Andrew first decided to get tattooed when he saw a guy fishing on the beach with dragon tattoos on his arms as a child. Photo: Daniel Spellman
From meaningful tributes, to memories of a drunken night out, tattoos are a form of human art that always come with a story attached.
Fascinated by their permanency, and with no preconceptions about their owners, local Fairfax photographer Daniel Spellman set out to discover the stories behind a number of Canberrans’ tattoos, and, in the process, document the art that adorns their bodies in his work The Tattoo Project.
Tattoos are great! They get under your skin and into your head.Justyn, The Tattoo Project
What he found was a mix of touching personal stories, like nurse Kirsty, whose upper thigh is home to a colourful phoenix in memory of friends and family lost over a devastating four-year period.
The Tattoo Project: Stories behind the ink
Ash: I can look back on every one of my tattoos and remember why they are there. I have a drawn history of my most cherished moments and loves in detail for me to see daily. I will still know who I am when I’m in diapers being spoon fed. Will you? You only live once. Photo: Daniel Spellman
“Over the four years I’d battled mental illness after each death, depression became an issue, as a nurse and generally bright and bubbly individual who was always the rock, that wasn’t acceptable. I battled in silence,” Kirsty wrote.
She’d lost four friends and her grandfather by the time she finally decided to commemorate their passing with a tattoo. She chose a phoenix as “a symbol of hope, rebirth, renewal of life”, and said different aspects of the tattoo remind her of each person she lost.
“Altogether, it’s a reminder every day, they are with me, I will rise up every time something ‘bad’ happens, and it’s time for me to live on for them,” she said.
Kirsty's phoenix tattoo is a daily reminder of the loved ones she lost over a tough four-year period of her life. Photo: Daniel Spellman
Tom’s tattoos don’t carry the same sombre notes – instead recalling stories of travel around Asia and a couple of women along the way.
“The whale on my foot was to prove to some English girl in Thailand that I wasn’t scared to get a tattoo,” he wrote.
“The Swedish flag was a bender of a night that resulted in me waking up next to a Swedish girl who I had convinced to get a kangaroo tattoo’d in a similar position.”
Justyn began his life as a living canvas in the early 2000s after seeing George Clooney’s character reveal “the coolest tattoo ever” in the final scene of 1990s film From Dusk Till Dawn.
He said since he took the first step, he feels like he has entered an exclusive club, and has started looking out for his next work of body art.
“Once you realise that you can put up with the pain you quickly begin looking for your next piece. I will most likely go a full Japanese arm on my other side, as bright as possible, to counterbalance the black tribal on my right,” Justyn wrote.
“Tattoos are great! They get under your skin and into your head.”
Spellman said his work, which tells the story of 12 locals and their tattoos, was borne out of “a little curiosity” about the meanings of tattoos and the way we view people who use their body for art.
“The way our appearances alter how we are perceived to the outside world has always fascinated me, so it’s inevitable that I would eventually turn my lens on tattooed people,” he said.
“A far bigger statement than mere clothing, tattoos reach beyond those temporary shells of fabric and lace to become part of our flesh. Tattoos can be value statements, memories, or art. Sometimes, they are all three.
“Aside from a little curiosity, I held no preconceived notions about tattoos or the people who own them. I just found a bunch of contemporary Aussies and asked them to write a few words about their ink.”
Do you have a tattoo with a meaning? Leave your story below.