When I was six or so, anytime someone would ask what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would firmly respond, “I want to be a woman in a red dress.” My reply had nothing to do with the garment itself — it instead had everything to do with what the dress represented.
To younger me, a woman draped in a ruby gown or crimson frock was bold and fearless. In the movies, she spoke her mind, firing off a sharp wit and biting smarts. She knew what she wanted and she went after it, calculated and confident. She was a heretic to my Southern Baptist upbringing and I loved her.
Over time, that woman began to take shape, materializing as a flesh-and-blood example of womanhood from a once blurry caricature of femininity. She was Dolly Parton. While sans red dress, preferring attire with a few more rhinestones, she revealed herself as a model guide through my formative years, showing me the person I desperately wanted to be.
She taught me a lot about myself throughout my adolescence, and when I got Dolly’s portrait tattooed on my forearm, I was no longer in search of that woman in the red dress. I was instead on a mission to be myself, completely and unapologetically, because that’s what Dolly would do. She sticks with me still, continuing to inform the person I am on my way to becoming.
Those who get tattoos of Dolly Parton are a faithful breed, but their devotion — more often than not — goes beyond a love of her music. The inspiration for these tattoos have more to do with who the legend is and everything she represents: authenticity, originality, fearlessness and, above all, kindness.
For Tennessee-native Fletcher “Knoxville” Burkhardt, his own Dolly tattoo acts as a reminder. “For like nine years, I traveled for a living,” he explained, his forearm brandishing the likeness of the songbird, a black-and-gray portrait of Dolly looking over her shoulder into the distance.
For work, he toured with artists and did hair, and was a sales rep at a tobacco company for a time. No matter where his job took him, his roots remained firmly planted, similar to the way the icon has lived her own life.
“I just think that no matter how big Dolly’s gotten, or what she’s done, she’s never forgotten her roots,” he said, adding that his tattoo acts as a memento. “It’s kind of like a reminder of like, don’t forget where you come from, love people no matter what, even if you have a difference of opinion just constantly love. I think that the world needs more of that.”
His other forearm sports a colorful rendering of Jolene, the husband-stealing antagonist of one of Parton’s most classic works. “Jolene,” he explained, was one of the first Dolly songs that truly struck him. “I like the storytelling aspect,” he shared, “so I wanted that story to exist with me.”
The depiction of Jolene boasts emerald jewelry for her “eyes of emerald green” as the character’s auburn hair flows across his arm. “My entire arm has like her hair flowing with animals in it,” Burkhardt said, detailing the rat, bee, pony, pig and hawk images entangled in the locks. “As a licensed hairstylist, rather than getting a pair of scissors and straight razor, I got the animals because they’re all hair puns — rat’s nest, beehive, ponytail, pig tail and mohawk.”
For over a decade, Dolly and Jolene have been with Burkhardt, one informing his path forward, the other a sweet memory of the power of a story.
While not without the same deep love for the icon, LeAnn Mueller, an Austin and Los Angeles based photographer, made the decision to get her Dolly tattoo seemingly on a whim. “I was drunk and went for it,” she explained of the single needle portrait of the icon, with “I will always love you” scrawled in a fluid font underneath.
When asked the reasoning for the tattoo’s placement, she simply responded, “I had the space.” The reply was natural, self-assured and Dolly-esque in nature.
With thoughts of the singer come fond memories for Mueller. “Her music reminds me of my childhood, being with friends, good times and family,” she shared. Accompanying Dolly on her arm is another star. “I also have Burt Reynolds’ Playgirl centerfold tattooed next to her,” she explained, her ink a tribute of sorts to the 1982 musical comedy the two celebrities starred in together. “Best Little Whorehouse [in Texas] is the greatest movie ever.”
Dolly was not Marce Redford’s only celebrity tattoo, either. “I have a lot of tattoos,” the Boston, Massachusetts native explained, “and that sleeve started with a portrait of Janis Joplin.”
They were going for a “Woodstock-y thing” on their thigh, they explained. “But then I didn’t feel any real draw to anyone other than Janis in that genre,” they said, and Dolly seemed a natural fit alongside the other powerhouse vocalist.
“Every time I see it, it just makes me happy,” they said of their ink, which was brought to life by artist Luke Palan of Luke Palan Tattoo in Washougal, Washington.
Redford was first introduced to Dolly by way of the Disney Channel show, Hannah Montana. “That’s when I went on a deep dive with Dolly Parton,” they explained, having been drawn to her unapologetic way of simply being.
Dolly has not yet been sainted in New England the way she has been across the Southern region, but for Redford that didn’t matter. “I would say she’s pretty iconic amongst the queer community,” they said, “but everybody who’s my age is kind of like, ‘Who is that?’”
Even still, Redford describes getting their Dolly tattoo as a “no brainer,” just as their Janis ink had been. “She’s consistently who she is,” Redford explained. “She’s always doing something positive. What’s not to like, you know?”
It was Dolly’s spirit that first captivated Austin, Texas-based tattoo artist Amy Ross, as well. “I was always a little bit rebellious,” Ross explained. “When I was 15, I started like this three-piece punk rock band, and we played shows and tried to tear stuff up and just create chaos and Dolly Parton was not much a part of that scene.”
But that didn’t stop her from getting a full color portrait of the singer as one of her firsts. “I think she's very much punk rock,” Ross continued, “even if it’s not aesthetically, and so that played a big part of getting her tattooed on me.
“I think she means so much more to me because she isn’t just a songwriter, she came from so little and has never stopped pushing boundaries, or speaking her mind,” she added. “She is a symbol of how being yourself is something to be proud of.”
As an artist today, currently working out of Companion Tattoo in Austin, Ross has gone on to make other peoples’ Dolly tattoos a reality. “I know I have done at least 10 portraits, but there are also the many ‘Dolly’ signatures, and various nods to her in other ways,” she described, often approaching these works with an American traditional or neo-traditional tattoo style. “I want my tattoos of her to last a lifetime, so incorporating bold lines and bright colors not only make a tattoo last, but fit Dolly herself, bright and bold.”
It’s impossible for Ross to pick a favorite Dolly tattoo she’s done, but appreciates the more off-kilter takes on the icon. “I like the ones where we do a little bit of a play on it,” she explained, preferring to ditch the stock photos for re-imaginings tinged in the unusual, like a Roller Disco Dolly or a blond-bouffanted possum, dubbed Dolly Possum.
For those of us who have committed to a Dolly tattoo, a needle and some ink wasn’t necessary for the singer to be tattooed onto our lives. She would be with us today had we not gone through the annoying pain and hours of sitting still. She resides in our hearts as a daily reminder of home, beloved memories, how far we’ve come or where we want to go.
Birmingham, Alabama-native Alli Patton is a journalist with several years of experience writing for various publications around the world. She is a lover of music and the written word and finds great joy in combining the two. You can find her scribblings on country, rock and everything in between at American Songwriter, Holler and The Independent.