Angelina Jolie tattoo Know Your Rights

Angelina Jolie's "know your rights" tattoo is variously reported to reference her favorite Clash song and her passion for human rights. (Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

Tattoos have always carried a lot of weight for the initiated. From physically marking rites of passage in early cultures to visually establishing oneself as an outsider in earlier decades in the West, inking the skin has always been a reliable way to tell the world a story.

But as body art has become mainstream, so has the range of expression. Today's celebrities frequently sport skin art that promotes causes near and dear to them — as with Angelina Jolie’s “Know Your Rights” back piece, inspired by her human rights advocacy as a U.N. goodwill ambassador.

Kelly Davidson tattooThe impulse to indelibly mark our most personal experiences — and decorate ourselves with our victories — persists for non-celebrities, too. Ontario’s Kelly Davidson knows it well. A three-time cancer survivor, she beat Hodgkin’s lymphoma after being diagnosed at age 11, and underwent two mastectomies after being diagnosed with breast cancer at age 28.

While breast reconstruction was an option, Davidson had other ideas. Already inked, she decided to fill her chest with fairytale imagery to tell the story of cancer leaving her body. On her chest, she wears a fantastically detailed landscape including a fairy, a forest and butterflies. “It’s my badge of honour and strength,” she told The Toronto Star. “It reminds me every day of the battles that I’ve overcome. I’ve won this war and hopefully I’ve beat it completely.”

In April, Davidson posted a photo of her tattoo (right) to Facebook’s Why We Ink page, a collection of tattoos memorializing loved ones lost to cancer and survivors’ victory tattoos. Davidson’s picture has been “liked” more than 700,000 times and shared nearly 100,000 times, spreading inspiration to others throughout the social network.

Sharing passion for a cause through body art extends to tattoo artists as well. For the last five years, Ink For A Cause has brought hundreds of tattoo artists together for a weekend-long convention in Ventura, Calif., benefiting a charity. This year’s convention, scheduled for September, will benefit the nonprofit Kids Arts, which provides a free, comprehensive arts program for children and teenagers, with classes in visual arts, theater and movement.

So the next time you see a tattoo that strikes you, ask if it holds some special meaning to the wearer. You may just hear a story that reminds you how strong, accomplished and compassionate people can be.

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Davidson photo: Why We Ink/Facebook
Tattoos for a cause: How skin ink has evolved
Human rights, cancer survival, and generosity are just a sampling of the themes that get under many people's skin.