A student strolls into one of Washington, D.C.’s multiple tattoo parlors and speaks to a fully inked and heavily pierced desk attendant. After waiting a few minutes, an artist, somehow with even more tattoos than the attendant, takes the student back to a reclining chair and sterilizes a small patch on her arm. The artist loads the tattoo gun and leans over her; as the needle starts to spin, the low buzzing strikes a sense of sudden terror and sparks a full-body, exhilarating excitement.
Many Georgetown University students have experienced the sting of a tattoo artist’s gun and made permanent decisions to ink their bodies with images and words, wearing their meaningful tattoos under sleeves or in plain sight around campus. With these stories written in ink, students can creatively carry their family with them, commemorate unforgettable experiences with friends and provide meaningful markers of identity.
Behind the Needle
Tattoos can reflect personal tales of identity, but behind every ink illustration is a skilled artist who combines a customer’s vision for their permanent body art with artistic talent and editorial tattoo expertise.
One hundred twenty-eight tattoo shops operate within the D.C. area, according to Yelp. From Arlington, Va., to Adams Morgan to the H Street Corridor, there is a wide array of options to get a tattoo done. One of the closest to Georgetown is Jinx Proof, a tattoo shop located on M Street that opened in 1996.
Tattoo culture in D.C. has improved in the last 15 years, with fewer people coming in to make a decision they will later regret, according to Jeff Marsala, the manager of Jinx Proof.
“There are teenagers or 20-somethings everywhere, and it used to be a lot different in Georgetown where there would be many bars, and you would get a lot more drunk students,” Marsala said in an interview with the Hoya. “But everyone who comes in here now is pretty cool, and we don’t have a lot of issues.”
Though they may be more planned now, tattoos are still a big commitment with potentially far-reaching career and life consequences. As such, some artists, like Marsala, try to remind customers of the permanence of tattoos and body art, according to Marsala.
“I always say to people: ‘You’re going to die with this thing — it’s going to last longer than a car, house, girlfriend, boyfriend, and you are going to have this thing forever, and you are going to get buried with that.’”
Not all tattoos are done in an established shop: Some students get inked in dorm rooms by artistic friends who decorate skin with an at-home tattooing technique known as stick and poke.
Stick and poke can be unsanitary, but the safety of stick and poke tattoos largely boils down to meticulously sterilizing needles and skin before creating any open wound and being aware of potential allergic reactions to ink. Stick and poke tattoos are permanent, but, depending on the quality of the work, can fade faster than professional tattoos.
Some student artists, like Egan Barnitt (NHS ’21), have embraced stick and poke as a way to hone an artistic skill and make tattoos more accessible to students, according to Barnitt, who began giving stick and poke tattoos during her freshman year.
“College kids are often broke, and tattoos are often expensive (and tattoo shops can be really intimidating), so I really try to provide a needed service, giving low-cost high-quality handpokes in as comfortable an environment as I can manage,” Barnitt wrote in an email to The Hoya. “As I’ve continued to do it my tools have gotten more professional and my tattoos have started to look much better, but I always think back to the first few dumb ones I did fondly.”
Tattoos are permanent — not just for the person receiving the body art, but also for the artist, according to Barnitt.
“In a lot of ways, I just love the idea of being remembered, and putting my art on people forever. It’s such a crazy concept,” Barnitt wrote. “When a tattoo is over, and people are trying to Venmo me, I usually just tell them to make sure they think of me in 50 years when someone asks what the fuzzy thing on their thigh is.”
A Permanent Statement
Tattoos are a permanent way to mark a celebration of identity that starts in college because of a more open and generally more accepting environment, according to Jordan Brown (COL ’21), who got her first tattoo in March 2019.
“It’s really the first time for a lot of people that they get to be themselves and come into their identities and interests,” Brown wrote in an email to The Hoya. “It’s also a time when people (hopefully) won’t judge you too much for having a tattoo.”
But tattoo culture is not widespread enough to make getting inked commonplace at Georgetown, according to Jesse McNeill (COL ’18), who got his first tattoo in high school and got two while at Georgetown.
“Few enough people have tattoos in college (at least at GTown) that it is still something of an anomaly which makes it cool,” McNeill wrote in an email to The Hoya.
Tattoos may carry a factor of coolness among younger people, given that almost 36% of people ages 18 to 25 now have one, according to the Pew Research Center, but they still carry significant social stigma. Employers often look down on tattoos as a sign of unprofessionalism, but this varies by profession, according to a report by NPR.
The negative stereotypes that come with tattoos can sometimes manifest themselves in the classroom, according to Luke Thomley (COL ’20), whose many visible tattoos range from a branch of an Arabian balsam tree to a two-dimensional rendition of Auguste Rodin’s sculpture “The Fallen Caryatid Carrying Her Stone.”
“The number of times I have walked in to a professor’s office or received feedback on a paper and one of their first remarks is, ‘You’re actually very smart and sensitive,’ is pretty alarming,” Thomley wrote in an email to The Hoya. “I suspect this is due to some presumptions about me as I am, without fail, consistently the most heavily and visibly tattooed student in my classes.”
Since tattoos instantly tell a part of a person’s story, getting one that will be immediately visible is a bold choice, according to Brown.
“It’s cool because you get to see a glimpse into the lives of other students from their tattoos, even if you don’t know them very well,” Brown wrote.
Tattoos are symbolic — one phrase or icon can represent an entire world of meaning that lies on just a few inches of someone’s skin.
Sometimes matching tattoos, like the tattoo Andrew Orbe (SFS ’20) shares with his older sisters, link students and their loved ones through their ink, according to Orbe.
“The tattoo is three vertical triangles, and since I’m the youngest, I have the bottom one filled in,” Orbe wrote in an email to The Hoya. “My sisters have the same exact style and look, but depending on birth order have a different triangle colored in.”
Ink like McNeill’s matching tattoo with his best friend of a cartoon whale with sunglasses commemorates shared experiences and cements friendships into lifelong commitments, according to McNeill.
“[We] really got close the summer after our freshman year when we did a road trip out to Colorado and Utah in my family’s 1999 Toyota Sienna minivan that we christened ‘La Ballena,’ which means ‘the whale’ in Spanish,” McNeill wrote in an email to The Hoya. “The summer between junior and senior year we were munching some waffles next to a tattoo parlor reminiscing about that trip and just did it.”
Some tattoos can serve as a valuable and permanent reminder of a student’s identity and loved ones, according to Brown. Brown’s first tattoo was of the Spanish word “respira” — meaning “to breathe” in Spanish — in her mother’s handwriting.
The word is a lyric from the song “Breathe” from the musical “In The Heights,” sung by the character Nina Rosario, a Latina woman from Washington Heights, a low-income neighborhood in New York City, and the first in her family to go to college.
“Similarly [to Nina], I’m a Black woman from a low-income area of Atlanta, where people don’t go to schools like Georgetown,” Brown wrote. “My mother also always tells me to ‘just breathe’ when I’m getting too stressed, and the song features Nina’s community telling her ‘respira,’ or to just breathe, because everything will turn out fine.”