Mom ink: From Legos to lions, why they choose tattoos

tattoomoms2By Kristy MacKaben

Whether it was a holiday party, field trip or reading a book in the classroom, it didn't matter. Crystal Hite-Ellis just wanted to volunteer at her daughter's elementary school, but no one seemed to want her help.

"Not a single mom would call me back to volunteer," Hite-Ellis says.

Hite-Ellis is covered with tattoos. The 32-year-old Laurel mom has them on her toes, hips, thighs, calves, arms and shoulders, which often attracts stares or causes people, like the school moms, to wonder whether she is a "drug dealer or a gangster."

Despite the snubbing of school moms, Hite-Ellis doesn't regret her tattoos. She's one of a growing demographic—women with tattoos. About a third of the population in the United States has tattoos, according to the American Academy of Dermatology, and a recent poll conducted by the network behind the show "Best Ink" revealed that 59 percent of them are women.

People get tattoos for different reasons, from self-expression and rebellion to artistic freedom, says Michael Mantell, a clinical psychologist based in San Diego who has researched and written essays about the psychology behind tattoos. Some people use tattoos to mark milestones or to remember a significant time in their life. And for many women—that milestone is becoming a mom.

"They get tattoos when they become mothers because they are proud of the mother/child relationship," Mantell says.

Annapolis mom Karla Reeder has several tattoos, but her favorites are the names of her children inked on her wrists—"Kailee" on one and "Michael" on the other.

"I get great reactions to my wrists," Reeder explains.

Kate King, a mom from Shady Side, has a likeness of Simba from "Lion King" tattooed on her lower back to symbolize her son, Caleb. The 32-year-old stay-at-home mom plans to tattoo a mane on the lion cub when Caleb, now 5, turns 18.

"I wanted something different to symbolize my son," King explains.

Every one of King's seven tattoos on her lower back symbolizes a family member or a special moment in her life—a frog for her brother, a ruby slippers for her grandmother named Dorothy and a blue moon, which, to King, means "Take advantage of moments that don't come very often."

Crystal Hite-Ellis shows her tattoosLess controversial tattoos

Tattoos honoring children are the easiest and least controversial, according to Chris Lowe, owner of Naked Art Tattoos in Annapolis.

"Your children are always there. They will always be your children," Lowe says.

He sees moms get tattoos of everything from tiny footprints, angel wings and children's names to pacifiers and large stuffed animals.

Hite-Ellis has several tattoos in honor of her daughter, Eva, including a portrait of her on her thigh. She also has a tattoo of Legos, because Eva loves Legos, and books, because Eva is an avid reader. Eva, who is 10, has even chosen a couple of her mother's tattoos.

"She loves going to the tattoo shops," Hite_Ellis says. "She'll talk to the artists. She's been to tattoo conventions."

Lowe's children, who range in age from 5 to 12, don't think anything of his tattoos because he had them before they were born. Other parents, however, may have to answer a barrage of questions about their ink.

Reeder's daughter Kailee, now 7, couldn't understand why her mom and grandma, who got her first tattoo at age 60, wanted tattoos.

"She's not a stupid little kid. She asked why I would want one," Reeder says. "Then Kailee said, 'Why did Grandma get one? She's too old.'"

Reeder responded that she and Colbert wanted tattoos that meant something—Colbert's tattoo is four stars representing her four grandchildren.

They were just for me," Reeder told Kailee, who has never asked again.

Reeder's 4-year-old son, Michael, doesn't quite understand the permanence of tattoos, and King's son Caleb thinks her tattoos are temporary.

"He knows they're there. He likes to look at them, but he doesn't realize they're not going to wash off," King says.

When Caleb is a little older, King says she would probably explain the meaning and inspiration behind her tattoos. But as far as allowing him to get a tattoo, that won't happen until he's 18, sober and has thought carefully about the tattoo he wants, she says.

It's natural for children to be curious about their parents' tattoos, and to ask for their own tattoos, even if they're too young, says Dr. Tana Clarke, a psychologist with Spectrum Behavioral Health in Annapolis. If they aren't asking questions, the children probably don't need or want to know about them, she says. But when questions do arise, parents should be honest, yet age-appropriate, with their answers, Clarke says.

When teens ask for tattoos

When the time comes for teenagers to start asking for permission to get tattooed, parents who have tattoos may have an edge over tattoo-less parents, Clarke says.

"If a mom has a tattoo, they have a little more information about tattoos," Clarke says. "They can talk about the reasons why they are happy with the tattoo, and the positives and negatives in a more clear way and from personal experience."

Of all her tattoo's, King's only regret is a little butterfly on her butt that she got on a whim while visiting friends in Montreal. It had no meaning, she says. The one regret Hite-Ellis has is an unfinished peacock on her back. The artist who started the tattoo did not finish before he left town. "We're trying to think what we can do with that one," she says.

A mom considering a tattoo should be aware of the stigma—which research has shown is worse for women than men, according to Mantell.

"I was a bit nervous at first to show the tattoos at the school my daughter goes to," Reeder admits. "They're yuppies. They go play golf on the weekend. We're not like that. We get on our Harley and go. ...We care, but we don't care at the same time. It's just skin. It's not like we have them on our face."

Lowe says people should always consider carefully where on their body they get tattooed. All of his tattoos are in places that can be covered because he doesn't want to embarrass his children.

"I don't have my neck, hands, face or any of that tattooed," Lowe says.

Hite-Ellis can also cover her tattoos and does so when she goes to work (she is a contracted chemical researcher for the government), and if she feels Eva will be embarrassed. But, she stresses that she is not ashamed of her body art.

The parents at Eva's school eventually came around, and now Hite-Ellis volunteers there regularly. They got to know her and realized that behind all the tattoos, she is a happily married, upbeat and easy-going mom who loves her daughter just like any mom.

"Now the moms know who I am. I'm the crazy mom with red and purple hair and all the tattoos," Hite-Ellis says. "The artwork I have is beautiful, and I love it. It's meant to be shown off."