Inked for Mom 

A brief history of the “I Love Mom” tattoo for Mother’s Day.

When it comes to honoring one’s mother, there are the things you do—the flowers you might have ordered for this Sunday—and, just as important, the things you don’t do: I’d like to remind my own sainted mother of the bail she never had to post, the terrible men I haven’t dated, the tattoos I decided against. But while the materfamilias Malone might weep at the sight of even the most delicate design peeking out from beneath her daughter’s shirt, a tattoo dedicated to Mom is in fact one of the most iconic American maternal tributes.

The classic image that we think of as the mom tattoo is the chubby red heart with Mom splayed across it on a ribboned scroll, which caught on among servicemen during and after World War II. Many of these soldiers were so young when they shipped off that a mother’s love was more tangible than a sweetheart’s. That iconic heart design is attributed to Sailor Jerry, one of the 20th century’s most famous tattoo artists and a member of the Navy. (Sailors have always been at the vanguard of tattoo culture in the West, thanks to their voyages to distant, more inked-up lands.)

There’s also an age-old connection between country and mother—consider the very word motherland. So the mom image can sometimes symbolize not just affection, but work as a stand-in for the people and lifestyle the wearer wants to defend, says Margaret deMello, author of the 2000 book Bodies of Inscription. You’ll often—but not exclusively, of course—see mom tattoos on the same bodies that have patriotic tattoos, and they’re more often found on men than women; dad tribute tattoos are far rarer.

Maternal tattoo tributes might have entered the pop imagination thanks to a relatively modern American sailor, but they’ve been around probably as long as the art of tattooing. According to Marisa Kakoulas, who writes the tattoo culture blog Needles and Sins, there’s documentation of mom-explicit tributes going back to the late 1700s on these shores, but tattoos, whether in ancient civilizations or hipster Brooklyn, have always been about identity demarcation and often about allying oneself with a clan; the mom tribute is a version of that. * Nick Schonberger, co-author of Homeward Bound: The Life and Times of Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry, says that up through the 1920s, mom tattoos were often in memoriam, and based on iconography from mourning art, like religious lithographs or even needlepoint designs. Weeping willows, crosses, and cemeteries were common; they were part of the visual language in which artists were fluent, just as the more cartoony, streamlined look of the Sailor Jerry design reflected the pop aesthetic of its era in turn—though the scrolling word banner was common to both. (And for our full-circle, Postmodern era, there’s Bart Simpson—a cartoon character—getting inked with the cartoon-inspired heart design.)

In recent years, as tattooing has exploded in popularity, variety, and intricacy, mom tattoos have followed suit. Tattoo-seekers aren’t limited by preset flash sheets with familiar designs. More sophisticated tools have allowed artists to ink full, realistic portraits, especially in the last decade or so, and homages to Mom have been an especially popular use of that technology. Now you might see a photographic likeness of Mom adorning a bicep where a cartoonish heart might once have been (though traditional Americana designs remain popular) or an anatomically correct human heart, a witty Postmodern riff on the image. According to my friendly neighborhood tattoo artist (don’t worry, Mom, I was there for research only!), even today “most people who have lots and lots of tattoos have at least one tribute to their mother.” Another local shop occasionally offers Mother’s Day specials for those looking to do something a little extra at the last minute. For the less committed, there’s always the temporary tattoo option: Let’s just hope your mom doesn’t think too hard about the symbolism of an impermanent tribute to your devotion.

Click here to see a slide show of tattooed tributes to Mom.

Correction, May 6, 2011: The article originally referred to the blog Needles and Sins as Sins and Needles. Return to the corrected sentence.