The Fascinating History Behind Getting a Partner’s Name Tattooed

The History Behind Getting a Partners Name Tattooed
Credit: Kheila Cruz

Last year, during the whirlwind romance that was Ariana Grande and Pete Davidson’s five-month-long relationship (or “Grandson,” for those of us who chose to stan), onlookers watched as the pair got several tattoos to commemorate their love—sometimes going back only days after their last inking session—including Pete’s name on Ariana’s ring finger. Many deemed the almost frantic frequency of their tattoo parlour visits foolish. And perhaps it was; since the pair split in October (R.I.P), they’ve begun to cover up their tattoos. So while the two may not have dispelled any stereotypes about getting a tattoo of a partner’s name (who can forget Johnny Depp’s famous “Winona Forever” turned “Wino Forever” tattoo in the ‘90s?), they certainly reminded those who may have forgotten, that this is still very much a thing that people do.

And it’s certainly not a new tradition. “In Japanese culture around the 18th century, it was a sign of commitment for an individual to tattoo their lover’s name on their upper arm with the word inochi, which means life,” says Ion Nicolae, owner of Toronto’s Black Line Studio. Unfortunately, in pre-laser tattoo removal days, when those relationships didn’t work out, the only removal option was to literally burn them off, often using a tobacco pipe.

Wondering how the extreme nature of that removal process—and the astonishing pain associated with it—didn’t completely wipe out the practice of tattooing a lover’s name altogether? Well, it’s not like today’s much more advanced laser tattoo removal is without its downsides. “It’s really damn painful,” ” says Andrew*, who got a tattoo of his then-girlfriend’s initial on his finger, and began the removal process when they broke up. “It’s probably even more painful, on the whole, than actually getting the tattoo. Mine is tiny, so it probably only took about ten to fifteen zaps to cover the surface area, but each one felt like the strongest rubber band on earth getting snapped against my skin. Then the tattoo’s kind of blistery and sore for a day or two. The technician said it’d take at least ten sessions for [mine] to look anything close to gone. I lasted five before I gave up.”

So while the painful (and expensive) removal process isn’t enough of a deterrent for people who are intent on carrying on the tradition of getting a lover’s name permanently inscribed onto their skin, it could explain the superstition that exists around the practice. In case you’re not well-versed in the world of superstitions, rumour has it that getting a partner’s name tattooed symbolizes, and even kicks off, the beginning of the end of a relationship. As is the case with most superstitions, it’s hard to say where or when it began, but one can assume that since most people are aware that getting a tattoo removed is (to put it lightly) crazy-painful, coupled with the fact that a significant number of relationships will (simply statistically speaking) fail, suddenly you’ve got a negative association that, over the years, has transformed into a superstition. (Hey, it’s superstition; not science.)

“I do believe in the superstition, in a way,” says Andrew.* “Because getting somebody’s named tattooed immediately amplifies the pressure on the relationship to succeed. Also, I feel like there are two situations in which people decide to do it: either you’re still in the honeymoon period, like I was (or like Pete and Ariana were), and that overwhelming lust you’re feeling will eventually wear off and you’ll regret your decision; or it’s a last-ditch effort at saving a failing relationship, which is even worse, and will probably tank it even faster.”

Many of the couples interviewed for this story weren’t fazed by the superstition, and stand by their name tattoos. “We were in a relationship for about three weeks when we got [tattoos of each other’s names],” says Julia. “Tattoos made sense for the ‘shout-it-from-the-rooftops’ stage we were in.” Another couple, Erica and Colin, were gifted a tattoo session with celebrity tattoo artist JonBoy by a friend, who insisted they wait until after they were married to get the tattoos.

And as thrilling as the process understandably is for the couple getting tattooed, for the artists, requests for tattoos of a partner’s are nothing new. “I’ve been doing significant others’ names since I started tattooing in the ‘90s,” says JonBoy, who recently opened a new studio in Moxy Times Square. “It died down [for a while] because people saw it as taboo but I’ve seen it make a comeback as of late. I love doing names. Commitment is a hard thing but if I’ve got someone’s name tattooed on me reminding every day, I might consider sticking around.”

Ashley Driscoll of Toronto’s Ink & Water Tattoo says, “I prefer not to tattoo a significant other’s name unless the couple has children together. I’m not in the business of giving anyone a tattoo they may regret, and the risk is there. At least if the couple has children together, I can rest assured that those two are bound together by [that] child. So that’s my rule!”

Ami James, tattoo artist, co-founder of online community Tattoodo, and one of the stars of mid-aughts Miami Ink says he can spot red flags. “Getting the tattoo with your significant other is probably a better indicator that the relationship is going well, [rather than] surprising [a partner] with a new tattoo. Either [way], I usually tell someone they can come back for a cover-up with me and I’ll give them a good deal.”

If you can believe it, JonBoy doesn’t recall ever covering up a name tattoo. Surely some of the couples he’s tattooed have since split up, but he prefers to think they’re taking to heart “the famous words of Ariana Grande: ‘I’m so fucking grateful for my ex.'”

*Names have been changed.

Related: 14 Things I’ve Learned From Getting 14 Tattoos

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