We first discovered this work after it was submitted to the Portrait Awards 2015. Although it was not chosen as a finalist by the jury, the editors of LensCulture were impressed and decided to publish this feature article about it. Enjoy!

Have you ever noticed a tattoo peeking out from under someone’s sleeve and wondered about its story? You’re not alone. Photographer Ralf Mitsch has long held this fascination about people’s body art. In his book Why I Love Tattoos, Mitsch goes beyond simply portraying the permanent ink to delving into the motivations behind these bold declarations.

To some, heavily tattooed individuals appear somehow… off. Is it an addiction? A sign of mental illness? But upon hearing their stories, it becomes clear that to these people, the body is just another canvas for artistic expression.

Sylvie started young—fourteen, to be exact:

“My Mum was dead against it at first, but I offered her a deal: if my Maths grades improved—I wasn’t doing very well at the time—could I get a tattoo then? Of course she wanted me to do well at school, so she said yes. We even signed a contract! Then I brought home a report full of good marks. My best friend and I went and got tattoos together. When my grandmother died, I had a jar of jam tattooed on my arm, because we used to make jam together every year.

Recent trends show the tattoo’s transition from being on society’s periphery to attaining status as a fine art. Hipster aesthetics and celebrity popularity may have a lot to do with it. With more people choosing to get inked, is the decision to get a tattoo becoming more impulsive?

Regardless, as tattoos are now vogue, the stakes have been raised. While there will always be someone getting butterflies, hearts, and stars tattooed on their lower back, current tattoo trends are decidedly more complex. They range from the artistic, renditions of famous paintings, to the obscure: geometric portraits, water-color effects. Indeed, it’s the artistic nature that forms the primary motivation for Tim.

I can’t hang the original artworks on the wall, so I get them marked on my skin. I stole the design for my first tattoo from a hotel when I was nineteen. It was a Jugendstil piece, but really small, so I had it covered by a bigger one later on.

Many emphasize the storytelling aspect of their tattoos as well. The stories behind the designs show tattoos as a visual biography. For example, Trudy, initially inspired by a photograph of a Geisha’s tattooed back, now sees her tattoos as a representation of her life’s journey.

The images on my body tell my life story. They symbolize the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, strength and weakness. They’ve become such a part of me that I’m not even aware of them any more. Sometimes I’ll get a comment and I’ll realize: “Oh yes, that’s right, I do have tattoos.”

—Lauren Sarazen