Long before his troubled marriage to Amber Heard, Johnny Depp’s most talked-about relationship was with fellow former teen icon Winona Ryder. So great was Depp’s devotion to his Edward Scissorhands co-star, to whom he was briefly engaged, he had the words ‘Winona Forever’ tattooed on his upper right arm.

Depp and Ryder split in 1993, but the tattoo remains to this day, although Depp infamously had it altered to read ‘Wino Forever’ in reference to his predilection for the alcohol. The tattoo has long been a source of fascination – not least when it was alleged to have led to violence between Depp and Heard in their 2022 court case.

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“It was a classic glance… I knew then”

Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder met in 1989, when he was 26 and she was 18. At the time, Depp was best known for his role on TV series 21 Jump Street and was just breaking through in film, whilst Ryder had risen to fame with the movies Beetlejuice and Heathers.

Depp had already been married once, to musician Lori Anne Allison, from 1983 to 1985. He went on to date actresses Sherilyn Fenn and Jennifer Grey (briefly getting engaged to both), before he and Ryder met at the premiere of her movie Great Balls of Fire.

Depp spoke poetically to Rolling Stone of the first time he made eye contact with Ryder, while she was getting a Coke from a vending machine. “It was a classic glance, like the zoom lenses in West Side Story, and everything else gets foggy… I knew then.” Ryder concurred: “It wasn’t a long moment, but it was suspended.”

“I kept thinking it was going to wash off”

Although the two were not introduced that night, the silent interaction stayed with them, and when they finally met some months later, things quickly got serious. Professionally, the couple worked together on Tim Burton’s 1990 hit Edward Scissorhands; off-camera, Depp proposed to Ryder, and demonstrated his commitment to her with a tattoo.

Nowadays, tattoos are comparatively commonplace and socially acceptable; a 2019 poll indicated that 30% of all Americans have at least one tattoo. Back in 1990, however, body art was associated primarily with bikers, sailors and convicts, and was not widely accepted by society at large (tattooing still wasn’t even legal in some parts of the US).

Depp’s ‘Winona Forever’ tattoo was a surprise to many, including Ryder herself. The actress recalls, “I’d never seen anyone get a tattoo before, so I was pretty squeamish… I sort of was in shock. I kept thinking it was going to wash off or something. I couldn’t believe it was real. I mean, it’s a big thing, because it’s so permanent!”

End of the romance

Depp explained at the time: “there’s been nothing ever throughout my 27 years that’s comparable to the feeling I have with Winona… It’s like this weird, bounding atom or something. You can think something is the real thing, but it’s different when you feel it. The truth is very powerful. Now I know. Believe me, this Winona forever tattoo is not something I took lightly…. Her eyes kill me.”

Ultimately, this intense romance would burn out, and fairly quickly, with Depp and Ryder going their separate ways in 1993 after three years together. Understandably, both parties were reluctant to discuss the matter with the press; a representative of Ryder stated, “they’re young, and they grew apart.” Depp, however, indicated that the intense media scrutiny surrounding the couple negatively impacted their relationship.

Depp told the Los Angeles Times in 1993, “It’s very hard to have a personal life in this town. My relationship with Winona, it was my mistake to be as open as we were, but I thought if we were honest it would destroy that curiosity monster. Instead it fed it, gave people license to feel they were part of it.”

“I don’t regret the tattoo at all”

Nonetheless, as Depp explained in another interview, he had no intention of having the ‘Winona Forever’ tattoo removed or covered up. “These tattoos for me are a journal. As opposed to writing it on a piece of paper, I took the initiative and put it on skin. So I wear my journal.”

The actor continued, “even though we’re not together anymore, it doesn’t take away the honesty of the moment of when I got the tattoo… I don’t regret the tattoo at all, in fact it’s a part of my past, it’s part of my history, and I would definitely keep it.” Notably, Depp then remarked, “I mean I could add things to it, I could subtract, I could make it ‘wino forever,’ for instance. You never know.”

Whether or not Depp was simply joking at that point is hard to say, but this is indeed what became of the tattoo: Depp had it modified to read ‘Wino Forever,’ a tongue-in-cheek change of wording that reflects the actor’s admitted love of alcohol.

“Inside I was completely lost”

The 90s saw Depp move on to a relationship with model Kate Moss and an on-off liaison with actress Ellen Barkin, before he settled down with French singer and actress Vanessa Paradis. Although they never wed, Depp and Paradis were an item from 1998 to 2012, having two children together (Lily-Rose Depp and Jack Depp).

The years that followed saw Ryder date Ryder musician Dave Pirner and actor Matt Damon. In a 2009 interview, Ryder described Depp as her “first real breakup, the first heartbreak,” admitting it contributed to the mental health issues that would derail her career for a time.

Winona Ryder with partner Scott Mackinlay Hahn, 2022 (Credit: Cindy Ord/Getty Images)

Given the Depp break-up came at the height of Ryder’s professional success, the actress reflects “it was really ironic because, like, everybody else just thought I had everything in the world, you know, I had no reason to be depressed, everything was sort of at its peak, but inside I was completely lost.”

In 2011, Ryder began a long term relationship with fashion designer Scott Mackinlay, then in 2016 her career bounced back with TV’s Stranger Things. The actress says she and Mackinlay have no plans to marry, describing herself as a “serial monogamist.” Nor has she ever been tattooed, or undergone cosmetic surgery: “I don’t judge, but I’m just terrified of needles.”

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“I only know him as a…loving, caring guy”

Depp, meanwhile, met Amber Heard on the set of 2011’s The Rum Diary. They became a couple following his split from Paradis, and married in 2015, but the notoriously volatile relationship would end in divorce less than two years later. During 2022’s heavily publicised legal battle between the couple, Heard claimed that Depp once slapped her after she laughed at his ‘Wino Forever’ tattoo.

During their marriage, Depp also got tattooed in Heard’s honour, with ‘Slim’ (his pet name for Heard) written across his knuckles. Depp has since had that tattoo altered not once, but twice: first turning ‘Slim’ into ‘Scum,’ and then turning ‘Scum’ into ‘Scam’ (with a red anarchy symbol A over the U).

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In response to Heard’s abuse allegations against Depp, Ryder told Time, “I can only speak from my own experience, which was wildly different than what is being said. He was never, never that way towards me. Never abusive at all towards me. I only know him as a really good, loving, caring guy who is very, very protective of the people that he loves.”