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tattoos

A semicolon tattoo


Have you seen anyone with a semicolon tattoo like the one above?

If not, you may not be looking close enough. They're popping up...

Semicolon Tattoo

Semicolon Tattoo

Photo by The Semicolon Tattoo Project.

...everywhere.

Photo by The Semicolon Tattoo Project.

That's right: the semicolon. It's a tattoo that has gained popularity in recent years, but unlike other random or mystifying trends, this one has a serious meaning behind it. (And no, it's not just the mark of a really committed grammar nerd.)

The semicolon tattoo represents mental health struggles and the importance of suicide prevention.


Photo by The Semicolon Tattoo Project.


Project Semicolon was born from a social media movement in 2013.

They describe themselves as a "movement dedicated to presenting hope and love to those who are struggling with depression, suicide, addiction, and self-injury. Project Semicolon exists to encourage, love, and inspire."

But why a semicolon?

"A semicolon is used when an author could've chosen to end their sentence, but chose not to. The author is you and the sentence is your life."

Originally created as a day where people were encouraged to draw a semicolon on their bodies and photograph it, it quickly grew into something greater and more permanent. Today, people all over the world are tattooing the mark as a reminder of their struggle, victory, and survival.

Photos by The Semicolon Tattoo Project.

I spoke with Jenn Brown and Jeremy Jaramillo of The Semicolon Tattoo Project, an organization inspired by the semicolon movement. Along with some friends, Jenn and Jeremy saw an opportunity to both help the community and reduce the stigma around mental illness.

In 2012, over 43 million Americans dealt with a mental illness. Mental illness is not uncommon, yet there is a stigma around it that prevents a lot of people from talking about it — and that's a barrier to getting help.

More conversations that lead to less stigma? Yes please.

"[The tattoo] is a conversation starter," explains Jenn. "People ask what it is and we get to tell them the purpose."

"I think if you see someone's tattoo that you're interested in, that's fair game to start a conversation with someone you don't know," adds Jeremy. "It provides a great opportunity to talk. Tattoos are interesting — marks we put on our bodies that are important to us."

In 2014, The Semicolon Tattoo Project held an event at several tattoo shops where people could get a semicolon tattoo for a flat rate. "That money was a fundraiser for our crisis center," said Jenn. In total, over 400 people received semicolon tattoos in one day. Even better, what began as a local event has spread far and wide, and people all over the world are getting semicolon tattoos.

And it's not just about the conversation — it's about providing tangible support and help too.

Jenn and Jeremy work with the Agora Crisis Center. Founded in 1970, it's one of the oldest crisis centers in the country. Through The Semicolon Tattoo Project, they've been able to connect even more people with the help they need during times of crisis. (If you need someone to talk to, scroll to the end of the article for the center's contact information.)

So next time you see this small punctuation tattoo, remember the words of Upworthy writer Parker Molloy:

"I recently decided to get a semicolon tattoo. Not because it's trendy (though, it certainly seems to be at the moment), but because it's a reminder of the things I've overcome in my life. I've dealt with anxiety, depression, and gender dysphoria for the better part of my life, and at times, that led me down a path that included self-harm and suicide attempts.

But here I am, years later, finally fitting the pieces of my life together in a way I never thought they could before. The semicolon (and the message that goes along with it) is a reminder that I've faced dark times, but I'm still here."

No matter how we get there, the end result is so important: help and support for more people to also be able to say " I'm still here."

If you want to see more incredible semicolon tattoos, check out nine photos and stories that our readers shared with us!


This article was written by Laura Willard and originally appeared on 7.7.15

Beth Cutlip, co-owner of Baltimore's Southside Tattoo parlor, was working one day when a man walked in with some unmistakeable ink.

A gang member in Los Angeles. Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images.

The man's face was covered in gang tattoos, Cutlip says, and he was there to have them covered up. He got them as a teenager while running with a rough crowd, but he was a grown man now. Married. Kids. Trying to make an honest career as an electrician.


The tattoos, Cutlip recalls him saying, made people nervous when he came into their homes to do work. He needed them gone.

But they were just too big.

"As much as I wanted to help him, I had to refer him to have them removed. But I don't think he had the money," she says.

Later, when recounting the story to her husband and co-owner, Dave Cutlip, she knew there had to be a way to help people like that.

"I said, 'Dave, these people made a mistake, changed their life, and they need to get these tattoos covered up,'" she says. "He looked at me and said, 'Are you asking me to tattoo people for free?'"

Dave agreed to set aside time in the shop, once a week, for people to come in and have hateful or violent tattoos covered up, free of charge.

Beth posted a small announcement on the parlor's Facebook page, thinking a few hundred people might see it and think it was a good idea.

Instead, the post went massively viral.

Sometimes people make bad choices, and sometimes people change. We, at Southside Tattoo would like to make a difference....

Posted by Southside Tattoo on Monday, January 16, 2017

Soon, messages poured in from all over the country and world. There were thousands and thousands of people trying to get rid of permanent ink that didn't reflect who they were anymore.

This man's gang tattoo became a rose. Photo by Southside Tattoo, used with permission.

Southside Tattoo is now completely booked with cover-ups, and Beth has been working with other parlors around the country to help people outside the Baltimore area.

They've even begun setting up a nonprofit to help pay for the work. Beth says some of the funds they've raised go toward helping people in more remote areas travel to somewhere they can have the work done properly and safely.

His arms said "white" and "power." Beth and Dave covered up the "white." Photo by Southside Tattoo, used with permission.

Beth says everyone she works with has a different story, but they all have one thing in common: They're trying to build a better life.

Along with gang tattoos, "I am seeing so many swastikas, Aryan Brotherhood, things like that," Beth says. Some get inked up in prison to fit in, for safety. Others are just trying to leave their old ways behind.

Either way, Beth and her husband are happy to help.

"The beautiful thing is I know I did something good for somebody," she says. "And they're going to leave here and they're going to do something nice for somebody else."

Together, Beth and Dave are helping people prove it's never too late to change. And that's a message we all need to hear right now.

As a young mom, Celia Sanchez felt like an outsider.

Sanchez, who became a mom 11 years ago at age 23, had many run-ins with fellow parents that she won't soon forget.

"When I would take my children to day care, I felt kind of ... like I didn't look like the other moms," Sanchez said. "They were much older than me. I just felt kind of separated from them. I would get a lot of 'Oh you're so young to be a mom,' 'You don't really look like a mom,' and I always thought that was a silly thing to say: 'Oh you don't look like a mom.'"


Driven by her own brushes with judgment, Sanchez reached out to friends and strangers for a powerful portrait project.

"I'm not a woman of words," said Sanchez, a portrait photographer. "I like to show people."

Sanchez's photo series "Devoted" features "non-typical" mothers and their children.

With their body art, bold hair, and amazing clothes, these women don't seem like "typical moms" at first glance. And that's the point.

For the past three years, Sanchez has shot portraits of these women alone and with their children. She hopes the juxtaposition will encourage people to reconsider their first impressions.

Photo by Celia Sanchez, used with permission.

"I knew mothers who didn't look like a 'typical mom,' and I always wanted to photograph them and feature them and show that you don't have to look a certain way to be a mom," she said.

Photo by Celia Sanchez, used with permission.

Many of these moms have tattoos, which are still considered taboo in a lot of communities.

By the numbers, though, tattoos are fairly common, even for parents.

Photo by Celia Sanchez, used with permission.

According to a 2015 Harris poll, nearly half (47%) of millennials and more than a third (36%) of Gen Xers surveyed reported having a tattoo. And respondents with children were nearly twice as likely to have a tattoo as those without children (43% vs. 21%).

Photo by Celia Sanchez, used with permission.

Even as tattoos and parents with tattoos become more commonplace, many parents still feel judged for their appearance.

Brian Poole and his wife, Meg, run Parents With Tattoos, one of several Facebook communities on the topic. Admittedly, Poole says his run-ins with those critical of his body art aren't as bad as many would assume, but they definitely happen.

Photo by Celia Sanchez, used with permission.

"I don't get a lot of comments, but I get a lot of snide looks. You can definitely tell people from their body language, the way that they look at you," he says.

The prejudice has also led to more serious consequences for Poole and his family.  

"We've actually been, me and my wife, have actually been turned down from renting houses. ... And it's like, 'Come on. It's 2016. I would think we'd move past that.'"

But we haven't. That's why projects like "Devoted" are so important.

Photo by Celia Sanchez, used with permission.

Not all parents look the same. And they shouldn't have to.

Three years in, Sanchez continues to work on "Devoted" not just for herself, but to celebrate and champion these strong, beautiful mothers.

Photo by Celia Sanchez, used with permission.

"I just wanted to show women — mothers — who weren't ... sacrificing their personal style," Sanchez says. "Being a mom, you get lost in your children and I really love the fact that these women didn't lose themselves. They didn't lose their identities. They're still themselves. They're still great parents."

Photos by Celia Sanchez, used with permission.

Raising kids is hard enough without prejudice and judgment. Next time you see a mom or dad who doesn't fit your idea of a parent, Sanchez hopes you'll check yourself. Because if it takes a village to rise a child, everyone who loves and cares about that child is welcome.

When Francisco saw an image of himself without tattoos, he couldn't help but smile.

"Damn," he said. "I haven't seen myself like that in years."

Francisco is a former gang member. His arms, face, and hands are covered in tattoos and gang symbols, permanent reminders of his former life.


But thanks to the photography and photo editing skills of Steven Burton, Francisco had the opportunity to see himself a changed man, the way he felt on the inside.

Francisco Flores. All photos and edited images by Steven Burton. Used with permission.

Francisco is just one of the men and women who took part in the innovative "Skin Deep" project.

Burton captured portraits of 28 former gang members and incarcerated men and women, and then he spent more than 400 hours in Photoshop digitally removing their tattoos.

Phillip Mendoza.

Burton was inspired by the work of Rev. Gregory J. Boyle, who many know as G-Dog.

Boyle, an ordained Catholic priest, is the founder and director of Homeboy Industries, a Los Angeles-based gang intervention, rehabilitation, and re-entry program. In addition to classes, employment counseling, substance abuse support, legal services, and mental health care, Homeboy Industries pays for laser tattoo removal treatment for 950 clients each month.

These tattoos are not only visible reminders of gang and prison life, but they can make it difficult for these men and women to find employment. To many, the tattoos — and the people underneath — are intimidating and scary. Legal or not, some companies and schools just aren't willing to take the risk.

David Williams.

But tattoo removal is a long and sometimes painful process. So Burton decided to create a digital solution.

After watching "G-Dog," a 2012 documentary on Boyle, Burton was inspired to use his photography and editing skills to show before and "after" photos to see how the men and women would react, but also to understand the impact tattoos have on people escaping gang life.

August Lopez.

Burton went straight to the source and talked to folks using the services at Homeboy Industries. Many were hesitant to take part in his project, as photographers hoping to shoot heavily tattooed former gang members are a dime a dozen. Burton had to build trust and prove he was there for the right reasons — not just as a photographer, but as someone willing to listen.

Samuel Gonzalez.

"I didn't go in with any preconceived ideas of what I was after," Burton said." I just wanted it to be honest and open, where they get to talk about their lives."

After he worked on the first four images and showed the participants, word quickly spread. For these people hoping to turn their lives around, Burton offered a priceless gift: a glimpse — even just on paper — of life without the gang.

Erin Echavarria.

Burton didn't just photograph the homeboys and homegirls. He listened to their stories too.

Each interview revealed personal and shocking details about life before and after the gang. Many suffered abuse or addiction prior to and during their years in gangs. They've witnessed unthinkable violence and are doing their best to start over, for themselves and their families.

"The cards they were dealt in the beginning really set the course for their life in the gang. It's never really been so much of a choice for a lot of these people," Burton said. "But what's beautiful about the people I talk to is that they've made the choice to leave the gang, and it's a difficult one."

Marcos Luna.

While deciding to leave is admirable, the transition isn't easy. Since "Skin Deep" began, at least two of Burton's subjects have been killed by police. Burton believes many are profiled because of their tattoos. Before you judge them, hear their stories.

"People can change their life," he said. "But because of the tattoos, who would know?"

That's why these images and stories are so important: Burton hopes to change the narrative around people in gangs and their tattoos.

Burton compiled his photos as well as interviews and stories from the men and women to create "Skin Deep: Looking Beyond the Tattoos," which was published in October 2017 thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign.

Now that he's making a profit, he's giving a portion of it back to the organization that made it possible — Homeboy Industries — and using the rest to continue helping others see themselves in a new light through digital means and real tattoo removal treatments.

Mario Lundes.

If you'd like to support these men and women as they chart a new course, start with kindness.

These men and women don't need your pity. They need a fair shot — with or without tattoos.

Support schools, businesses, and nonprofits working to give them a chance. And before you judge them, give them a chance yourself.  

Vinson Ramos.