Chris Burge’s neighbors in Highland Meadows probably know she stays home each day to care for her young boys. They have likely watched her family pile into their minivan on Sunday mornings and head to church. They might even see her jogging past their front yards as she prepares for marathons.

Just looking at Burge, her neighbors would never guess she has five tattoos.

Not the kind that stick on with water and scrub off with soap, but the kind that required Burge to walk into a place with a name like “House of Pain” and ask a pierced, ink-covered artist to repeatedly stick a needle into her skin.

No, she didn’t get them on a college dare, or after too many margaritas, or during a wild streak before she settled down into married life and started having children. She’s not a soccer mom by day and a biker chick by night.

For Burge and others like her in our neighborhood, tattoos are personal and meaningful. In their view, body art imitates life.

“You would be surprised how many people are wearing a tattoo now that wouldn’t have 20 years ago,” Burge says. “I can be a devoted mom and teach Sunday school and have these crazy tattoos – and I’m not afraid of what people think about me.”

These neighbors sit on our PTA committees, sing in our church choirs, and frequent our breakfast joints. They challenge us to think differently about body art by bucking the notion that tattoos are either a youthful indiscretion, a drunken mistake or an affiliation with the so-called “tattoo culture.” The only box they fit into is the one marked “none of the above,” and that’s what makes their stories intriguing.

DAILY REMINDER

A detective in the Garland Police Department, Christy Shoemaker is surrounded by officers, mostly men, that are “tattooed up,” as she says. She works in the toughest division, taking down homicide and robbery criminals despite her petite five-foot-five frame. Still, Shoemaker never wanted a tattoo and didn’t even consider it until her husband came home with a Harley-Davidson shield on his upper arm that he had been eyeing for a decade.

It started her thinking. Shoemaker had always loved sunbursts, but she wasn’t willing to put one on her body unless it encircled something significant. That’s when she came across a heart-shaped necklace pendant in a catalog. A teardrop was cut out of the heart, signifying the pain of losing someone dear.

“I thought immediately of my dad, the first person I had lost who was very close to me. My mom is 72 years old, and I won’t have her for very much longer either,” Shoemaker says. “Once I found the center of my sunburst, that was it.”

Etched across her lower back, the tattoo remains hidden unless it comes up in conversation and someone asks to see it.

It’s not that Shoemaker is ashamed of her tattoo; she wants people to know what the heart and teardrop signify. But she believes that “tattoos are for yourself.” And though she doesn’t regret her experience, she doesn’t intend to repeat it.

I’m only going to have one, and this is the one that I wanted,” Shoemaker says. “I think of my dad every day. I know that he’s always going to be with me.”

HOMECOMING EMBLEM

Kristen LaGregs was 30 when she got her first tattoo. She wanted something permanent to symbolize where she was at that point in her life, and she chose a depiction of a sun, half-moon and planets on her left outer ankle to express her love for nature.

If she had to do it over, LaGregs would stick with the nature-lover motif, but would choose a less noticeable area to place it. LaGregs handles construction-defect litigation for an insurance company and spends a lot of time in court. Some judges are old-fashioned and won’t allow pants in the courtroom, so she often has to wear long skirts to hide it.

So when LaGregs decided to get another tattoo on her 40th birthday last year, she decided it should be more inconspicuous. Her company had transferred her to Dallas a few months earlier, reuniting her with her aunt, uncle and cousin, “who is more like a sister,” she says. It was a homecoming of sorts, and LaGregs decided to celebrate with a swallow tattoo between her shoulder blades.

“Sailors used to have swallows on their arms as a good luck charm so they would come home after their voyage,” she says.

The rendering of her swallow was created by a tattoo artist in Carrollton, whom LaGregs sought out after some research.

“It’s more of a piece of artwork than, ‘Oh, I want the No. 14 on the wall,’” she says.

The tattoo has received mixed reviews. Some people admire LaGregs for having it done at 40, and some people think she’s crazy for the same reason.

LaGregs says she doesn’t plan to show many people the sparrow.

“I’m not about showy. It’s for me,” she says. “I know people who get tattoos for other people almost to use as an accessory or a fashion statement. Mine were more meaningful, not cutesy.”

LANDMARK DECISION

Getting a tattoo was little more than a fleeting thought for Karen Gunning until her 47th birthday. The evening began with a nice dinner followed by a movie at the Magnolia Theater. That’s where she met a bartender with a beautiful tattoo, and Gunning couldn’t resist asking where she had it done. The answer was a Deep Ellum studio, and when Gunning peppered her with questions about safety and hygiene, the bartender responded with reassurance.

So after dinner, despite protestations from her husband, they drove to Deep Ellum and, as fate would have it, the artist the bartender had named was working that night.

“I wanted to do something totally spontaneous that no one who knows me would ever think Karen Gunning would do,” she reflects. “I think about things, ruminate before I do them. But I didn’t want to over-think this. It was important to me to do it on that birthday, and right then, and with him.”

She chose a tiny dragonfly for the inside of her left ankle. It wasn’t a random choice. Gunning grew up in Oklahoma, and often spent time on the farm of her best friend’s grandfather, a Cherokee. He dubbed Gunning “dragonfly” because they have the ability to both reflect and refract light.

It was a nice tattoo experience, not painful at all, Gunning says. But she wondered how her two teenage daughters would react – the ones who had to wait until they were 13 to pierce their ears, and were forbidden from other piercings or tattoos until they turned 21. The girls approved, she says.

Now 49, Gunning acknowledges that tattoos are not the norm for her generation or her community.

“The neighborhood I live in is fairly conservative, so you wouldn’t find many women in my neighborhood with tattoos,” Gunning says.

“The irony is I’ve never found it particularly attractive, and I still have issues with why it’s all over someone’s body – I don’t quite get that,” she says. “But now I understand why there can be symbolism with it, and people do it for different reasons, each valid in its own way.”

MILESTONE MARKERS

The birth of Christine Burge’s oldest son inspired her to get the first of her five tattoos.

“It was a new beginning for me, a journey that I went through and I arrived, I made it – I was a mother,” she recollects.

She chose a little flower, representing life and beauty. She was 29 at the time. Now 42, Burge has little reminders all over her body of the milestones in her life that “left their mark on me.” A moon and star on her hip represents her second son, and another flower on her toe represents the youngest. A butterfly, symbolizing beauty and freedom of flight, is on her lower back representing her first marathon, and a band of flowers right above it represents her first triathlon.

“I worked hard and I did it, and it was an amazing experience,” Burge says.

She still thinks the tattoos are beautiful and doesn’t regret a single one – she describes them as “little pieces of art.” But Burge is glad the flower on her toe is the only one in plain view.

“I want to be able to dress up in a pretty dress and not have ink spots hanging out,” she says. “I want to age gracefully.”

Her husband, Scott, has no qualms about his wife’s body art because he has some of his own – a cross on one ankle, their initials on another, and a heart and cross on the back of his shoulder where Burge kisses him at night before they go to bed. The pair have even made a couple of trips to the tattoo studio together.

“I like that I waited until I was a little bit older, and until I was married and it was OK with my husband, and was in a place that wasn’t going to affect any kind of career move I was going to make because I was a stay-at-home mom,” Burge says. “It was something I wanted to do, and it’s just for me.”