Skip to main content

Home Culture Culture Sexuality

What makes people get a tattoo? Attitude finds out the meaning behind the body art

In Attitude's Body issue, we ask 13 people what their tattoos mean to them

By Steve Brown

Tattoos come in all shapes and sizes – some coloured, some black and white canvases – but what makes someone feel the urge to go out and permanently ink their skin?

Some people wake up after a drunken night out and find a part of their body covered in ink, others have a more meaningful and memorable reason.

In Atittude’s Body Issue – which is out now to buy and download – we ask 13 people to explain the history behind their inkings. Here are just four snippets of the full features in the new issue, out now.

Ryan Cleary, 28, from Manchester

“My first tattoo says: ‘The most difficult phase in life is not when no one understands you, it’s when you don’t understand yourself.’

“I had it done when I was about 20. It just resonated with where I was at in life at the time. I didn’t know a lot about where my sexuality was going, I wasn’t comfortable with certain things, I didn’t know where my career was heading — I was a little boy lost.”

Ross Jones, 47, Wales

“The tattoo with the most meaning is of a gravestone with the name “Butch” above it on my forearm. It’s not a reference to me by the way.

“I had post-traumatic stress disorder because of my work as a train driver, after some suicides and fatalities. I’ve never run anybody over but I have been past after the incident and seen a lot.

“Afterwards, I kept dreaming about the dog I had when I was a kid, Butch. Every night. My therapist told me that it was my brain repairing itself.

“So, I thought, ‘Hang on, I’m going to have a little homage to that dog,’ and have never dreamt about him since. It sounds like bollocks, but it’s true.”

David Cobbald, 25, from London

“The ‘XVI’ is 10/5/1 which is October, May and January. I also came out on 28 May, and I got diagnosed with HIV exactly a year later.

“Being diagnosed with HIV was a surprise. The doctors said I was one of the fastest turnarounds from ‘your life is over’ to ‘let’s just get this sorted’.”

Sadiq, 29, Scotland

“My tattoo features the wings of a moth — my dark side — the head of a butterfly (for when things are exceeding expectations and going well), and the tail feathers of a peacock, the “show off” side of my personality.

“All three tie up who I am and, ultimately, represent the different stages of my mental health and well-being. Sometimes I look at the moth and see my HIV diagnosis.

“Sometimes I look at the butterfly and see how far I’ve progressed with that. Sometimes I see the peacock as putting on a front, covering up stuff to make everything seem better.” 

Photographs by Danny Baldwin.

Read the full 13-page feature celebrating tattoos in Attitude’s Body Issue, featuring Matthew Camp on the cover, out now to buy and download.

Buy now and take advantage of our best-ever subscription offers: three issues for £3 in print, 13 issues for £19.99 to download to any device.