Tattoo Plus You, A Photo Story of Body Ink is a photographic project that explores tattoos and the stories behind them.

I am passionate about portraiture and I love the arts, so the chance to combine these two passions was irresistible. I also love how photos tell stories and even better stories when images are combined with words.

A lot of the tattoo photography I had seen over the years tended toward the sensational with little substance on the people and why they choose to mark their bodies permanently with ink. I knew that there would be stories connected to these pieces when I started this project, but I had no idea that they would be so fascinating.

Tattoo Plus You began as a book project back in 2012 and continues to this day, online.

This was the original text in the forward to the book:

“Why do people get tattoos? That was the simple question behind this portrait project.

Not surprisingly, it turns out that the answers ranged from the simple to the highly complex and deeply personal. I am so grateful for the people who had the courage to stand in front of the seeming scrutiny of the lens.

As a portrait photographer, people have been my primary fascination, and I have had the good fortune to photograph literally thousands of people.

It was through my portrait work that I started to see more and more tattoos showing up on my subjects. Body ink has moved into mainstream culture, no longer sitting on the fringe of sailors, bikers and rock stars.

The idea was this: if a person had a tattoo and was willing to share up to 300 words about the inspiration behind their body ink, then a portrait session was arranged. The response was amazing.

The Project Continues:

That was then. Today, the project continues. If you have a tattoo and want to tell your story, send me a message.

Gordon Ross

Steve, Tattoo + You, A Photo Story of Body Ink
Steve, Tattoo + You, A Photo Story of Body Ink

People can change. I am the perfect example of that.

Before February 4, 2009, I would have been the least likely person to have highly visible tattoos. While the day my brother, Brian, took his life will probably be the most brutal day of my life, it also had a profound change in my beliefs.

When my father passed away in 2004, I had a small Canadian flag tattooed on my upper right shoulder. He had served in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) for 20 years, so it seemed fitting.

With my brother’s suicide, I sensed a major shift in my attitude towards tattoos and decided to act on it. Brian and I had always been huge Dwight Yoakam fans, so it didn’t take long to decide that a tribute to him would be Dwight on my arm. While I will never forget Brian, it’s great to look down at Dwight’s image and remember all of the good, and bad, times with my younger brother.

After getting that tattoo, I wanted something more for the memory of my father. I thought about it for a while, and, after making some important life decisions in early 2011, I knew it was time.

In the RCAF, my father served as an Instrument Technician aboard the Argus maritime patrol aircraft for the last seven years of his service. My earliest memories of him are of myself, my brother and my mother, waiting for him to come home from trips abroad.

I’m a huge aircraft nut, so it wasn’t hard to include an image of the Argus in the tattoo for my father. The design is fairly basic, but it’s the perfect tribute.

There will be more tattoos — ones with deep personal meaning for me, and me alone.

Sarah, Tattoo + You, A Photo Story of Body Ink
Sarah, Tattoo + You, A Photo Story of Body Ink

I love art and its many mediums of expression. The idea of using needles to push ink layers deep into the skin has always intrigued me. I genuinely admire people’s unique tattoos and, along with the artwork itself, am always curious of its meaning. Every tattoo is a personal story that represents a point in one’s life.

There is a sense of trust, like no other, when you allow an artist to permanently mark you. You are their canvass and the work they do will be a part of you, and who you are, forever.

After several tattoos, with my first one at the age of 17, I have a deeper meaning of body art.

My back piece is of great significance and thanks to Steve Moore’s amazing talents, came to fruition better than I imagined.

I had a vision of sorts. A flock of flying ravens to represent the culmination of all the people in my life to this point—my loves, my losses, my lessons, and how each has left their mark on me, helping me to become the person I am today.

Ravens have always been my totem. I marvel at their mystery, their intelligent nature and their cunning manner. They have a sense of curiosity and independence that I adore and respect.

My ravens tell a story—-a bold artistic interpretation of my story— of all the people, in their varying degrees, that have come in and out of my life in whatever capacity, all intermingling to become a part of me.

Trying to avoid Poe-esque darkness in the piece, cherry blossoms were added for a delicate feel, where my initial gnarled branch would have failed dramatically. I wanted a symbol of hope and grace for my future, and of beauty and serenity of my past. In Buddhism, cherry blossoms symbolize the brief beauty and transient nature of life—-a perfect fit for my vision.

Juanita, Tattoo + You, A Photo Story of Body Ink
Juanita, Tattoo + You, A Photo Story of Body Ink

My first tattoo happened at a pretty rough shop on Davies Street in Vancouver. I walked in off the street with a strong desire to get a tattoo. I was sixteen-years-old and chose a band of Japanese plum blossoms that symbolize longevity. I chickened out having the band wrap around my arm, and walked out with a puffy, painful impression of flowers that I had no previous link to. My second tattoo happened between college classes. I went to renew my driver’s license and across the street was a tattoo shop. I wanted something on my collarbone to accentuate the lines. The artist and I looked through native designs and discussed making it into a bird. He drew a design that could be interpreted as turned into either a duck or a raven in turquoise blue tribal lines. We left it open to interpretation.

Two years later, in Vernon, BC, I added wings and made it into a raven. The lines just seemed to draw themselves over the left shoulder and onto the back with a little wing on the back of the neck. A year later, the tail was added and extends over my right hip. That same year, I added a dragon that covers the rest of my right hip and carries down the right leg.

The dragon was originally going to be a little piece at the front of the hip with Thunderbird wings. It had to be hot pink. When the design was ready it covered three 8×10 pages across and three down. It revealed a gigantic hot pink dragon with gorgeous Thunderbird wings and a very kind face. I was overwhelmed by the size and said, “I don’t think so.” The artists pleaded passionately with me. After negotiating a discounted price, provided that I enter a tattoo competition for the artist, I decided to go for it. We won best colour and most original design.

Steve, Tattoo + You, A Photo Story of Body Ink
Steve, Tattoo + You, A Photo Story of Body Ink

Tattoo left upper arm, Age 30, Artist location Ottawa, ON, Canada.

Wrapped around my left upper arm is a written piece -— a statement of truth and a solemn reminder of perseverance.

Non-transparent and disguised through Old English text and a mixture of upper and lower case lettering, my intention was to disclose my message to a select few -— my closest friends and family. Separated by three Zodiac signs —- Aries for my father and sisters; Pisces for my mother; and Scorpio for myself —- I inscribed three words: Strength of Will.

I arrived at this statement on exercise, during a past career in the Canadian Military. Driving shotgun with pal Tommy, chatting, kidding and laughing while trying to narrow down a phrase for a tattoo, he asked, “What’s your life about, why are you here? Give me something real. Dude, it’s going on your body forever.” I answered, “I am here because of my will to survive.”

Since 1993, I have struggled with extreme fatigue, migraines, insomnia, and, at times, severe depression. My journey has been a tough one. Words cannot explain my pain and despair. Hopelessness filled most of my days, as I tried to understand and care for myself physically, mentally and spiritually. So, when asked why am I here, I literally meant my strength of will to live.

As I travel through this life, I take nothing for granted. I cherish life with its beauty and brightness, knowing and accepting the darkness that lies beneath, above and around.

Luka, Tattoo + You, A Photo Story of Body Ink
Luka, Tattoo + You, A Photo Story of Body Ink

I do it because I believe tattoos make my hair grow. I suffer from Alopecia Areta (AA), a disease that medical professionals associate with stress. Hair loss is AA’s most significant characteristic. AA causes my hair to fall out in patches -— sometimes a little at a time and sometimes a lot.

When first diagnosed, I tried every alternative therapy imaginable -— aromatherapy, homeopathy, magneticand magnetic therapy. If the word alternative was in the description, then I probably gave it a try. But nothing seemed to make a difference. I eventually gave up the hunt for a “cure” and focused on owning a fabulous collection of scarves, hats and bandanas.

My first tattoo is on my left forearm. I sat for it at a time when I had three, or four, stubborn bald patches on my head. The next morning fuzz had grown over each of those spots.

Was it the anticipation of getting a tattoo? The adrenaline rush when the needles first pierced my skin? Or was it a fluke?

A year later the bald spots were back. I wanted to test my theory and had “East Coast, West Coast” inked on my left calf. The next day the fuzz was back and I was officially hooked on tattoos.

Over the next eight years, and a number of sittings, I completed my first sleeve, then more on my calf, my back, my chest, and, finally, the other sleeve.

I often choose art that reminds me of where I’ve come from, like the “East Coast” on my calf or the skyline of Saint John, NB, on my left shoulder. Other pieces represent people that I care about. For example, the birds on my chest represent my parents.

The sleeve on my right arm is a collection of office equipment that was started when I returned to school as a mature student. It artistically represents my goal of becoming an accountant.

As the Charles Bukowski quote tattooed on my inner arm reads, “You’re going to have to save yourself.”

Kim, Tattoo + You, A Photo Story of Body Ink
Kim, Tattoo + You, A Photo Story of Body Ink

My first tattoo was not the first one I wanted. I am thankful for that because, otherwise, I would have a black panther tattooed across my backside. That happened was when I was 21 years-old and I was talked out of it by my husband, God rest his soul.

The first tattoo I did get was Chinese writing that simply says, “Embrace life.” It is something that I didn’t realize would become such a mantra for my life.

Through the years, I slowly added to my story-—my recollection of feelings, people and emotions were like a book of my soul on skin. I added angel wings on my back, and stars and circles, and a memorial whale’s tail for a friend lost at sea.

I have two amazing children and wanted them forever by my side. I had an amazing tattoo artist, Curt Christiansen, add them to my story. They are on my arms and forever by my side. I cherish those two works of art the most.

My husband of 23 years passed away two years ago. A loss so great and consuming, and yet I found the strength to carry on and teach my kids of such strength. Maybe they have taught me.

When it would have been my wedding anniversary, I went to Curt and had the word “Strength” written on the nape of my neck.

I was raised by my mom who is a pillar of strength, courage and hope. I had always liked the picture of Rosie, The Riveter -— another strong woman -— so that was my next piece. Curt amazed me with a beautiful Rosie on my calf. I did Kim- it- up a bit and asked that he place an old school microphone in her hand.

My most recent tattoo is by Cody Walsh. It is another meaningful mantra that I try to live my life by. I had “One Love” with three Rasta stars of red, yellow and green tattooed on my left forearm.

I am far from done and eagerly await the next desire to add another chapter to my book -— art as far as I am concerned.

Becky, Tattoo + You, A Photo Story of Body Ink
Becky, Tattoo + You, A Photo Story of Body Ink

Everyone wants to know the type of bird that I have tattooed on my arms. Really, they aren’t a specific type of bird, just the silhouette of a bird; just a representation of a bird. Actually, the representation of what a bird means to me -— a meaning that I would, ideally, like to represent my life.

f. Freedom, m. Movement, t. The sound of wind in my ear and e. Excitement.

Birds strangely find their way into my life without me directly looking for them. I look up in the air and see a flock flying by in their peaceful, free- flowing formation – sporadic, yet organized, ; in sync with each other, reading the other’s next move. I stand and watch waiting for the last one to fly by, not wanting to miss the moment or the message that they bring.

My art is another way these creatures flow from my mind. I unknowingly makeing choices thato involve birds and often I don’t see them until this animal. I admire until I stand back and look at what I’ve created.

When my husband and I started dating, we had many significant moments involving birds -— from spotting owls in peculiar places, to eagles soaring right in front of us, to driving south and watching hundreds of flying V’s heading south for the winter. Each time, we took it as a good sign as to where we were heading in life.

Maybe it’s their wings I admireenvy. Maybe it’s their ability to fly away at a moment’s notice, with nothing to pack or leave behind, just moving forward.

That’s it -— not looking back, only forward.

Sheila, Tattoo Plus You, A Photo Story of Body Ink
Sheila, Tattoo Plus You, A Photo Story of Body Ink

This tree is my second tattoo. Near the base of the tree is a little squiggle that was my first tattoo. It was my interpretation of tribal art from the 1990’s, inspired by George Clooney’s tattoo in From Dusk Til’ll Dawn.

Two babies and approximately 15 years later, I decided that I’d definitely like a second tattoo. I spent about two years thinking, grooming my husband, and securing Christmas and birthday gifts to pay for this baby.

One day, my sister-in-law mentioned The Tree of Life. I love trees and everything about them. I love their beauty, their strength, their asymmetry, their connectedness to the earth and their life-giving nature. They speak to me.

I decide to find a good artist, sketch some shapes and angles, and write down key words to vaguely describe what I would like permanently inked on my entire back.

I took this into Cody at Black Rose Tattoo in Courtenay, BC, showed him my stuff and asked him to create something for me. We made an appointment and I was committed.

A day before the appointment, I felt that I should see the work before the outline but ignored the niggling feeling. I went in and was shocked by the massive tree that I found on the transfer paper. After a string of profanities, I was asked if I wanted to go ahead. I said, “Sure.”

I gave Cody artistic freedom and license, and allowed him to determine the length of each session according to his energy and his mood. Thirteen hours, spread over a few sessions, and the same number of coffee mugs of wine (and perhaps an expired post-surgical morphine tablet) later, I have my tree. I love my tree. It represents all that I think is beautiful.

An expression of my life,

my love,

my soul.

A reflection of my values,

my marriage,

my children.

Celebrate art.

Celebrate this journey.

Celebrate it all.

Charlotte, Tattoo + You, A Photo Story of Body Ink
Charlotte, Tattoo + You, A Photo Story of Body Ink

I wanted a tattoo one year before I actually went out and got it. It was a well- thought- out process. Everything was important -— the area, the size, the color, and, of course, the tattoo itself. One thing I was sure about was that it had to involve Muay Thai.

When I was 16-years-old, I joined this wonderful martial art because I needed a new hobby. It has changed my life for the better, in many ways, and I wanted something to signify my appreciation for the art.

What better way to remember something, and have an excuse to talk about your passion, than a tattoo?

I knew my tattoo needed a Muay Thai influence, now I just needed something to represent me. After discussing it with friends, training peers and family whose opinions I greatly valued, I made my decision.

I aim to be positive and cheerful at all times -— it may be the simple answer to having a healthy life. At the time, I pondered my motto and it seemed special and unique to me. So, I was tattooed with “Live, Love, Laugh” in the Thai language.

Seeing it drawn on my back for the first time, I became happy and giddy. Getting impatient, I wanted to get the process started. I had waited long enough. Finally, after booking the appointment, I could rest.

After the tattoo was finished, I looked in the mirror and had a huge smile on my face that lasted for a week. Each time I get a glimpse of it, that same smile grows on my face. When someone asks, “What’s up?” I start telling my story.

Savannah, Tattoo + You, A Photo Story of Body Ink
Savannah, Tattoo + You, A Photo Story of Body Ink

As someone who never felt different and never stood out, getting my first tattoo was an empowering experience. Here, at last, was something I could do -— something that made me different from my siblings, from my friends, and from everyone around me.

After that first intoxicating moment of needle to skin, I was hooked. It’s been a passionate love affair ever since.

I got more tattoos, spent time at the tattoo shop and started dating a local artist. I began to understand the history and the tradition behind tattooing, and that was when my love grew deeper. It wasn’t so much about me anymore; it was about how tattoos made me feel. It became a wider emotion -— one of respect and reverence.

There is so much to tattooing that isn’t seen by the mainstream world. It isn’t the scary, dark habit of drug lords and criminals. It was the souvenir of sailors long ago and the symbol of power and status to tribal leaders. It was what distinguished Russian thieves by law from one another. It was a rite of passage and a painful, humbling experience. The Edo Japanese wore them under their clothes as a symbol of wealth and beauty.

This incredibly rich history makes me proud to wear my tattoos, and gives me strength and conviction in my choice to cover my body.

I feel empowered. I feel beautiful. I feel more comfortable under my tattoos then I ever did in my plain skin. Tattoos are not an afterthought placed on my skin, or unnatural. For me, they are as natural as freckles.

I’ll never stop getting tattooed. I love them for their history, their tradition and the way they make me feel.

Mike, Tattoo Plus You, A Photo Story of Body Ink
Mike, Tattoo Plus You, A Photo Story of Body Ink

I was 18-years-old when I was first tattooed. I went to the local biker tattoo shop and picked a howling wolf from the wall, an image that I had felt a kinship with as a disgruntled youth. It was the classic case of bored urban teen angst, a slightly outlaw action (I already had a youth criminal record for theft), and rock and roll coolness.

When he hit me with that wasp stinger of a tattoo machine, I tensed up, started sweating profusely and immediately got tunnel vision. I had no idea what to expect, thought myself pretty tough and was about to puke and pass out in front of a burly biker.

To his credit, he was professional enough to stop, let me catch my breath and level out. He explained to me that many first timers have this same reaction. When I was ready to continue, he stated, “Don’t worry, that’ll never happen to you again.”

I’ve been tattooed many times since and have yet to repeat that reaction. It has become a feeling that I’ve craved, endured and overcome. It’s a raw sensation, both invasive and comforting at the same time.

Sometimes I watch the artist work, marveling at the blood and ink pooling on my flesh, watching them wipe away the scrambled liquids to reveal a sharp, clean series of permanent lines or a riot of unnatural color.

Sometimes I take in my surroundings, always curious as to how tattoo shops (the more interesting ones, anyway) collect such oddities and inspirational pieces of art. Most often I just stare into space, going to a place beyond the discomfort of the act, knowing and trusting that, at the end of it, what I take away will be forever.

Elena, Tattoo + You, A Photo Story of Body Ink
Elena, Tattoo + You, A Photo Story of Body Ink

I was immediately interested when the opportunity arose to share my tattoo stories in this project. When I was a kid, I saw the most tattooed people on earth in the Guiness World Records and Kat Vod on Miami Ink—to get my own tattoos became my goal. 

I was raised in a semi-conservative household where tattoos were frowned upon. When I expressed my desire to get tattooed I was met with disapproval and negative comments. What about your wedding day? Men don’t like girls with tattoos. You will regret them. Over my years of getting tattooed, I can say that none of these are true for me! My partner loves my ink, even though he doesn’t have any himself. 

I got my first tattoo at 18. I went with something small—a bible verse and cross on my wrist to ease my mom into it. It’s a cross wrapped in pearls with the verse “1 John 4:18.” I was hooked! I  went on to tattoo my chest with a sparrow (for a charity event) and script from Bob Marley, “No woman, no cry.” 

People often ask, “What do your tattoos mean!?”  For me, a lot of them don’t have any particular meaning; their art just resonated with me at that moment in my life. Tattoos are my love of art immortalized on my body. What better appreciation of art than to wear it on your skin for life? 

However, some do have meaning. The butterflies on my arm are for my mother because they have always been symbols of hope for her. On my inner arm, I have a honey bee on a honeycomb to symbolize a time in my life when I was a workaholic. I plan to cover the rest of my back and complete my sleeve as my life ebbs and flows. The themes will change and my love of art and tattoo design will only continue to expand and grow.

Jared, Tattoo + You, A Photo Story of Body Ink
Jared, Tattoo + You, A Photo Story of Body Ink

The art held by my skin is in the traditional Japanese style of Irezumi but with a contemporary touch.

Overall, like the dualities of In & Yo (Japanese Yin & Yang), my two sleeves and chest panels are balanced with a more feminine, spring, or In energy, expressed by tanchōzuru (red-crowned cranes) and sakura (cherry blossoms) on my left, and a more masculine, autumn or Yo energy, expressed by koi (carp) and momiji (Japanese maple leaves) on my right.

The tanchōzuru (red-crowned cranes) symbolize unity, happiness, and longevity. The crane in flight is for my eldest daughter Sora (Japanese for “sky”), and the seated crane for my youngest daughter, Tai (Japanese for “peace/calm”). The halos of light that encircle each crane are for the moon and the sun, and represent my mindset to always seek balance and harmony. Sakura (cherry blossoms) are woven into the piece to represent the fleeting nature of life, a reminder to be present and cherish all moments. 

The motif of the right is symbolic of the partnership I share with my wife, the koi on my chest for motherhood and the one on my sleeve for fatherhood. The koi swim upstream to acknowledge the inevitable struggles of life and our resolve to persevere together. Momiji (Japanese maple leaves), a symbol of lovers, sweep through the piece, and their changing colours represent the passing of time, the cycle of life, growth and change.

Ojuzu (prayer beads) encircle my forearms to finish each sleeve, and hold the kanji (Japanese characters) for my daughter’s names on the left, and the characters for kokkishin (the spirit to overcome oneself) on the right.

Finally, a conversation of my tattoos cannot be had without mention of Stuart Teekasingh, the talented artist for whom I am honored to wear his work.

Kymme, Tattoo + You, A Photo Story of Body Ink
Kymme, Tattoo + You, A Photo Story of Body Ink

They say that every tattoo has a story; here’s mine.

I never thought I would ever get a tattoo. I thought it would be a hindrance to being a performer playing different roles.

I was diagnosed with oral cancer at the base of the tongue and my whole world turned upside down. This would be devastating to anyone; as a performer-teacher-director I knew it would be paralyzing if I was to let it take hold.

As treatment goes, if they couldn’t fry this cancer with radiation, then they would have to cut out my tongue. No thanks! Not a part of my plan! Keeping positive with a sense of humour and a vision for the future was my plan.

Prior to being dealt the cancer-card my plan was to go and work with elephants. Elephants fascinate and inspire me. So my happy place during my many rounds of radiation was to imagine looking into the eye of an elephant. I had always used the mantra Trunks Up when working with students and cast and crew of new productions. Trunks Up means good luck and remove all obstacles.

Support and encouragement came from my students, past and current, their families and the whole community. Everybody (including my nurses and oncologists) was wearing Trunks Up pins. It was a long journey with many continuing challenges but I am grateful for what I have.

Never leave things unsaid and pass on a Trunks Up to anyone who needs it because we all have obstacles to remove. Surrounded by my team of supporters I received my first tattoo designed by a former student. I beat cancer, I looked into the eye of an elephant and, yes, I got a tattoo.