An illustration of the parts of the body on which teachers have tattoos. (Graphics by Allison Zhang and Emma Boersma)

Teachers tell stories behind tattoos, piercings

Jason Hinojosa

English teacher Jason Hinojosa got his tattoo as a teenager. 

“I have a tattoo of a sun-moon combo on my chest,” he said. I actually drew it myself, but I don’t remember the whole story behind it.” 

According to Hinojosa, it signifies “a unification of different ideas, such as dark and light.” 

“I actually got it coming right out of high school, so it doesn’t make the same amount of sense now as it used to, but it looks cool,” he said.

Hinojosa later got his nose pierced as a graduate student at the University of Iowa — this time for more than just aesthetic reasons.

While in graduate school, he became aware of the different experiences people from various cultures had, especially those of his friends in the LGBTQ+ community.

“I realized that they had fewer privileges; it was harder for them to do something,” he said. “Some people could just look at them and tell they were gay. I wanted an outward symbol of my status as an ally with that community, just like a quick indicator, ‘Hey, I’m on your side.’

“It’s a bit problematic because someone who’s gay or of a different race can’t change that, whereas I can just take my nose ring out if I want. 

 “So that’s part of why I did it, just to show support to those I thought needed it — and because my wife liked it.”

Cade Grunst

Middle school science teacher Cade Grunst has one tattoo on his leg and two piercings that have since closed up.

“I have a tattoo of a DNA plasmid wrapped around my leg,” he said. “It’s been cut open with a restriction enzyme, and you can see sticky ends on the plasmid. 

“I got my tattoo because I wanted to know why anyone would get a tattoo. I wanted to better understand what it felt like to have body art.” 

Grunst said many of his concerns about getting a tattoo were misplaced.

“I always worried that if I didn’t like my tattoo a decade later, I’d constantly be reminded of a dumb choice I made,” he said. “But instead, I found that ignoring my tattoo is quite easy. It’s not as big of a deal as you expect.”

Grunst also got two helix piercings on his left ear “for the experience,” he added.

Brooke Wells

Head of high school Brooke Wells has a tattoo on his ankle. He got it when he was 22 while in Mississippi as part of Teach for America, a nonprofit organization that serves under-resourced parts of the country. 

“The job was getting more difficult, and I had almost convinced myself to quit,” Wells said. “But one day on my way to work, I decided to get a tattoo I had drawn. It was a delta (letter), because I was in the Mississippi Delta, and a cotton flower to represent Mississippi.”

The tattoo reminded Wells of his purpose there and “ultimately sealed his fate to education,” he said.

Aleitha Burns

Middle school science teacher Aleitha Burns has several tattoos: She has a sun and moon on each foot and a yellow rose on her shoulder, as well as a roller skate on her calf.

“The sun and moon on each foot inspire me every day,” she said. “They inspire me to shine brightly and reach for the stars to reach my life goals.” 

The yellow rose, Burns said, “is to honor my mother, who passed away in 2013.”

The roller skate on Burns’ calf reminds her not only of her time as a roller derby athlete but also of her “first kiss (she got) while roller skating.” 

Valerie Velo

Assistant to head of high school Valerie Velo has four tattoos, each with a different story. She got her first tattoo at 18, second at 21, third at 22 and fourth in 2017. They are on her hip, ribs, wrist and  back of her neck, respectively.

“My Christian faith is a big part of who I am, so my first tattoo is of a dove with an olive branch, located on my hip,” she said. “The dove represents peace and relates back to the story of Noah’s Ark. It shows a promise that God will always love and care for his people.”

Velo said the one on her ribs is her favorite.

“It’s a tattoo of my favorite verse from the Bible,” she said. “It’s all about God’s grace, and it also represents my daughter Grace.”

The wrist tattoo of a peacock feather is also about her faith. “For me, a peacock represents resurrection and eternal life,” Velo said. “During my young adult life, I went through personal problems that I was able to overcome by finding my faith. The struggles I went through made me the woman I am today.

“Much like the peacock molts its feathers, grows new ones and turns into a more beautiful creature — I did the same with my life. The placement of the tattoo on my wrist is important for me because I see it every day, multiple times a day, and it is a reminder that I can overcome anything and that my circumstance does not define me.”

Velo’s fourth tattoo reads “You are my sunshine” in Italian because her daughter is half-Italian.

“When she was a baby, I would sing that song every night,” Velo said. “And now if anyone else sings it, she yells, ‘No! That’s mommy’s song!’”

Patricia Jacobsen

Math teacher Patricia Jacobsen sports multiple tattoos: one on her foot and one on her back.

“The first one was on my foot, which I got in Bali in 1996,” she said. “I was in college and living in Japan, and my friends and I went to Indonesia for a vacation.

“We were at an age (20) where we do crazy things, and I just wanted to get a tattoo. I got a sunflower because it’s connected to my dad, who died when I was 8.”

Jacobsen’s tattoo has an emotional tie to her early childhood.

“I remember we were out in the garden of our house, and I didn’t believe that sunflower seeds actually came from the flower,” she said. “I must’ve been 2 or 3 because he had to lift me up to show me the seeds in this big sunflower. 

“I’ve always had an emotional connection to sunflowers because they remind me of my dad.”

Jacobsen got her second tattoo, a black tribal design, in 2005 with a fellow SCDS teacher.

“When I started working here, I became good friends with a woman in the lower school,” she said. “I had a tattoo on my foot, and she had one on her lower back. During winter break she decided she wanted one on her foot, and I wanted one on my back. So one day we just went to get tattoos.”

—All stories by Arikta Trivedi

Originally published in the April 23 edition of the Octagon.

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