Beyond skin deep: uncovering the meaning under the ink

Olivia Kharrazi

For thousands of years, humans have tattooed their bodies, permanently decorating their skin with art. Scientists have found evidence of tattoos dating back to circa 3250 B.C. Though the art itself and the motives behind it varies depending on the individual, there is always a story hidden beneath the ink. To unearth the deeper meanings behind tattoos in our community, both students and teachers shared the stories behind their tattoos.

Spencer Johnston

Senior Spencer Johnston got his tattoo on his 18th birthday, an illustration of the infinite knot on the side of his calf. 

“For me, [the symbol] represents the duality of the rational mind and the irrational heart,” Johnston said.

Beneath the inked knot are the words “GO LIGHT,” representing Johnston’s time at Team, a program for juniors in the Tamalpais Union High School District incorporating academics, outdoor experiences and community service. 

“It was the best year of my life so far. All of the backpacking and hiking trips were really a challenge, both physically and mentally, but I really got to learn about myself and the world around us,” Johnston said. “It was just such a good community that really had a big impact on me.”

The words on Johnston’s tattoo come from “For the Children,” a Gary Snyder poem that one of his Team teachers read to his class. The poem is about raising kids, and although Johnston does not have kids himself, the poem still holds meaning for him.

 “The whole line is ‘stay together/learn the flowers/go light,’ and that reminds me of Team and all the things we would do together. [My teacher] would always stop off on the trail to show us the flowers and their names and stuff like that,” Johnston said.

Not only do tattoos remind individuals about important aspects of their lives, but Johnston believes tattoos provide a sense of identity for each individual.

“We like to put ourselves in groups or communities as people. I think that’s just human nature, and this, for me, tags back to Team, so that helps me to identify myself,” Johnston said.

Ava Mahoney

Senior Ava Mahoney’s tattoo, located on her mid-arm, reads “Kurt smells like teen spirit” written in her younger sister’s handwriting. The tattoo is representative of the story about how Nirvana named their song “Smells Like Teen Spirit:” one of Kurt Cobain’s friends graffitied ‘Kurt smells like teen spirit’ on a hotel wall in reference to Cobain smelling like his girlfriend’s deodorant, Teen Spirit. However, Cobain interpreted the message as being deeper than it was intended to be. After Cobain wrote the song “Smells Like Teen Spirit” due to being moved by the graffiti, his friend informed him of his misinterpretation. Mahoney thought the humorous story would make for an interesting tattoo. 

“Since music brings [my sister and me] closer, [the tattoo] is something to represent her. It’s not just about the music; it’s about both of us and getting through family stuff together…It’s more about us bonding over something and sticking by each other’s side,” Mahoney said. 

Moments before getting inked, Mahoney began to have second thoughts, worrying about the permanence of tattoos.

“I was so nervous, I couldn’t even fill out the form. I accidentally clicked yes for having a blood disease,” Mahoney said.

Mahoney says it was worth it in the end, despite her initial hesitancy and nerves about the process’s pain.

“[A tattoo] represents a bit of who you are, your background or something you’ve gone through in your life…I think it’s good to show others who you are and also something for you to have to always remember and look at,” Mahoney said.

Nicole Graydon

Physical education teacher Nicole Graydon has a total of eight tattoos on her body, many of which represent her interests in life. Three of her tattoos are representative of her love for taekwondo, and a wave featured on her ankle is a tribute to her love of rowing and surfing. She also has an outline of the state of California on her inner ankle, a tattoo she got with her friend who moved to Miami. A watercolor of lavender flowers is painted on her right arm, due to its abundance around the house she grew up in. Loopy letters above the watercolor spell the word “LOVE.” On her calf is a heart with a peace sign drawn within it, a tattoo she got for her brother.

Graydon’s multitude of tattoos spawned from the significant part art has played in her life: her father, both her brothers and her aunts from her mother’s side of the family were all artists. She and her brother have their late father’s logo, the letter “g,” that he used when he was an artist. Below the symbol is the word “dynamo,” written in her father’s handwriting. This tattoo was Graydon’s first, as it was important to her that she got something that honored him. 

“When I was 18, my dad wrote me a letter for a scholarship I was applying to and the first line was ‘There is a human dynamo who lives in my house.’ That really meant a lot to me, so I got that tattooed. My dad died of suicide when I was 21, so I got those for him,” Graydon said.

Camille Dupuy

Senior Camille Dupuy got her first tattoo over spring break in Hawaii when she was 17. The tattoo is a small lavender plant on her ankle in honor of her mom, who accompanied her to the parlor because she was underaged.

“Whenever [my mom] sees lavender, she picks it. It makes me think of her,” Dupuy said.

Her second tattoo, a paper airplane on her wrist, commemorates her late grandfather who was an airplane pilot. Though most of her family do not have tattoos, Dupuy had discussed the topic with both her family and her friends before deciding to get ink. She got the tattoo with Mahoney when she turned 18. 

“I think [tattoos are] a really cool way to express yourself. And you can do it in more hidden ways…They kind of [use the outside to] show more of what’s on the inside,” Dupuy said.

Samantha Mauro

Math teacher Samantha Mauro got her latest tattoo on her forearm only a few months ago after years of contemplating what she wanted. The forearm piece displays four poppies, representing her hometown in San Diego, growing next to a redwood tree, representing Northern California.

Not only do the plants themselves symbolize important places in her life, but each of the four poppies and the redwood represents someone important to her.

“The redwood represents my husband, and then the poppies represent my mom, my dad, my sister and one of my grandmas. They all know who each other are. They know which one is theirs,” Mauro said.

Mauro has a total of four tattoos, and although if she could go back in time she would not get some of them again, she still has an appreciation for what they represent.

“I think they’re really good timestamps of where you were in your life at that point and kind of represent, ‘Oh, that’s what I was into when I was 18, that’s what I was into when I was 21, this is what I was into at 28,’” Mauro said.


 With an increasing prevalence of tattoos among young people, using one’s skin as a canvas preserves stories to make them everlasting. Whether it be to commemorate treasured memories or to represent a significant person, tattoos are unique ways to externally express one’s identity.