Spilled ink: students share tattoo stories

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Twisting lines of blue ink wrap around a pale thigh to form dark waves. Further down the tattooed leg lurks a hammerhead shark, peeping almost coyly out from the bottom of a current. A black octopus is tucked in the safety of a shadow. So far, this work of living art has taken Sara Lou Gordon, an SF State junior, more than 27 hours over a series of $200 sessions.

“I really should insure my body,” Gordon joked.

Gordon, 21, is majoring in environmental studies to become an environmental lawyer. According to Gordon, her family is against all forms of body modifications, including tattoos. Gordon said her family is Jewish, and her religion prohibits the burial of any tattooed persons in a Jewish cemetery.

“My religious side of the family would be upset if I wasn’t buried with them because they all have areas for their family members,” Gordon said. “Trees guarantee life after death, not just your own, but to everything else around you.”

Gordon is one of several SF State students who said that their tattoos represent and generate personal conflicts in their lives.

Gordon said religion is part of the reason why she keeps her tattoos a secret from her parents, who she said would “flip out” if they ever learned of her six large tattoos. Despite her family’s reservations, Gordon got her first tattoo before she moved from her hometown of Los Angeles to San Francisco at age 19. Many of her tattoos stem from seeds and trees to represent her growth as a person, she said.

SF State alumnus Campbell Alexander, 23, is a tattoo artist who worked on the majority of Gordon’s tattoos at Picture Machine Tattoo on Geary Boulevard. Alexander said Gordon’s thigh tattoo is the largest piece he has done for a client.

“We get a wide variety of students, especially from San Francisco State,” Alexander said. “For students’ first tattoos, there isn’t a huge trend that people follow. They usually get something sentimental because they want something that means a lot to them rather than getting something cool for the sake of looking cool.”

Sean Followill, 21, is a senior studying art. According to Followill, he is the only one in his family with tattoos. He said it came as a shock to his parents when he showed them his tattoo, which starts from his shoulder and extends down to his wrist. He has a new addition covering his chest: an unfinished owl that he started last week.

Followill said he got his tattoos to express how he deals with his personal struggles, like his diabetes. As a child, he said he had to deal with being the “different kid” who didn’t get to play as long as the other kids and constantly had to monitor his sugar levels.

“I was diabetic since I was four,” Followill said. “The snake wrapped around the medical cross and my MLK quote represents my experience dealing with my diabetes. It shows that things can be bad, but you gotta just power through it.”

Although the tattoos represent important aspects of her life, Gordon said they have caused some unwanted attention, especially the tattoo that runs from her hip to her knee.

“People have no form of etiquette for tattoos,” Gordon said.”I have random men come up to me at bars saying ‘oh my gosh, your tattoo,’ and proceed to lift up my skirt to see more of it.”

SF State student and business marketing major Samantha Kephart, 22, has experienced similar treatment because of her body art. One of her bigger pieces is a Hamsa symbol, an Arabic hand symbol used as an amulet to ward off evil.

“People come up to me and treat me differently because of it,” Kephart said. “When I wear a shirt revealing the tattoo on my back, guys approach me thinking I am there for more than just a drink, but the worst that happens are men who randomly slap my back. How is that OK or acceptable?”

Despite mixed reactions from others, Gordon and other students said they aren’t deterred from getting tattooed.

“Honestly, I love my tattoos more everyday,” Gordon said. “I get to look at specific times of my life and see the inspiration and where I was at that time. When I look at my tattoos, it’s like the ultimate journaling.”

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  • Judaism does not prohibit someone with tattoos from having a Jewish funeral or burial in a Jewish cemetery. It is an urban myth.