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Ink about it: Moms leave their mark

The notion that blood is thicker than water is true but obvious to the point of being silly. What doesn't run thicker than water? The saying focuses on the wrong liquid. The only substance that matches the bonding power of blood is ink. Otherwise...

Robb Walvatne

The notion that blood is thicker than water is true but obvious to the point of being silly. What doesn't run thicker than water?

The saying focuses on the wrong liquid. The only substance that matches the bonding power of blood is ink.

Otherwise, why would so many sons and daughters feel compelled to wear their matriarchal love literally on their sleeves? And their feet? And their backs? How else to explain the enduring popularity of the "mom" tattoo, the permanent declaration of that most common and heartfelt of sentiments: "I love my mom."

"They happen quite often, actually," Paul Johnson, owner of 46 and 2 Tattoo, says of mom-inspired needle work. "We see everything from men in suits to the deep and dirty goth boy."

Brian Sutton, owner of Addictions Tattooing & Body Piercing, says his tattoo artists almost always counsel against getting a tat with a name - unless it's for mom.


It's not like your average mother is clamoring for this sort of recognition. The opinion Betty Dobervich holds of her son's collection of Spider-Man tattoos - one is "your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man" spelled out in Asian writing - seems fairly typical.

"I'm not a fan of any tattoos," she states flatly.

Check that. There is one tattoo to which she's partial - the one her son, 38-year-old Robb Walvatne of Fargo, got on his foot last year.

When Walvatne showed her the picture of a pink pig balloon with a blue ribbon wrapping around it reading "I LOVE MOM," "She kind of shook her head and said, 'OK, I like that,' " he says.

With its mom-blaring banner, Walvatne's tattoo is a tweak on the old-fashioned heart-and-banner mom tattoo. The pig symbolizes a set of crystal pig figurines he got for her as a gift when he was a child. She still has them. And the tattoo version is more than just OK with her.

"To think that your son loves you that much to go through that kind of agony... ," Dobervich says before trailing off. "It was wonderful."

It's not like Dobervich has any reason to doubt the love of Walvatne. He talks to her five times a week when she's living down in Texas, as she does during all but the summer months. He and his brother Randy often get into "Everybody Loves Raymond"-style arguments about which one their mom loves most.

"My brother and other people kind of look at me funny and say, 'You're a mama's boy.' I say, 'You're damn right.' I'm proud of it," Walvatne says.


Still, wouldn't a card suffice? No, Walvatne says.

"This is something I will take with me to the grave. If I'm unable to speak - let's say a horrible accident happens someday - they will know I love my mom. It's right there on my foot," he says of the tattoo.

Longevity was also part of what compelled Shaun Jensen to get his mom tattoo. When the 29-year-old who lives near Seattle had just graduated from high school, his mother, Toni, was going through her second divorce. Shortly after, she sat down with her two sons to come up with a new last name to use.

"It was a big family effort. It took us about a week to figure out," Jensen says. "She wanted something to remind her of what she's been through just in case she thought to get married again."

After tinkering with several different spellings, the trio settled on a last name that reflects her feelings about marriage: Haddanuff. Yes, it's her legal surname.

Jensen digs the name "Haddanuff" so much that it bums him out it won't be passed on to the next generation. So he had it inked on his inner arm. It links to a Superman symbol on the other side of his arm, which reminds him of the strength his mother has provided him.

"Every time I look at it I think about her," he says.

Haddanuff, who lives in Dilworth, cried the first time she saw a picture of Jensen's tattoo. When she listened to a phone message from a reporter calling her to talk about the tattoo, she cried again. When she wrote an e-mail to that reporter about what her sons mean to her, the last sentence was, "Very tearful." So yeah, she likes it.


Not every mother with a tattoo tribute gets the chance to be struck by the gesture.

Johnson, the tattoo parlor owner, estimates that at least half of the mom-related tattoos his shop does are in honor of ones who died. When The Forum asked readers to send in photos of their mom tattoos, the same proportion - about half - were for mothers who've passed away.

Take Fyrn Olson. When the Finley, N.D., native died in 2003, none of her daughters or granddaughters had tattoos. Now they all do.

It started after Olson's death, when granddaughter Kristal Kadrie was considering getting a tattoo.

"I was 19. I thought, 'OK, I should get something with meaning,' " she says.

Olson always sang "You Are My Sunshine" to her children and then to her children's kids. When she died, her family sang it at the funeral. Partial lyrics to the tune are etched onto her gravestone.

Picking up on the imagery, Kadrie had a sun tattooed on her back in memory of her grandmother. Then the idea spread like sunbeams.

Within a couple of years, Kadrie's sister Kilee and mother Susan had sun tats on their feet. Ditto for her aunts Sindy Riedman and Starr Braaten, as well as Starr's daughters, Sarah Braaten and Leah Larson. All told, it's seven suns.


This isn't a family with a pack of Harleys in the garage. The ladies, especially the aunts, made it clear when they were gathered for drinks earlier this month that they were not tattoo people.

"I get a lot of comments on it," Riedman says. "People think it's a stick-on thing."

"I never thought I'd be going to get a tattoo with my daughter," Starr Braaten says.

The multigenerational tats ended up packing an unexpected emotional wallop.

Kilee Kadrie says getting inked helped them deal with Olson's death, embodying their grief. "Having some part of her with us always was important," she says. "We needed that physical visualization of it."

Her sun has given Riedman a chance to tell strangers about her mom. For Sarah Braaten, it's a symbol of how surviving those tough times have made her stronger.

Perhaps most importantly, it's drawn the women together - connecting the family tighter when those ties could have dissolved without its central figures (Fyrn's husband, Elmo, died in 2004).

As for what Fyrn would think?


"She'd love it. She'd probably be getting right in there getting one," Riedman says.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535

Robb Walvatne

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