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Mothers' bond is written on their skin

Marisa Urbano shows a tattoo, symbolizing good parenting, created when her son was 2. Marisa Urbano shows a tattoo, symbolizing good parenting, created when her son was 2. (Dan Urbano)
By Sandra A. Miller
Globe Correspondent / March 22, 2009
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When Samantha Ruch of West Roxbury says her daughter is always by her side, she means it literally. Extending from the middle of Ruch's ribcage down to her right hip is the name Devin tattooed in block letters intertwined with flowers and vines.

"At the time, it was just me and my daughter," said Ruch, 28, who was divorced when she got the 10-inch-long tattoo two years ago. "Devin was my right-hand girl, and I wanted to represent that."

At one time, stretch marks were the most permanent reminders of childbirth on a woman's body, but now it might be footprints, teddy bears, baseball gloves, names, birthdates, or even the child's portrait inked in the place of the mother's choosing.

It's more and more common that women get tattoos that represent their children, according to Scott Matalon, 44, who estimates that his Allston shop, Stingray Body Art and More, does at least one mother tattoo out of approximately 50 tattoos each week. "Like having a child, there's something deeply personal about getting a tattoo," Matalon said. "For some people it's also therapeutic."

That was Tracey Litt's feeling after a disappointing birth experience with her daughter Zola, now 6. Litt, 44, a home inspector from Somerville, had planned for natural childbirth but was forced to have a Caesarean section. As a way to move past her feelings, Litt, already sporting seven tattoos, got another on Zola's second birthday. Now the C-section scar that crosses Litt's bikini line is flanked by two small Chinese symbols: mother on one side, daughter on the other. "It says this is the scar that connects us." Litt explained. "It was my way of making sense of the birth."

"People who like tattoos want to dedicate part of their body to show their love for their kids," said Chris Keaton, owner of the Baltimore Tattoo Museum in Maryland. He thinks the trend started in the 1980s when prominent athletes and actors started getting visible tattoos and people wanted to emulate them.

That trend has surged as mega-star mothers like Angelina Jolie celebrate their children with prominent body art. In Jolie's case, she has a tattoo of the longitude and latitude coordinates from the places where her children entered her life.

Forty percent of American women ages 26 to 40 have a tattoo, according to a 2007 study by the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C. The number doesn't reveal how many mothers get inked, but it points to the social acceptability of a practice that just a few decades ago was associated with sailors, prisoners, and punks.

"People now respect tattooing as an art form and see the possibility of getting a meaningful, custom piece," said Juliette Hannan, manager and co-owner of Fat Ram's Pumpkin Tattoo in Jamaica Plain. Hannan, a well-inked mother of three who has saved body space for her children, says that as tattooing has gone mainstream, mothers who would have steered clear of tattoo parlors 15 years ago are now completely comfortable going into shops.

Hannan's husband, Fat Ram, estimates that their shop does twice as many child tattoos for fathers as for mothers. "Maybe that's because a tattoo gives a man a physical connection to his children, something women already have from giving birth," said Hannan, who has been tattooing for 21 years but opened his store in 2001, when the practice was legalized in Massachusetts.

At Stingray, Matalon says, despite a growing trend with women to get larger, bolder work, the most common tattoos mothers have are the names of children written in script. Unlike names of lovers and sometimes even spouses, he sees no regret factor in getting a tattoo with your children's names. "Your kids are always going to be your kids."

An enormous number of moms come in to get tattoos that represent their children, according to Erick Lynch, co-owner of Redemption Tattoo in Cambridge. But he doesn't get into their lives. "It's not like 'Miami Ink,' " he said, referring to the Learning Channel reality show, "where they ask what does this tattoo mean to you?"

Lynch had no idea about the significance of the mama-and-baby-elephant image he designed, then spent six hours tattooing on Marisa Urbano in 2007, when her son Remington was 2 years old.

But for Urbano, 29 - whose now deceased father collected antique elephants as symbols of luck, lifelong mates, and good parenting - the tattoo that covers the entire left side of her ribcage offers a connection to her son as well as her father.

"It's a reminder of what an excellent parent my father was and the kind of parent I want to be," said Urbano, who, like her son, loves looking at the tattoo.

As for the pain factor of getting tattooed, Ruch, who sat for three two-hour sessions getting "Devin" inked on her side, said it was excruciating, as her entire ribcage vibrated from the needle. "But it's like childbirth. You forget the pain when it's over and you're looking at it."

The tattoo, that is.

Sandra A. Miller can be reached at sandraamiller@globe.com.

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