John M. Kelly
John M. Kelly By Courtesy of Alicia Thomas/Boston Tattoo Company

More than Markings

Tattoos are etched all around Harvard's campus, adorning students, professors, TFs, and maybe even the tourists pausing to take photos of the red-bricked buildings. But behind the typically visible body art are intricate stories of passions and personal histories—stories that provide a lens to examine the experiences, struggles, and anxieties of Harvard affiliates.
By Abby L. Noyes

As students and faculty trudge across the frozen Yard, their bodies wrapped in large coats, thick scarves, and long pants, it can be hard to tell them apart—much less observe the fashion choices, accessories, and body modifications that lie beneath their winter shells. You may never see the line of words that girl in your section has permanently inked on her forearm, concealed by her long-sleeved sweater. You might never notice the tiny and permanent symbol etched into your problem set partner’s neck, hidden under his scarf.

Tattoos are all around us on Harvard’s campus. Students have them. Professors and TFs have them. Even some of the tourists pausing to take a picture with the John Harvard statue have them. But even when tattoos are immediately visible, the stories behind them often are not. Beneath these pieces of art lie families, ambitions, passions, and personal histories. Looking at tattoos at Harvard provides a frame through which to view the experiences that have shaped the person standing before you; the struggles that students face on campus and the way they face them; and the underlying anxieties that students have about life after college.

Family Ties

For many of those interviewed, the stories behind their tattoos are just as interesting and beautiful as the tattoos themselves. One common source of inspiration that people say greatly influenced their decision to get a tattoo was family members—both the desire to honor and, in some physical sense, to carry those ties with them.

'[The tattoo is] a way that my family is always by my side,' Avery A. Davis, Ph.D. student at the Harvard Medical School, says

Such is certainly the case for Jacqueline F. Epstein ’18. She lifts up her hair to show a small symbol on the back of her neck that combines a heart and infinity sign, a tattoo she got between her freshman and sophomore year following the death of her grandmother. "I don't believe in afterlife and stuff like that, so I got it after my grandmother died, kind of in memory of her,” she says. “I believe that... your soul doesn't live on, but the love you give other people when you are alive lasts forever. So that's like love forever.”

Avery A. Davis, a fourth-year Ph.D. student at the Harvard Medical School, similarly got her first tattoo in memory of her then-recently deceased grandparents. “They both died shortly before my 18th birthday—my grandmother [died] a few months before, and my grandfather actually died on my 18th birthday,” she says. “I had been thinking about wanting to honor [my grandparents], and I had also been thinking about getting a tattoo." Her grandmother had loved butterflies; Davis opted instead for a dragonfly, since they have a very similar lifecycle to butterflies and also represented her grandfather to her in some ways. "My grandfather kind of had a lot of big transitions in his life, but he really turned it all around. And people don't think about it as much, but dragonflies go through as dramatic a... metamorphosis as butterflies do,” she says. So Davis designed her own tattoo of a dragonfly, ultimately choosing it for its aesthetic and deeply personal value.

Davis also has a family pedigree on the outside of her upper right thigh that she got shortly before starting grad school. It is, in part, an homage to her passion for her work in human genetics. “I don't actually work in classical human genetics with pedigrees, but pedigrees were kind of one of the first things that drew me to the subject as a high schooler," she says. However, the tattoo, which includes her grandparents, parents, and siblings, has meaning beyond her intellectual interests: It keeps her family close. “It's a way that my family is always by my side,” she says.

For Jimmie K. Hill ’18, his tattoos are a means by which he carries the people who shaped his past and made him who he is today. On his left shoulder he wears a black ink tribal tattoo, a design he says he chose because of its ties to his family’s Hawaiian heritage and its connotation of strength. While the tattoo carries this meaning for him, it is also symbolic of the way he was shaped by his turbulent relationship with his father—a man against whom he rebelled in high school in many ways, including his decision to get illegally tattooed in Las Vegas at the age of 15. “I was going through a rough patch with my father, and he was controlling every aspect of my life,” he says. However, after getting the tattoo, he was inspired to see the situation in a new light. “Pretty much every day from that day forth, I woke up and I looked at it, and it reminded me that the decisions I make are my own. They're not my parents'. They're not my father’s.”

Although the tattoo associated with his father stemmed from a negative relationship, its counterpart adorning Hill’s right shoulder and chest has a nearly opposite source of inspiration. The tattoo—a koi pond surrounded by gladiolus flowers on his shoulder that connects to an oak tree, a Japanese pagoda, and a pond on his chest—honors the role that his loving mother played in his upbringing. The gladiolus, he says, is her birth flower, and he laughingly calls the peaceful koi fish her spirit animal. “This one is like my mother,” he says. “She played a very pivotal role in my development, and I definitely credit her for why I'm here and why I'm who I am. So essentially I wanted to get something to memorialize that so I could always have her with me."

Jimmie K. Hill '18
Jimmie K. Hill '18 By Katherine L Borrazzo

A Product of Their Environment

While some tattoos recall the past for those who bear them, many are also a reminder to stay grounded in the present, particularly within Harvard’s often-stressful environment. As students navigate their way through clubs, classes, and a myriad of work experiences, they must also find a way to define success for themselves. This struggle to find and prioritize what is important to them within the high-pressure atmosphere that sometimes permeates Harvard’s campus can be a driving force behind students’ decisions to get a tattoo.

For Epstein, her tattoo commemorating her grandmother was also intended to be a reminder to stay focused on what matters despite what’s going on around her. “I get caught up my day-to-day obsessions and stress of college. I think everyone does,” she says. “So [this tattoo is] just to remind myself of the big picture sometimes. I'll just look at my tattoo and be like, 'Hey, I know you're worrying about the pset, but….’" However, she acknowledges that being a student at Harvard also affected the placement of her tattoo. "I think going here kind of influenced where I got it, because obviously most people don't see it. A lot of people don't know I have it,” she says. “I'm not ashamed of it or anything—I just wear my hair down a lot. But I think part of that was like, it'd be weird to have a very big one on my neck. I mean, I don't know. It's just not something I typically would associate with Harvard."

Tattooed on the Job

Epstein’s decision to get her tattoo in a place that is easily concealed illustrates a common trend among the undergraduates interviewed, all of whom had at least taken into consideration the effect a tattoo may have on employment opportunities and all of whom currently sport only tattoos that can be concealed. Many students declined requests for interviews, and one student even specified that she didn’t want to be identified by name for fear that a potential employer would be able to discover her tattoo by means of this article, potentially affecting her career prospects. Multiple undergraduates took into account the ability to cover a tattoo before choosing its location. “I haven't passed my elbows. So hopefully I can still get a job someday,” Hill says. “People are hella judgmental these days." While times have certainly changed, and many now see tattoos as a much more mainstream and accepted form of body modification, it would appear that students’ fears aren’t completely ungrounded.

Ellen Gordon Reeves ’83, author of “Can I Wear My Nose Ring to the Interview?” and an alumna of the Graduate School of Education, works with private clients and travels the country speaking at schools, including Harvard, to help prepare students for the workplace. When it comes to tattoos, Reeves finds that it’s important to weigh multiple factors before making a decision. "I always say, 'To thine own self be true, but there are consequences,'” she says. "It matters what the tattoo is, where it is, and what the industry is." Students considering a tattoo, she says, must try to think long term. "If you don't have a tattoo, but you're thinking about getting one or getting one that you can't cover up, you have to understand that you might truly be limiting your employment options,” she says. “I tell them, 'You should decide what are your priorities. Tattoos are only one avenue of self-expression. So you have to decide which is more important to you: the tattoo or a specific job, if you know that you might be cutting yourself out of that opportunity.'"

While the undergraduates interviewed seem to share Reeves’ perspective, keeping their tattoos relatively discreet due in part to a fear of limiting employment options, the graduate students interviewed hold a slightly different outlook. While she admits that she might have felt differently had she not gotten into the programs she wanted to join, Davis says she has used organizations’ reactions to her tattoo as a metric for assessing whether she would fit in well. "I just figured if it was a place that wouldn't want me based on a tattoo, it wasn't a place that I wanted to be," she says of her decision to visibly display her dragonfly.

John M. Kelly, a first-year graduate student at the Divinity School who sports two small, identical, symmetrical crosses on their inner ankles and a half sleeve of grapes on a leafy vine on their right arm, echoes Davis’s sentiment. "My approach has been, if a program's going to have issues with having a visible tattoo, they're probably going to have other issues with my politics. And so perhaps that's not the right program for me," they (Kelly uses the pronouns they, them, and their) say with a laugh. The larger and more visible sleeve was in a part a reaction to what Kelly perceived as an ongoing rejection of body modifications by academia. “I think historically [the academic sphere] has been seen as a little antagonistic towards body modification and body art,” they say, at the same time recognizing that this isn’t necessarily so intensely the case today. “I didn't want to sort of buy into that sort of respectability politics that seems to be kind of part and parcel with pursuing graduate studies and academia as a whole.”

Of course, in choosing their tattoos and their placement, both Davis and Kelly do seem to have reflected on some of the same issues Reeves raised, clearly taking into account the environment they wanted to work in before making their choice. In fact, Reeves’s recommendation to consider what and where your tattoo is a current concern for Davis. While she has thought about getting a quarter sleeve on her shoulder, she has waited, due in part to the size and visibility of the area. "The shoulder tattoo would be really cool, but I go back and forth on whether I want one that's that big and visible,” she says. “That's the thing about my visible tattoo—[it] is pretty small. And there is a difference between having one small tattoo and a very large, body part-sized tattoo."

Feeling the Love

Although fear of eventual judgment can often impact many decisions surrounding tattoos, all of those interviewed described the majority of reactions from the Harvard community as positive. “They're a good conversation starter," says Hill, who claims that they have aided him in many of his interactions with female students.

For Kelly, too, tattoos have served as an avenue for interacting with others. Although sometimes the sleeve attracts the unwanted touch of a curious stranger, Kelly feels that the visibility of their tattoo often carries the potential to open a line of communication. "Once you have one visible mark, it makes other people a little more willing to open up about theirs, either if they have tattoos or desire to have tattoos,” they say. “So I think that's been cool because it sort of lets you in on a whole different facet of a person that often times, I think, is hidden.”

Jimmie K. Hill ‘18
Jimmie K. Hill ‘18 By Katherine L Borrazzo

Davis has often discovered this kind of curiosity in undergraduates. "The people who have commented on it most recently to me have been undergrads. And I think maybe that has some of, 'Oh, real people have tattoos.'" The remarks, she says, have been only positive.

Anecdotal evidence aside, Felicity A. Lufkin, a lecturer on folklore and mythology, has proof in the form of an 11-person class that there is a definite interest, at least academically, in tattoos on Harvard’s campus. This spring, she launched the class “Tattoo: Histories and Practices” primarily in response to strong student enthusiasm. "I guess I had been thinking about [teaching a course on tattoos] for a while…. And one concentrator in particular got really excited about the idea, and everybody seemed to think, 'That's a fantastic idea,'” she says. “The particular reason I started teaching it this spring was because we had a folk and myth concentrator who really wanted to take it and is a senior. So I was like, 'OK, I'll put it together, and I'll do it this spring.'" The class has been a success, and Lufkin plans on teaching it next year.

By asking strangers about them, taking classes on them, and proudly sporting them as they walk between buildings, students across the schools of Harvard University continue to engage with the topic of tattoos. Simultaneously works of art and modes of expression, the tattoos on campus reflect a wide range of experiences, passions, and even family histories. Whether hidden under a long-sleeved shirt or framed by a backless dress, these tattoos—regardless of their visibility—are proud pieces of their wearer’s identities.

—Staff writer Abby L. Noyes can be reached at

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