Often inspired by Native American stories, wolves, coyotes and wild dogs are also on the list of standard icons. “The wolf howling at the moon in silhouette is a classic tattoo design,” Eldridge says. A wolf is wrapped in the roots of a tree of life in Melissa Lynch’s tattoo. “The wolf for me isn’t necessarily the wolf. It represents all dogs,” says Lynch, a private dog trainer. “Wolves are very family oriented—loyal and strong. My roots wrap around that.”
With long blond dreadlocks, Lynch isn’t afraid of attracting attention, and she put the striking black-and-gray tattoo between her shoulder blades for a reason. “I wanted everybody to see it,” she says. “So they ask me about it, and then I can talk to them about rescue and shelter and adoption and training.”
Tamara Sellers works at Shaggy Pines Dog Park in Michigan, and is also equally happy to display her calf tattoo when she wears shorts. The cartoon-style portraits of her Vizsla, Labrador and Weimaraner dotted with green and purple paw prints—Shaggy Pines’ colors—runs from her ankle almost to her knee. The tattoo cost $300 and took a Grand Rapids tattooist five hours. That’s a good deal; $100 per hour plus tip was the average cost for most of the folks I interviewed. But five hours is a long time for a single sitting.
“It hurts, but it’s not painful where you think you’re going to die,” Sellers says. “The day after was worse. I felt like I had a huge road-rash down my leg.” But she’s thrilled to have a memento of her dogs while they are alive and someday, after they are gone. “When I look at the tattoo when they’re gone, I can remember when I still had them. It was a good time in my life.”
An image of a particular dog isn’t for everyone. “I was afraid to get a portrait,” says Karen Mountain, owner of Bark Natural Pet Care. “I’m afraid [the tattoo artist] won’t capture what I see.” The names of her dogs, Boone and Bubba, are framed by the outlines of bones on her ankles. To mark Boone’s death, she added a tipped halo over one end of the bone. She hasn’t decided what more she’ll do for Bubba, her Staffordshire Terrier mix who sleeps in the storefront window most days. She only knows that she’ll need some sort of tattoo within the first week after he’s gone.
Of the nearly 15 dog-inspired tattoos I tracked down and the dozens more I saw in artists’ galleries, only one included a person with the dog. “I drew it with a Sharpie on a piece of paper and took it into a tattoo parlor,” says Ali Johnson, describing her first—and right now, only—tattoo. The 30-minute, $30 ankle art is as simple as it sounds—a stick figure person with a ponytail running with a stick figure dog.
Johnson decided she wanted a tattoo to celebrate running three half-marathons, all of which she trained for with an Australian Shepherd named Osa. “She ran the 13-mile training run, came home and dropped a ball at my feet like, ‘What’s up with you?’” says Johnson, who quit graduate studies in biochemistry at Duke University to become a dog trainer and now owns Kinship Dog Training.
“The tattoo stands for a lot of the things I care about—that I partner with my dogs and that I care about my health and theirs,” Johnson says. “I didn’t put a leash in it because I wanted to show that we chose to be together.”