Shamila Montgomery had her husband's name tattooed on her body. Twice.
The first was on her lower back, inked into her skin after they married in 2004.
They divorced in 2012.
Then, they reconciled, and remarried in 2013, which she marked with a tattoo on her ankle.
The reconciliation was temporary. The tattoo was not.
Both tattoos are now covered by others. The first has been transformed into a heart wrapped in vines; the second is a blue rose. The original tattoos, she says, were reminders "of the marriage and bad memories."
Montgomery's advice to anyone who wants to get the name of his or her (current) significant other permanently etched into their skin? "Don't do it," she says with a huge laugh. "To each his own, but I would not do it again."
"My marriage means the world to me; my wedding date means the world to me," she says. "When I met Nich, I knew he was my soul mate and I never doubted it. The only thing I really doubted was whether I want a tattoo."
"Love" tattoos, especially those with names or dates, make the skin crawl on some Chattanooga tattoo artists. Others, though, embrace them as a challenge, a chance to make something unique and meaningful only to the person getting the tattoo.
All tattoo artists, however, say you should think before you ink.
"Tattoos are permanent and more painful to cover or remove than the original tattoo," says Brandy Burgans, who covered both of Montgomery's tattoos. "Things may seem great, but once you have a permanent imprint on your body of your partner's name or nickname, the odds of your relationship remaining successful plummet. I think statistics could even back that statement.
"It's just generally not a good idea to have someone else's name tattooed on you unless it is a sibling, parent or child," she says.
Montgomery, for instance, still has tattoos with the name of her daughter, Keorra, and her grandmother, Callie Mae, a breast cancer survivor.
Artists say there are ways to design a tattoo to express someone's love in a way that doesn't include a name as part of the image.
Nathan Dietsch — just call him Dietsch, pronounced "deech" — chats with every customer who comes into Dietschvision, his shop in Hixson. "I want to know how all my customers click," he says.
That conversation is especially important if a love tattoo is involved, he adds.
"We want to know the background on the two people getting the tattoos done. How long they've been together; if they haven't been together very long. I don't care if I have to talk for half a day," says Dietsch.
"The possibilities are endless as long as you take the time to sit down and get to know the people that you're permanently marking."
Rather than simply drawing hearts or red roses with each other's names in them, which he finds pretty boring, he wants to create tattoos with personal significance. If, for instance, the man is a mechanic and the woman loves to bake (or vice versa), he might suggest, "Let's twist a wrench this way and let's twist a spatula this way so it makes a heart and we'll put your names in it so both those things connect.
Bobby Tinker, owner of Black Hand Tattoo in Red Bank, agrees that name-free tattoos are the best choice, but in general, he doesn't like to do love tattoos and, in most cases, won't.
"They're going to come back and want to cover it up, and we do tattoos to last, so we don't want to cover up our own work," he explains.
Couples who want matching tattoos without names in them may slide under the wire. "We don't frown upon that as much," Tinker says. "That's a little more symbolic."
With nameless tattoos, if the relationship falls apart, the couple "can at least lie to themselves" and insist that the tattoo is not a testament to their undying love, he says, laughing.
Burgans takes a similar tack.
"If I am asked to do a tattoo that is representative of a significant other and/or a romantic relationship, I encourage the client to let me design an image that leaves out names, or any text, really," she says. "The tattoo is for them, not the general public. If they know what it means, that should be enough. Also, if things go south, they can alter the meaning."
Early in her career, when Burgans was an apprentice in tattooing and turning down a client was verboten, "I did several names of significant others on clients when I wasn't entirely sure that they would even be together by the end of the week," she says.
While Dietsch says love tattoos account for about 25 percent of his business, Tinker and Burgans say they are seeing fewer people wanting them.
Burgans says she can't think of a romantic or love tattoo she's done in the past year. Tinker used to have customers asking for them once or twice a week, he says. These days, it's "every five or six months."
Then there are those whose love tattoo is more optimistic than realistic.
"I've had several dudes come in who don't even have that girl and they get it and I'm like, 'What if this doesn't get the girl?'" says Dietsch. "And they say, 'I don't care; I'm in love with her. I'm willing to wear this for the rest of my life.'
"Love's a powerful thing and I respect that."
Forever and Ever Oh My
Tattoo artists have endless stories about customers and their love tattoos.
» There's the guy who had a tattoo of his ex-wife's name, got it covered when that marriage went sour, came back to have his new wife's name tattooed on him, then — you know what's coming — had to get that name covered, too, when that marriage tanked.
» There's the woman who came in the day before Valentine's Day, all pushy and obnoxious, wanting to get a name covered that was tattooed way down low on her back. Because she was so nasty, she was turned away. After she stormed out, the artists figured out what was going on: She was trying to get her ex's name covered because she was going to spend Valentine's Day with a new guy who didn't know she had someone else's name permanently inked on her body.
» But there are sweet ones, too. Like the 82-year-old woman whose husband had passed away, and in the months after, she and a high school friend had reconnected. He told her that he'd always had a crush on her, but they both were dating — and later married — their high school beaus. "He said, 'One day you'll have my heart,'" recalls Matt Reynolds at Dietschvision. So she got a tiny heart tattooed on her backside. "It was the cutest thing ever," Reynolds says.