Iowa Alumni Magazine | February 2008 | Features

Tattoo U

By Tina Owen
Photos: Reggie Morrow

Snakes, roses, skulls, and crosses. Countless colorful designs adorn the bodies of millions of Americans. Once widely perceived as a mark of poor judgment, bad taste, or lack of class, tattoos now appear in diverse social circles. In fact, everyone from movie stars to military personnel to MBAs to moms flaunt their body art with pride. Among the permanently inked are many members of the University of Iowa community. Navigate to their stories and photos by clicking on their on the "next" link below.

Laura Bowers

Laura BowersSoon after the idea of a tattoo took root in Laura Bowers' mind, it blossomed in an unexpected way.

Bowers, a communications and cinema senior from Milwaukee, knew she didn't want a timid, half-hearted design. As she watched a Des Moines tattoo artist sketch out ideas, she found herself saying, "Make it bigger; make it bigger." That's how she ended up with two ink sessions' worth of exotic hibiscus flowers cascading dramatically over her shoulder and chest.

"I love it," she says proudly of her arresting body art. "It makes me feel powerful and strong.


Doug Broxey

Doug BroxeyDoug Broxey jokes that it's his "babe magnet."

Fortunately, his wife, Marilyn, sees the humor in the situation whenever unfamiliar women stop to ask Doug about the parrot tattoo she bought him for their 20th wedding anniversary.

Broxey's other two tattoos--a mermaid and a dragon acquired during his Navy days in the 1970s--are now a little faded and indistinct. The parrot--created by an artist who moved to Iowa from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina--is still pristine. And there's more to the colorful bird than meets the eye: it alludes to Broxey's admiration for singer Jimmy Buffett, whose fans are affectionately termed "Parrotheads."

Overall, though, Broxey, an environmental systems mechanic at the UI, says that the inked image has no deep symbolic meaning: "It's just a tattoo."

Brenda Foster

pet paw in star tattooWhen her 20-year marriage screeched to an abrupt and painful halt, Brenda Foster knew exactly what she needed to do: get a tattoo.

It was the perfect time to do something she'd always wanted but her husband had frowned upon. Within just a few months, she had six tattoos: a gecko lizard, a moon and stars, a cross, puppy paw prints representing her beloved dogs, a paw print in a star memorializing a pet that had died, and a pair of baseball bats emblazoned with her nephews' initials.

The fact that she was 44 years old at the time didn't bother her; neither did the fact that she works as a secretary in the UI President's office. Business attire usually conceals her colorful secrets, but Foster isn't embarrassed if people spot her tattoos. They represent her new-found self-esteem and triumph over adversity, reminding her to live each day to its fullest.

"They're like therapy," she says. "Whenever I get a tattoo, I come out feeling uplifted. Some people get a massage when they're down--I get a tattoo."

Only one person has suggested that perhaps Foster is going through a mid-life crisis. "Age is just a number to me," she insists. "My tattoos are a symbol of my rebirth, and whenever I look at them I smile. They remind me of what I've gotten through."

cross tattookitty tracks tattoobats & balls tattoogecko tattoomoon & stars tattoo

Tonya Atherton

Tonya AthertonWhen Tonya Atherton graduated from high school last May, she knew she faced a major turning point in her life. The University of Iowa beckoned--but first she had to fly away from the safe nest of home.

As a symbol of hope for her future, she had wings tattooed upon her shoulder blades, although now the biochemistry and studio art freshman admits they also represent how much she often wishes to be home again in Moline, Illinois.

"Every now and then, someone who does not approve of tattoos will see or hear of mine and simply treat me differently," she says. "That bothers me, but it evens out in the end because many people talk to me just because they know I have a tattoo. I love to swap tattoo stories--everyone's got a piece of time and emotion they can share."

Jessica and Paul Kilgore

For almost a year, Paul Kilgore carried a tattered slip of paper everywhere with him on his military tour of Iraq. He planned to put it to special use when he got home safely.

That day came in October 2005 when he arrived in Iowa to spend four days with his wife, Jessica--before she, in turn, shipped out to Iraq for a year's deployment as a medic with the National Guard. As a result of military service, the couple had enjoyed less than a month together in two years.

This time, when the Kilgores were parted by war, they carried with them an indelible reminder of their love. Tattooed on their backs were circles of Kurdish script that translates as "Paul and Jessica Forever"--the words that Paul had gotten a Kurdish interpreter to write for him months before on that scrap of paper.

"When you get deployed overseas, so much goes through your head--you have to make a will and think about what happens if you don't come back," says Jessica, an environmental engineering senior. "It was such a time of upheaval and transition for us, and we wanted to mark the seriousness of the occasion."

Paul, now a political science senior at the UI, and Jessica have no qualms about their tattoos. "They're not generic or random marks--they're a symbol of the link we share, and no one else in the world has anything like them," says Jessica. "I like knowing that Paul is walking around with my name on his body, and I know he takes comfort from it, too."

Paul wears his other tattoos on his arms. He and everyone else in his military squad in Iraq were tattooed with SPQR (Latin for Senatus Populusque Romanus--The Senate and the Roman People) to reflect the sense of honor they feel in serving their country. The badge also represents their bonds as brothers-in-arms.

Chris Knotts

Don't be fooled by the colorful symbols. Chris Knotts' patriotism runs much more than skin deep.

The sociology junior from Solon carries two permanent reminders of his military service to promote American principles of freedom and democracy. On his right shoulder, an inked map of Iraq and a pair of handcuffs commemorate his service in 2004 as a military policeman in the Sunni Triangle during Operation Iraqi Freedom. On his left shoulder, an American eagle spreads its colorful wings over the Star Spangled Banner and the words "Born to Love, Trained to Kill."

Chris KnottsWhile everyone is born to love, he explains, only a few go a step farther to train for ultimate defense of the liberties enshrined in the Constitution.

"Very few people my age have had the experiences I have," he says. "This is a way to commemorate that time with something I will have with me forever."

Genevieve Krier

Whenever Genevieve Krier feels her faith waver, she only needs to look down at her foot.

There, a colorful abstract cross reminds the communication studies and journalism sophomore from Ollie of her religious beliefs.

Krier's other tattoo, two snakes entwined on her lower back, also represent a defining moment in her life. "I got it when I broke up with a boyfriend," she admits. "It represents love and hate."

fanciful cross tattoo on foot
twined hissing snakes tattoo


Carlos Maldonado

Rest in Peace Ben tattooFor more than a year after his best friend committed suicide, Carlos Maldonado couldn't bear the painful memories. But when he eventually came to terms with his grief, he knew he needed a permanent reminder of Ben.

The art and biology freshman from Iowa City designed a tattoo of a guitar (Ben loved music) wrapped in a banner bearing the letters R.I.P. above his friend's name and dates of birth and death. "I'd heard that the ribs are the most painful body part to get done, so I decided to get the tattoo there," he says of the intensely personal memorial to his friend's short life.

Maldonado's other tattoos also represent important facets of his own life: the cross and symbol of eternity stretching across his back reflect his Catholic beliefs. The 6M sketched across his left bicep is a reminder of family, a design shared by all six Maldonado brothers.
"Some people like to show off their tattoos," he says. "But, mine are private, not public."

Pete McCarthy

Celtic cross tattooThe large tattoo that sprawls across Pete McCarthy's back, shoulders, and arms is more than a stunning work of art--it's also a piece of family history.

McCarthy, 99BA, chose to commemorate his Irish heritage with an intricate Celtic design, highlighted by the motto from his family crest--"Forti et Fideli Nihile Difficile" ("Nothing is difficult for the brave and faithful").

His brother and sister share smaller versions of the same tattoo. McCarthy, who runs the Yacht Club bar in Iowa City, also bears other tattoos, including a bunch of grapes and the motto "In Vino Veritas" that commemorates his family's history as bar owners.

Although he has no time for people who plaster themselves with meaningless or inane images, McCarthy considers his artwork to be a legitimate form of self-expression. "Your body is your home," he says. "And who wants to live in a house without any art on the walls?"

In Vino Veritas tattooCeltic kot tattoo

Danny Morice

Danny MoriceDanny Morice knew he was taking a risk when he got his tattoo.

After all, an image of the Virgin Mary holding a skateboard could be construed as sacrilegious, and some people might take offense at the religious icon draped over his shoulder. Perhaps not, if they knew the story behind the tattoo.

"Skateboarding saved my life," says the pre-physical therapy freshman from Iowa City, who credits the sport with steering him away from drugs and other criminal activities that got so many of his friends in trouble. "It was my savior."

So far, only one person has said, semi-seriously, that Morice's tattoo will send him straight to hell. Most other people--including Morice's strongly religious mother--accept his unique and meaningful personal adornment.

Although Morice notes that people without tattoos are now "almost in the minority," he doesn't plan on adding to his artwork. "I can't think of any other tattoo that would be better," he says. "This is perfect--it says everything."

Diane Overbye

Diane OverbyeIt's no surprise that a music CD inspired Diane Overbye's first tattoo. The secondary education and sociology junior from Naperville, Illinois, defines herself as an arts lover--whether it be music, painting, or literature.

That's why, at age 17, she walked into a tattoo shop clutching a copy of the CD cover from Jet's album Get Born--and a permission slip from her mom.

stars tattoos"It's cool to be able to decorate your body with a piece of artwork that you'll take with you for the rest of your life," says Overbye, who also claims an inked star on each pelvic bone.

The tattoo artist adapted the swirling leaves from the CD artwork and then incorporated an initial D that Overbye had designed. Although she loves her personalized artwork, Overbye says that her planned career as a teacher probably rules out further tattoos.

As she says, "There are still people who will judge and stereotype you for having a tattoo."

Daniel Wildberger

aged horned man tattooGraphic design student Daniel Wildberger appreciates tattoos as a timeless form of artistic expression, appealing to everyone from members of traditional tribal cultures to today's body-conscious youth.

Scattered about Wildberger's body are several detailed tattoos inspired by comics and high-end graphic design books. "To most people my age, tattoos aren't a novelty," says the graduate student from Salvador, Brazil. "It's like fashion."

Susan Zoeckler

demure angel tattooWherever she goes in life, Susan Zoeckler knows that an angel has her back.

No supernatural phenomenon, this tattooed angel hovers between her shoulder blades. Some six inches tall, the detailed black-and-white rendering inspired by Michelangelo's Venus imparts a sense of protection to Zoeckler, a UI psychology and religion freshman from Iowa City.

"I love the symbolism of angels," she says. "It was really painful to get it done, because so much of the design crosses my spine. And the permanent factor did worry me a little at first. It was a bit of a shock to know that it will be on my back until the day I die--but I have no regrets."