More couples invite tattoos to the wedding

Ashley and Jimmy Hudrick have matching tattoos.
Ashley and Jimmy Hudrick have matching tattoos. (INNA SPIVAKOVA)
Posted: August 01, 2013

Beth and Jimmy McMillan will never forget their anniversary. After all, the Oaklyn couple share a permanent reminder of their wedding date, Nov. 11, 2011: a pair of matching tattoos, reading "11 11 11" in a tidy, inch-high serif.

Many brides still cover up their tattoos for the big day, layering on heavy concealer or professionally airbrushed makeup. But a growing number not only are selecting gowns that showcase their body art, they're also augmenting their ink with new wedding tattoos that serve as modern, elegant (and, yes, permanent) symbols of their relationships.

Some, like the McMillans, opt for simple matching tattoos - monograms, ampersands, or finger rings, for example. Others go for corresponding images: Couples get Venn diagrams in reverse colors, or the bride gets an "X" to the groom's "O." Still others get visually contiguous tattoos: two halves of a heart that match when the couple are arm in arm, even full-color landscapes that meander seamlessly from bride to groom. A look at wedding boards on Pinterest and at bridal blogs shows infinite possibilities, and growing interest in wedding ink.

"We didn't want to have a quote or a portrait of the other person," Beth McMillan, 35, said of the couple's tattoos, which can be read as anything from hash marks to binary code. "We just wanted something really simple, something that meant something to both of us and commemorated our wedding, without it being too flashy."

Norristown's Mike Allebach, who specializes in photographing inked and offbeat weddings, can attest to the growing popularity of bridal ink. The former punk rocker got into wedding photography about seven years ago, but after he did a photo shoot with some tattooed friends in bridal attire, his business took off.

One reason that many brides are showing their colors is practical, he said: Covering up a tattoo with makeup just doesn't work all that well.

But more than that, he added, alternative-wedding blogs like Rocknrollbride.com and Offbeatbride.com have helped advance a different image of what a bride should be. "Those have sort of pushed things forward, in terms of personalizing your wedding and not being afraid to show who you are on your wedding day," Allebach said.

Hood, 37, a one-name tattoo artist who works out of Black Vulture Gallery in Fishtown, said about 20 percent of tattoos he does are matching tattoos, but only about 2 percent are for weddings.

The most common situation, he said, is a bride getting a large tattoo completed so it looks perfect for wedding pictures - or getting a questionable tattoo covered over.

"Usually people cover up tattoos because the person they're marrying doesn't want to look at that for another day." Think an ex's name, or worse, his or her portrait.

But he also sees "tons of rings, anything on the ring finger." He recently did a couple's initials, each on the other's ring finger.

Hood's colleague Monique Ligons, 37, did work on another couple. She wrote "I love her" on the man's wrist, and "I love him" on the woman's.

Despite fulfilling these optimistic gestures to order, Hood and Ligons are tattoo cynics.

"People who get tattoos that are matching, it's like an extra security for them. They don't realize nothing lasts forever," Hood said. "It's like a half-[hearted] commitment that makes you feel really in love for about 24 hours."

But for Rebecca Bunsick, 32, and Dominique Richardson, 27, of Riverside, tattoos are just a hobby they share together. Bunsick's tattoo habit got so expensive that she purchased her own machine to cut costs.

Now, the two women are planning a wedding for November. Bunsick's wedding-tattoo needs fall under "all of the above": She wants a cover-up tattoo, plus ring tattoos and separate matching tattoos with her fellow bride.

Most pressing is the Jesus image on Bunsick's shoulder, a by-product of her religious upbringing that she wants to cover over with a sunset. "Every time I look at myself I see it, and it really makes me uncomfortable," she said. "I don't want to see pictures of my wedding forever with this on my arm. I was more concerned about that than picking out my dress."

Then, Bunsick wants to get two tattoos for the two ceremonies she's planning: a wedding in New York (where same-sex marriage is legal) and a civil union in New Jersey, where they live.

The couple will exchange candy ring-pops for the New York ceremony, which they don't consider their "real wedding." They'll get matching ring-pops inked on their shoulders to mark the occasion. For the civil union, they'll get simple bands drawn on their fingers.

Wedding tattoos aren't just for the couple, either. Joyce Sun, 30, of East Kensington, said that when her three best friends came into town for a bachelorette party a couple of days before her wedding last year, she took them out for tattoos. The friends got bees with arc reactors, because they joke that they share a "hive mind" and because they had bonded over their love of the film Iron Man. It was a "way of letting these ladies know just how special they were and how glad I was they could make it to my wedding."

Tattoos may not be traditional, but brides don't seem to mind pairing them with formal wedding gowns, noted Fishtown-based photographer Inna Spivakova, of Peach Plum Pear Photography. As for grooms, she said, they tend to roll up their sleeves to show off more ink in wedding photos.

That was the case for her clients Ashley and Jimmy Hudrick, both 26, of Marmora, N.J. The couple have matching tattoos based on the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead - his-and-hers skulls, framed in half-hearts. (When they stand shoulder-to-shoulder, the heart is made whole.) Inspired by their tattoos, they threw a Día de los Muertos-themed wedding last October, with colorful decorations and ceramic skulls in the floral arrangements.

"We'd been wanting to get matching tattoos, but nothing too corny," Ashley said. Jimmy was her high school sweetheart - but, even so, getting his name or portrait on her shoulder just didn't seem like a good idea. "You don't know what the future holds," she said. But her "la catrina" tattoo is forever. "I would love this tattoo no matter what. Even though it represents us and our marriage, it does stand alone by itself as well."

That's a wise outlook, said Hood, who notes that covering up tattoos with even more tattoos is an imperfect science.

He pointed to a recently divorced friend, who'd asked him to cover up his ring tattoo with a large insect. "It ended up looking like a bug ring," Hood admitted.

Of course, if a relationship is strong, those matching tattoos are just window dressing.

The McMillans had initially been skeptical of getting matching tattoos. But ever since their daughter was born - on a Friday the 13th in Voorhees - the couple have been itching to get a new set of matching tattoos: hockey masks with pigtails, in her honor.

"Before, we didn't want to be a cliche. But now we're so solidly together as a little family that it doesn't matter what other people think."

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