The relationship between tattoos and travel has been on my mind for quite some time. Do people tend to get body art while on vacation because they’re actually embracing the moment, feel out of character and able to do anything they want, or because they’ve had a few too many margaritas?
I get it; I have a tendency toward impulsiveness. But I’ve also always worried about regret. I think I even had a nightmare once where I’d tattooed “Thug Life” across my stomach in a drunken stupor. (Tupac either would’ve been proud or laughed his ass off at how far from a thug I am.)
My first tattoo was a semi-coiled snake on my left hip that I had spent over three years researching and drawing. I got it about a week after turning 18 — when my abs were still solidly defined and hadn’t known the perils of being a whiskey girl. This was the only tattoo I ever got while I wasn’t traveling, and to this day it represents so much of who I used to be — so innocent, so inexperienced in life, like a baby snake alone in fields of grass yet
My second tattoo best embodies that whimsical desire to permanently mark oneself while on foreign soil. I was 23-years old, and had been living in Buenos Aires and backpacking throughout South America the previous eight months. It was my last week in Argentina and I’d been wanting to get a tattoo that represented my time in the southern hemisphere. One of the guys who lived in our residencia was only 18 and already had sleeves covering both his arms. My Ecuadorian roommate had stated that she would never get a tattoo, but if she did, it would just be a dot to represent the vastness and nothingness of this world. I told her, “If you get a tattoo, I’ll get one, too.” This was the second to the last night of my stay in Buenos Aires. She agreed, and the whole night I racked my brain on how to put all of my experiences into one little tattoo.
Much of the Incan and indigenous cultures in South America believed in the power of four — a perfectly balanced number representative of the cardinal points, elements, sacred animals, and so on. In a haste, I decided to draw a square within a square — a symbol of strength and solidity- and fill in the middle square with purple. This would represent the third eye chakra, allowing me to see clearly and envision life as it should unfold as I returned to the United States. Sounds cool, right? I love what the tattoo stands for, but aesthetically…
I didn’t get another tattoo for another nine or so years. Oh, I definitely thought about it and researched designs and tattoo studios. Maybe I was traumatized by my $8 tattoo that quite a few people teased me about being a permanent club stamp. Instead, I played around with different hair colors — blue, red, pink, orange, maroon, and so on — and a slew of different piercings.
While I had been traveling throughout that nine-year period, I simply decided to abstain from any more ink. And then, I found myself in a situation that I’d never expected myself to be in, something that would make me see permanency and the concept of “forever” in a new light. A serious relationship ended, and I awoke, realizing that nothing was for certain, and that I would not have to die stuck in my hometown after all (a great fear of mine). Soon after, I was on the road with one of my best friends headed north from San Jose, California (my hometown). I had always wanted to explore the northern West Coast, but up until then, I had always driven up and down the lengths of California.
The main purpose of the trip was to explore Portland to see if it was right for me as a new home base, but we also went to Seattle and Vancouver, BC, Canada. One day, my friend and I were walking around SE Hawthorne, exploring the cute, quirky, Haight-Ashbury-ish feel of the neighborhood. We had been talking tattoos on the whole drive up. We had just eaten brunch at Bread and Ink Cafe and after a couple of blocks I looked up to the left and noticed a Victorian-style building. One the main door, there was a sign that read “Martian Arts Tattoos.” The name intrigued me, and my friend agreed to go in.
From the sound of the bells on the door, to the creak of the stairs, to the purple walls adorned with Buddhist kitsch and funky, colorful paintings, I knew that this was the place. The owners, Joanne and Jerry Martian, greeted us with warm vibes and smiles as the sound of buzzing needles permeated my being. I started to get excited. I knew exactly what I wanted; I had been pondering over flowers and a simple, yet powerful, word for years. As I looked through Joanne’s portfolio, I fell in love with her mastery of precision, her impeccable line work, and range of creativity. “Do you have any openings today?” I asked, debit card burning in my wallet.
A couple of hours later, drawings were done, locations decided upon, and I was in the much-estranged tattoo chair once again. I had taken a Vicodin to numb the pain, and my words sluggishly rolled off my tongue as I talked to Joanne about relationships, writing, art, travel, and so much more. The time slipped away like a warped Salvador clock ticking erratically. Soon, I would look in the mirror and see the most beautiful tattoo that represented my life as it was- in full bloom.
And this, no one could ever take away. I was enduring a major transformation in life, and this ink served to remind me of the interconnectedness of life. Everything comes full circle; with the bad always comes the good. It is a symbol of constantly striving to reach my potential, to love myself, and to never compromise who I am or what I believe for another human being.
Since I was so happy with Joanne’s artwork, I asked her if I could get another tattoo that same night. This one had been churning in my thoughts for about eight years. The only thing that had stopped me (aside from not knowing a competent artist), was that I already had my crappy box tattoo on the inside of my right wrist. Here was the idea: I am a writer. I love, yearn, bleed, and weep words. The purpose for my presence on this earth is to write, to spread awareness and knowledge, and help others in any way possible. Therefore, my right hand was meant to write. By tattooing “escribir” on my inner wrist, I made a promise to myself that I would never stray from writing. If there ever is a day where feel like quitting (and honestly, there are), I look down at my wrist and resolve myself to cease the foolishness. It is also a nod to my infatuation with the Spanish language and Latin American culture.
Not three months later, I found myself in Malaysian Borneo — Kuching, Sarawak, to be exact. I had just finished volunteer teaching English in Chupei, Taiwan, and had headed out to Malaysia to help Cyle O’Donnell film a documentary of Borneo. I had been dreaming about volunteering with orangutans in Borneo since I was a teenager — or possibly a preteen. While this was not the exact experience I’d imagined, it was amazing to me how serendipitous life could be. It was almost like my farthest-flung dreams were coming true without much effort. Maybe it was just the culmination of all my hard work that year coming to fruition. All I knew is that I didn’t think I’d ever actually step foot in Borneo, and there I was.
The day we arrived in Kuching, we set our bags down in the hostel room, starved, and headed downstairs to grab a bite to eat. Cyle and I ran into the hostel’s front-desk attendant, and I noticed his tattoos right away. He had a sweet tribal throat piece, which signified having triumphed an extremely challenging moment in life, as well as tribal flowers on both shoulders. These represented the transition from boyhood into manhood. Humbly, he thanked me. I asked him who had done his art, and he said that there was a shop just across the street called Borneo Headhunter Tattoo and Piercing Studio. Our host’s friend Ernesto had done his tattoos there. I wouldn’t realize until I walked into the shop that Ernesto Kalum was a world-renowned tattoo artist who had traveled the world providing people — “average” tattoo enthusiasts and celebrities alike — with gorgeous Iban tribal ink. I was floored.
There was no way I was leaving Borneo without a tattoo, and, doubtlessly, I had found the place. Everything about Borneo Headhunters impressed me — the studio’s artwork and energy, Ernesto’s portfolio, and especially his humility. I decided that I wanted an owl tattoo on my upper back, and he immediately got to sketching. While his first version wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, I went back to the hostel and scoured the internet for designs that were more my style.
Not two hours later, I was laying on the floor in the back of the studio. On a bamboo mat, Ernesto and Robin — another tattoo artist working there — I was being prepped for the tattoo. What was different about this tattoo was that it would be my first time going under a bamboo stick rather than a mechanized needle. My nerves were getting the best of me. How much more would this hurt than a regular tattoo? Well, a hell of a lot more. Robin stretched the skin on my back while Ernesto went to work for over three hours. Tap, tap, tap. Tap, tap, tap. Ok, Cristina, remember to breathe, I told myself. I inhaled as much oxygen as my lungs could hold, and the pain continued. I had to take a break about 3/4 of the way through. This was not for amateurs. I asked Ernesto how much longer it would take to finish. He said all was done except for the head. An owl without a head wouldn’t be so bad, would it? I contemplated. No, it had to be finished.
About half an hour to 45 minutes of pain, questioning what the hell I was doing, deciding never to bear children, swearing to myself never to any old-school method tattoos ever again, and just plain swearing, I was done. Skin freshly swollen, the results were breathtaking. Given the traditional technique, which offered a large margin for error, the lines were crisp and precise. I’d endured the process and would forever have something to remind me of the tenacity and bravery I possessed- not just for getting this tattoo, but also for so much more.
Afterwards, Ernesto and Robin invited me to hang out while they played guitar, smoked cigarettes, and joked around with each other. Still in pain, I reveled in how getting a tattoo brings you closer to the artist. There’s just something about the transformation, and their ability to bring you to that next level, that is quite remarkable. I listened in awe as they sang free-style and strummed the chords of their guitars effortlessly. I laughed with them, feeling so fortunate to be having such an incredible experience with these talented individuals. We were from opposite sides of the globe, but in that moment, I felt that they were like family who I just had never met before.
All in all, I feel pretty damn lucky with all of the experiences I have had with the tattoos that I’ve gotten, and most have been while on the road. There is an inexplicable, yet undeniable relationship between the transformation that occurs while traveling and being tattooed. One emerges a different person after each experience, hopefully achieving a higher sense of oneself. Although the changes that occur while wandering the globe are mostly internal, perhaps tattoos are an external revelation of that change. They are unfaltering souvenirs, constant reminders of where we have been and who we have become with time and experience. In this sense, tattoos and travel are absolutely complementary; they are a sensible fusion for those who roam this earth, searching for self-discovery and interminable development.
This article originally appeared on Chronicles of a Travel Addict and is republished here with permission.