finally had a backbone, and now I have structure, a foundation, for the rest of my life."
"About 4 years ago I left an abusive marriage. My self-worth at that point was non-existent. I've worked hard over the past few years to heal & grow. I've had to learn to believe in myself again. I'm stronger & more self-assured now than ever before. I came up with the tattoo design myself. I wanted wings to go along with the word 'shine' simply because I believe in angels; but also, to remind myself to 'rise above' the judgements of others."
"I got this tattoo a couple of years ago at the ripe old age of 42. It was a time in my life that I really needed to recommit to living my own truth and stop looking outside myself for validation. I needed to do something that felt drastic I guess, to help me move forward in that commitment. I'm genuinely surprised at how much strength I draw from it. It's a constant reminder that I am already powerful and strong just as I am."
"Each animal in my totem represents a part of my spiritual being. Starting at the bottom with the turtle, she nurtures and protects, the cheetah represents insight and focus, the most prominent animal being the bear, she is the guardian of my world representing instinct, power, courage, self-preservation, introspection and great strength. The bat represents rebirth and long life, the skull gives me safe passage into the afterlife, and last but not least the owl is my messenger for insight. These animals protect and guide my spirit through life and will always be with me."
Arvetta D. Nelson
"My tattoo expresses freedom from my scar that I always touched, it became a butterfly beautiful in my eyes."
"To celebrate her 18th birthday, my daughter wanted to get a matching tattoo with me. We decided on an open circle to symbolize a love with no end, protection and fundamental femininity. Now we are bound together forever by choice, unless we were already, in which case we've renewed our vows. For me, this experience was a profound honor and deeply validating as a mother."
"The Phoenix on my leg symbolizes every time I have had to start over in my life. My childhood was full of abuse at home, bullying at school and just the rotten end of the stick almost every time I turned around. A Phoenix burns at the end of its life and rises again from the ashes to create a new one. I have had to do that over and over again. My tattoo is reminder of my life before -- of the life I never want to go back to but never want to forget."
"My favorite tattoo is probably my lil lady owl. She's beautiful, and strong, and look at her little tears! She feels so much all the time. She's my mini-me, I guess; you can even see some of my freckles on her face. What my tattoos are to me is an expression of my own style. It is sort of like my identity on skin. Asking people to explain all their tattoos and give them meaning is a life story all in itself."
"This tattoo really reflects my passion of both gaming and my immense pride for women's rights. She is my Shepard from the video game series 'Mass Effect.' I chose to combine her image with that of Rosie the Riveter because of how iconic the image is. As a proud feminist, I found merging my strong willed, military commander with Rosie to be a no-brainer! Both reflect justice and equality. My Shepard, as a strong woman, saved the galaxy and inspired me for the better. I adore my tattoo and the fact that I can have her any time I need her."
"Some things are just an epiphany, really. I was showering. Thinking about how free I felt. As a woman. I suppose it was my 'wasted,' 'love-lorn' early twenties, coming to a head with my 'God I can't wait to be 30.' How strong and invincible (and scorned) I was starting to feel. I felt like a woman, howling at the moon."
"My tattoo is my powerful reminder that strength and resilience are always possible with complete faith and trust in God; that with Him I can fear nothing and can feel joy through it all. After my divorce I felt so broken and lost. Once I gave up trying to understand why these painful things were happening to me I released it all to God's hands and felt immediate peace and strength. I had to realize that my strength and happiness was held in a fearlessness of the future."
"I've loved Frida Kahlo since I was a teenager, and I always wanted to have her portrait tattooed. I love her as a great artist and I love her for the incredible woman that she was. She's a symbol of strength and passion for me. Carrying her on my arm every day has definitely given me more strength and confidence in myself, and it has given me good luck! It's so much a part of me that I feel like I was born with it, and I feel like the more I learn about her the more I love it."
"My tattoo started as a few flowers, it grew to a half sleeve and Im still going. The meaning is deep for me, I choose flowers because my grandmother loved flowers and did arrangements often, even for my wedding. She was the most important person in my life."
"When I was younger, my great uncle always told me, ""if you can't behave, be safe.' Every time I'd see my grandpa, he would tell me to 'Be bad.' When they both passed, I had these done. Two important men in my life, who didn't know each other, were basically telling me not to take life for granted."
"I got this 'Butsi' tattoo when I was experiencing my first heart break after high school. To this day, I still remember how much pain I was in then and it became worse as I fell into an abusive relationship. This tattoo reminds me of that experience and how far I have come on my own. It symbolizes everything about me in one word in terms of strength, courage, pain, and love, but it is not an actual word. My oldest brother began calling me by this name one day when I was still a toddler. When anyone asks him how he came up with that name, he just says I looked like a 'Butsi.'"
"The words are actually from the 90's film 'Grace of My Heart.' The actual lyrics read: 'I never knew I was built so strong. My heart, my heart is a boat on the sea. I never knew I was built for Hurricanes. My heart, my heart is a boat on the sea.' My tattoo is a reminder that no matter the storm, whatever I encounter, my heart can only endure. I am a strong woman. I can handle anything. I am capable of still evolving even when I think I have nothing left to learn. My heart truly is a boat on the sea."
Jake McKenna Ibarra
"My 'Live through this' is a reminder I survived preterm labors and loss of my twins. Born two weeks apart, Tierney was born still and Eden had her sunrise and sunset two weeks later, but I missed her whole life outside my womb. Why? I was hemorrhaging and my vitals not conducive with life. But I lived and I need that damn reminder to keep me strong and to keep me going!"
These interviews have been edited and condensed.