For at least a decade now, Arkansans — both native-born and transplants — have been choosing to mark their bodies with representations of the Natural State. Razorback tattoos have long been popular, but these Arkansas tattoos are more topographical, a marker of geography and a symbol of home. They range from simple outlines with a star or heart marking a hometown to ornate designs involving a birdhouse, a cotton plant or an area code.
For Cheyenne Matthews, co-host of the "Shoog Radio" show on 88.3 FM KABF, it's the state Capitol, surrounded by stylized clouds and the word "Arkansas" inside a ribbon at the building's base. The design, which graces her forearm, is part of a series of images created by Caleb Pritchett of Electric Heart Tattoos in Little Rock to help raise money for the show. "Everything we play and do is Arkansas-based," Matthews said. "It's a grassroots movement towards Arkansas stuff in general, events and music."
Peeking out from under bartender/waiter James Watt's T-shirt is a large red outline of the state. "I had left my car at Vino's, which is next door to Seventh Street Tattoo, and my friend gave me a ride back there," he said, laughing. "When we pulled up in the parking lot he said, 'If you go get a tattoo right now I'll pay for it.'" Having been raised in Arkansas and having so many friends here he decided "Arkansas would be a good thing to get that I would never regret." It was his second tattoo; he has three now. The other two are the words "music," and "love."
Club promoter Duane "Magic tha Legend" Wilson has large "501" emblazoned across his wrist. He got the tattoo while living in Los Angeles several years ago. "I used to see a lot of people have their area code tattooed on their arm and I got my own. Let them know where I'm from," he said. Wilson wanted a simple design, an indisputable marker of home that would stand out. He's in his 30s and has been seeing Little Rock and Arkansas tattoos for decades, including neighborhood and street-specific designs like Twelfth Street, for example.
Cody Agee, aka C-Boddy, is a 21-year-old rapper and beat producer. He rolled up his right sleeve to reveal two Arkansas tattoos: the official Little Rock city logo on his inner forearm and a graffiti-style "ARK" on his bicep. He traveled the country last year and loved the opportunity to explain the LR on his arm and represent his hometown. He spoke of the sense of community. "Everybody knows everybody, so I look at everybody as family and everybody is really open-armed, toward me anyway. It's a big party when everybody gets together."
State tattoos aren't unique to Arkansas, of course. But it helps if the cartographical borders of your home are geometrically appealing. State outline tattoos probably aren't as common in, say, Wyoming, Colorado or the Dakotas. For those whose hearts reside in multiple states or make their home in border areas, state tattoos merge multiple locales into one design — for example, an Arkansas flag in a Texas outline, or dotted lines connecting Arkansas to Korea.
These days, Arkansas tattoos are becoming more personalized, a collaborative design between the tattoo artist and the client. For bartender Anna Brankin, it's a blue Converse shoe inside the state outline, a symbol of being "carefree," she said. A long trail of apple blossoms — the state flower — graces her right shoulder. For nuclear consultant Rick Millard (and a few others who share the design), it's the state outline broken up into the four bars making up the symbol for Black Flag, a favorite '80s hardcore band. Scott Koskoski, who works as a barista, merged the state outline with the Wu-Tang Clan's logo, the words "Wu Tang Sooie" etched in the center.
Tesuansey Link, a standup comedian, designed a state outline wearing tennis shoes and sticking its tongue out at all those natives who can't wait to leave. "A lot of people were just clamoring to move out of Arkansas," he said, "and I just couldn't understand that. And my deal was, you know, if you don't like Arkansas, leave. We're still going to be here, we're still going to be kicking it in Little Rock."
While the majority of these tattoos reside on the native-born, Pritchett, of Electric Heart, often tattoos symbols of Arkansas on people born and raised elsewhere who have come to love the state and consider it home. "Their tattoo is almost like a commitment, like it's their marriage to Arkansas in a way," he said. Katie McGowan, a tattoo artist who works with Pritchett and also has an Arkansas tattoo, considers it "kind of rite of passage" among her friends who've grown up here. "It's like you understand that Arkansas is neat and are proud of it, as opposed to a lot of people that are down on Arkansas a lot."
Some of the most captivating examples wrestle with concepts of home as both a geographical location and an idea. Writing in an e-mail from his current home in Costa Rica, where he's a Peace Corps worker, Benjamin Singleton discussed the large red heart on his bicep, and the black outline of the state inside it. Although born in Arkansas, he grew up in the military, moving from state to state. "For me this represents the slightly complex fact that there had always been a kind of hole in my life where home should be. As I looked back there was so much about the state that kept pulling me back. Beyond the fact that Arkansas was where all my relatives settled, it is where I first started finding a place in the music community and made some of my best friends." Living far from home, he's often asked about this strange shape on his arm. "In halting Spanish I get to tell them about the wonderful people and places I have come to love and the place I call home."
Scott Diffee's tattoo studio is in Rose City outside of North Little Rock. He and partner Alina Bennett live upstairs and operate The Parlor downstairs. It's a small but busy shop in an old beauty parlor located in a low-income neighborhood, with a gritty, welcoming atmosphere. Diffee spoke of his two decades in the Arkansas tattoo scene as he worked on a young man studying to become a high school art teacher.
In the other chair, Bennett was tattooing a second Arkansas tattoo on Anthony Buckelew*, a Parlor regular in his early 20s. He got his first tattoo at The Parlor a few years ago, a state outline with a red line down the center, representing Arkansas's heavily traveled Interstates 40 and 30. He's got 30 tattoos now, and this second Arkansas image is a state outline with "501" in the center. Buckelew's life in Arkansas is seldom easy. He talked about growing up in a poor neighborhood and the tattoos as representations of these streets he knows so well. "I love where I'm from and I wouldn't go nowhere else because I love Arkansas. It's just where I was born and raised. We don't have too much. I love what I was given. [I'm] grateful."
Meredith Martin-Moats would love for you to share your Arkansas tattoo and hear your story for her ongoing project. Check it out on Facebook at Us Tattooed Kids: Arkansas Project.*An earlier version of this story misspelled Buckelew's name.