At a waterpark last summer, I counted a dozen suburban moms with tattoos dotting their ankles, necks and lower backs. It was, for me, a watershed tally. What I’d been reading in trend stories for years finally sank in: Tattooing is mainstream.
According to tattoo artists I’ve talked to since, average Joes and Janes have been going under the needle for decades, but popular TV reality shows such as Miami Ink have revved the phenomena like a Harley engine. Some estimates put the number of tattooed Americans at one in seven. A Pew Research Center poll released last year revealed that four in 10 Gen Xers sport at least one tatt and 36 percent of all Gen Nexters (the oldest of whom just turned 26) have begun blazing a body-art trail that should put them on track to eclipse their elders.
So, when a nearly photographic likeness of a Pug permanently inked into DeAnna Miller’s arm arrived in my inbox—apropos of nothing and shortly after my waterpark revelation—it seemed natural to wonder: Where exactly are our dogs in all of this?
A few strategically sent emails to tattoo-savvy associates revealed a simple truth: Roll up the pant leg or draw back the sleeve of a tattoo-loving dog person and you’re likely to discover everything from Kanji-script dog names to painterly canine portraits.
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“It’s relatively new,” says C.W. (Chuck) Eldridge, a tattooist who researches and documents tattoo history and is the owner of the Tattoo Archive in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “Dog portraits in the past weren’t really popular. Now it’s actually quite common. Not just dogs, but cats, snakes and birds. You name it. You know how people love their pets.”
Kelly McGuire was a tattoo-free zone (a “virgin” in parlor parlance), when she entered a Topeka tattoo shop seven years ago, soon after the unexpected death of Geisha, her five-year-old Pug. Geisha was the first dog of McGuire’s to die, and the loss was devastating. “It killed me. I cried every day,” she says. With her husband’s encouragement, McGuire got a tattoo of Geisha’s face on her arm. “All of a sudden, it felt like a weight was lifted off me. I felt so much better.”
Though McGuire tells me that she thinks her story sounds weird, she’s neither weird nor unique. Several people, including a woman who added a smidge of her late dogs’ ashes to her tattoo ink, described tremendous grief relief after getting a memorial tattoo.
The mere idea of her dog’s mortality drove Janet Beeby, a canine massage practitioner and avid agility competitor, to a tattoo shop. “As she was getting older, I was starting to get very panicked,” Beeby says about her 10-year-old Kerry Blue Terrier, Gabby. “She’s been an amazing partner to me.”
Gabby—the first Kerry Blue to earn a master’s agility champion title—inspired a rock star design. In the tattoo, she leaps through a bright red collar (her signature “jewelry”) on Beeby’s thigh. “The idea was, I’ll have Gabby on my lap for the rest of my life,” Beeby says. It’s a portrait, but in a bold, illustration-style. “My non-doggy friends are like, ‘I guess you’re the only one with that tattoo,’” Beeby says. “My doggy friends are like, ‘that’s hot!’”
DeAnna Miller, whose Pugsley Ann portrait inspired my tattoo odyssey, says, “Believe it or not, there are quite a few people who want to pet my arm.”
Probably the best-known dog in American tattoo history is the United States Marine Corps bulldog. When World War I German fighters referred to the Marines as “Devil Dogs,” a smart flack at the Corps created a recruiting poster featuring an English Bulldog running down an Iron Cross–wearing Dachshund. Just as actual Bulldogs were adopted as mascots, jowly Devil Dogs in helmets turned up on Marine biceps everywhere.
“That’s probably the most famous dog in tattooing. Snoopy might be next,” Eldridge says. “All the cartoon dogs, the comic dogs are quite common.”
On the darker side, in shops across the country, flash sheets (sample tattoo art) feature growling, salivating Pit Bulls in spiked collars with messages like “Only the Strong Survive.” At their best, these urban tattoos are a bid for street cred. At their worst, they reflect the criminal underworld of dog fighting.
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.”