I recently questioned Sara Stewart — local hairstylist, Star Wars Fan, and dog lover — about her tattoos, preferred artists, and motivations over coffee. “I’m basically made of coffee.” She admitted. I first asked her if there’s a wrong way to ask about her tattoos and she replied, “I don’t know how to answer that question. People ask about them almost every day.” Once I explained that rude inquiries inspired my questioning those with tattoos, her eyes widen, and she seemed to get it. “My right sleeve is a Star Wars concept and I get a lot of guys that compliment it without really appreciating it or asking me what it means,” she says with her eyes rolling. “I mean, I know they’ve never heard of Mara Jade.”

Stewart has commissioned one artist for all but a couple pieces. “I wanted tattoos since I was maybe fifteen. My first is still the most meaningful to me but they are all serious art.” Stewart’s right arm bares an original design by Matt Diana from Third Eye Tattoo. It’s an elaborate Star Wars scene that is beyond my familiarity, but it’s beautiful. “Their effort is on your body forever. I think what’s most important about the process is trusting your artist. Not every artist is super likeable, so trust must be more important than charm, or even talent. Matt Diana doesn’t have the most approachable aura, but I know he does great work. I go to [Matt] because I really trust him. Also, he’s a dope dude.” She shrugs. Can’t reject that assessment.

She has some fun tattoos. Aside from an Imperial Stormtrooper pin-up, she also has what she referred to as a “blind tattoo". This is something I’m familiar with but haven’t encountered much. Two people agree to get a tattoo designed by the other, and the design is only revealed upon completion. “This is one my sister designed for me. I didn’t know what I was getting the entire time it was being worked on. It’s my partner as a dog. And a Care Bear.” I know I was grinning too wide. “Also, it’s a Kylo Ren Care Bear.” We laughed a bit. This provoked me to ask about design in general. “I think a tattoo is extremely personal. It’s for you, about you, and owned by you.” Stewart commented. “It’s more about the meaning than the message. My tattoos are mine and it’s never been about how they’re interpreted by strangers. They’re just personal things and not everyone will understand.”

I finally circle around to ask Stewart again about her first tattoo. It gives her pause and she pumps the brakes a bit. I asked if, after some reflection, there is anything about her tattoos, or experiences getting them, that makes her feel dissatisfied. She explained that she partly regrets that her most paramount tattoo is plainly visible on her wrist. “Placement is so important. Sometimes it sucks this one must be on my wrist. I don’t always know how to talk to strangers about it when they ask. And they ask a lot because it’s showing. Having this one visible is hard, but that’s why it’s there.” It dawned on me that the wrist is a common place for us to put tattoos that might remind us of something or someone. For Stewart, this tattoo does both.

Stewart took a deep breath. “That’s why this first one is so tough to talk about. I got it for myself. When I was in junior high, most of the time I felt low. Day after day I had the significant urge to take my own life. I very much wanted to kill myself. If it hadn’t been for my group of friends, I assure you, I wouldn’t be here today.”

I could tell that sharing this story with me took a lot of courage, so we both took a moment to collect our thoughts and take a sip of coffee before continuing on. “These seven friends I met at summer camp always had my back. Every year at camp, they’d let us make those woven bracelets. We could make as many as we wanted, but we had to give them all away. We couldn’t keep one for ourselves.” I shared my familiarity with the standard summer camp friendship bracelet guidelines before Stewart continued. “Well the summer leading to eighth grade, I confessed that recently life had been nearly too hard to bear. I told my friends that suicide had crossed my mind frequently and that it was a real obstacle. I didn’t know what to do but I confided in them.” She showed me the tattoo then. “When camp was wrapping up, my friends showered me in bracelets and handed me a card. I opened the card and it read: ‘You’ll forever have love on your wrist’, so that’s what I really have now.” Stewart gave a small smile. “This is their handwriting on my wrist. It’s my reminder that they love and care about me. And one is my own handwriting. That’s so I remember to love myself too.”

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

Photos by Kelsey Greene