The ominous buzz of the tattoo needle drones on and on. Seth Bollinger has heard the sound and stared at the blank, white ceiling for four straight hours as they've laid on the table at Big Daddy Cadillac Tattoos.
Their tattoo artist's face is coated in sweat as he goes back and forth from the counter to replenish his ink to Bollinger's chest. Bollinger clenches their hands into fists, grimacing every so often as the needle hits sensitive spots on their skin.
At noon, the Kansas junior’s chest was a blank canvas. By 5 p.m., their once-clean slate is now etched with words of Oscar Wilde and the outline of an anatomical heart.
“[The quote] really resonated with me because Oscar Wilde dealt with homosexuality in his work and I deal with that being a part of that community,” Bollinger said. “’To define is to limit’ is a really cool quote that deals with labels.”
Bollinger isn’t alone in their ink endeavor. A study conducted in 2012 concluded that one in five U.S. adults has at least one tattoo. That same study also gathered that 22 percent of adults aged 18-24 have been under the needle at least once.
Bollinger, unlike the statistical masses, has five tattoos, including his newest chest piece. Their other four tattoos are located on his foot, on their ribs, behind their ear and inside their lip.
“All of my tattoos have the theme of life and living,” Bollinger said.
They went under the needle for the first time on their 18th birthday, getting a tattoo that says "know thyself" in Latin.
Fresh out of high school, Bollinger wanted something that represented their time there, about finding out more about themself. Their second tattoo, a song lyric on their ribs, was a spur-of-the-moment decision. The lyric, “I was meant to see the sun,” comes from a song off the concept album Razia’s Shadow that several emo bands came together and composed.
Their third and fourth tattoos were completed during the same session in June. An upside down triangle is tattooed behind their ear, which represents water for Cancer, their Zodiac sign. Their fourth tattoo is the word “life” inside their lower lip.
“[Getting the lip tattoo] was weird because I literally had a tattoo artist in my mouth the whole time, which was awkward,” Bollinger said. “It hurt a lot. It only took two minutes though, so it was done pretty fast.
"Afterwards, my lip swelled up and I couldn’t eat for a few hours. My teeth were covered in tattoo ink. That was real gross and nasty.”
Bollinger’s first tattoo drew inspiration from The Matrix — their second, from a song. For Lisa Cox, a sophomore from Waite Park, Minn., her one tattoo is also inspired from a song.
“[Back in high school] I was listening to My Chemical Romance,” Cox said. “I got a lot of encouragement from one of their songs and the line ‘not afraid to keep on living’ struck me.”
Her tattoo rests between her shoulder blades, the words inked in a thick serif font that gives a hint of Egyptian flare.
Cox, like Bollinger, has dealt with numerous hardships in her past, she said.
During high school, Cox suffered from depression and suicidal thoughts. Since then, having her tattoo serves as a reminder of where she’s been and the progress she continues to make.
“It gave me the motivation to keep on living,” Cox said. “Now, I’m freed from depression and I’m doing a lot better, just because of that line. It’s a reminder of what I’ve gone through. If I ever face difficulties, even minor ones throughout the day, I just think of the things I’ve gone through.”
Junior Maddie Daharsh faced difficult times as well. For her, coming to the University was a life-changing experience.
Daharsh was one of three undergraduate students from Stevens County in the fall of 2014, according to the Office of Institutional Research and Planning. She didn't know anyone; she knew that coming in.
She said she knew she was coming to the University since her sophomore year of high school and was fully aware of the adversity she was going to face. Because of that, she wanted a tattoo that would be a constant reminder of her devout faith in God.
Out of the thousands of Bible verses, she decided on Proverbs 31:25.
“She is clothed in strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future” is tattooed on her right side.
After she obtained her tattoo, Daharsh said people told her she would regret it. She said even though it’s been a couple years since she went under the needle, she has not once regretted her tattoo.
“I did struggle when I came here,” Daharsh said. “I did read it every day and it did help me. It served the purpose I needed and it serves the purpose continuously every day. I don’t feel any emotional remorse at all.”
Bollinger, Cox and Daharsh all have their tattoos in inconspicuous places; Daharsh has two rules with tattoos.
“They can’t show on my wedding day and they can’t show at work,” Daharsh said.
Because of how Daharsh’s tattoo is in a well-hidden spot, most people who know her don’t know she has it.
“It’s something for me to see to remind myself of why I’m here and what I’m doing, rather than show it off to other people,” Daharsh said.
Cox acknowledges that people can’t see her tattoo with most of the clothes she wears, sharing the same sentiment as Daharsh.
“I know it’s there,” Cox said. “And that’s all that matters."
Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to Seth Bollinger with incorrect pronouns. The story has been updated to reflect their preference.