Sean Jeffries never thought he would feel so strongly about something that he would permanently mark his body with a tattoo. But that was before he and a handful of friends were trapped in a city that spiraled into chaos following Hurricane Katrina.
Two weeks after being rescued by a caravan of buses led by the National Guard, he and two friends got small matching hurricane symbol tattoos in various shades of blue.
"We went through a lot," said Jeffries, a 38-year-old banker whose tattoo is on the upper portion of his right arm. "I'll probably never get another tattoo, but this one means something to me. I got it because it has meaning behind it."
Many survivors whose souls were scarred by Katrina are having images of hurricane swirls, crumbling buildings, names of the dead or broken hearts gushing floodwater indelibly etched into their skin.
"Katrina has moved people to do this more than anything else I've ever seen," said tattoo artist Jay Lyons, manager of Electric Ladyland Tattoos. "We're doing fathers and daughters together, older folks together. It's a lot of people who would have under any other circumstances not come in here."
Tattoo artists citywide say nearly a year after the hurricane that killed more than 1,577 Louisiana residents, as many as half of tattoo customers want storm-related images.
"It's kind of morbid, really, but I guess people are having strong emotions about what happened and they don't know how else to say it," said Annette LaRue, the owner of Electric Ladyland Tattoos.
Jim Hand, a 58-year-old retired postal worker, had much of his lower left leg covered with a large fleur-de-lis. An eery, dark skull protrudes from the stylized lily that is the city's symbol reflecting its French origins.
The skull represents "something taking it over," he said. "Like pirates."
Lyons' shop has a book of fleur-de-lis images, including one engulfed in flames with banners that read: "Through Hell or High Water" and "NOLA Forever."
"We used to get one, maybe two requests a week, now it's one or two a day," Lyons said of the fleurs-de-lis, which since Katrina are requested by themselves or incorporated in larger storm-themed images.
Travis Diebolt of Crescent City Tattoo Co. said his clients have asked for tattoos of the city skyline, the boot-shaped state of Louisiana and banners listing names of victims.
And at Art Accent French Quarter Tattoo parlor, Ray Nazworth says he has etched cracked and crumbling bricks and snapped tree limbs into clients' skin.
Lyons believes the tattoos are a kind of therapy for Katrina survivors.
"A big part of their lives has been lopped off," he said. "This is a way to reclaim that and say, 'I'm proud of who I am, where I'm from, that I'm here."'
Andrea Garland and her husband, Jeffrey Holmes, say their matching "RIP Lower 9" tattoos are tributes to the Lower Ninth Ward residents who lost their lives and homes when the city's levee system failed, inundating the neighborhood with floodwater. "RIP" stands for "Rest In Peace," an inscription found on gravestones.
"Just because we were lucky doesn't mean it doesn't affect us," said Garland, whose Upper Ninth Ward home got about 3 feet (one meter) of floodwater compared to several times that much in homes in many parts of the city.
"This is an event that's never going to leave us," she said. "It's something that's dramatically affected and changed our lives forever."
For Jeffries' friend Tim Lawrence, placement of his storm symbol tattoo was just as important as the image itself. The 31-year-old, an assistant manager at a French Quarter hotel, got his on the back of his neck — his way of putting the storm behind him.
"I'll always have a hurricane at my back," he said. "I never want to have one in front of me again."