It boiled down to a girl.

In three short months, I’d traveled across the ocean by myself, negotiated an Eastern European capital knowing how to say little more than “thank you” and “bread” (hvala ti and hleb, if you’re curious), fallen for a beautiful young lady, and moved in with her and a great friend for a month in a cozy sublet along the Miljacka River in Sarajevo. There are, I reflected, with my feet up on the porch and a cold beer in my hand, worse ways to spend a season.

So as youthful, relative risks go, it seemed like I was on a hot streak. Why not get my first tattoo?

Katie had a ring of six little birds fluttering around her wrist, ascending to a scripted penning of Neruda and García-Lorca’s single, loaded word: Duende. She planned to add a seventh, and by that time my mind was made up.

A quick Google Maps search sent us halfway across town to the sketchier western section of Sarajevo — which, contrary to general portrayal, isn’t half as bad as your average American city. It still wasn’t pretty by any stretch; even on as cheerfully sunny a day as we had, the starved mouths of long-since gutted warehouses gaped as a stark reminder of the economic realities imparted when a country never fully recovers from a war. Every other storefront of the closest thing Sarajevo had to a strip mall sported boards across their dark interiors, many still pocked with bits of shrapnel from the ’90s. People walked about without much to do, and what little activity was going on lacked the sense of permanence that accompanies steady work.

All of which is to say, we shouldn’t have been surprised when we didn’t find the tattoo parlor.

Dejected, Katie and I boarded the tram (the tram — Sarajevo has one track) on the way home. Take two.

Another search led us to a different shop, Paja Tattoo, that gave off an altogether more comforting vibe. For one, we were reasonably sure it existed. Their website showed fresh activity, churning out pictures of new work on what seemed like a daily basis. Sweetening the deal was its fortunately proximate location, a five-minute walk to the Skenderija market.

Walking into the shop was emblematic of the Bosnian experience: The building wasn’t much, but it was decorated with life and passion. Framed sketches adorned every square inch of white plaster wall. Old curtains and common courtesy divided the waiting area from the studio itself, from which two men emerged. One couldn’t have been older than Katie or myself; the other could’ve been one of our parents.

I heard a grunt and looked up at Paja.
“Bird is dead.” Paja remarked.

The first man, Mesud, began taking down information in fluent English, while the second — Paja himself, as we gradually deduced — nodded impassively. I showed Mesud the two pictures I, for years, had wanted the sketch based off of: a raven in mid-flight. The body of one image was perfect, while the detail on the head of the other was beautiful. Mesud deftly cut the outline and snipped the head from the first one. I heard a grunt and looked up at Paja.

“Bird is dead.” Paja remarked, languidly watching the small piece of paper flutter to the ground.

There wasn’t much to say to that.

Paja traced the outline onto my shoulder, balanced the image in the crook of my elbow, and went about his work. After an initial start, I settled into steady breathing and willed my arm still. The first ten minutes were a pleasant rhythm of small talk punctuated by soft scratches against my skin, until Paja grunted and stopped.

“Eh,” he remarked offhandedly. “Too much blood.”

I whipped my head around and stared at my shoulder. The slightly reddened — but otherwise clean — outline of a raven stared back. I looked up at Paja in confusion.

With a perfectly straight face and a deadpan tone to match, he looked me in the eye. “I get two jokes,” he declared, raising a finger. “That was one.”

Paja was a jowly, middle-aged artist who went about his work with steady and methodical love. His shop was a testament to his way of life; the walls were adorned with memorable sketches and photographs of clients, and the waiting area could have been a living room if not for the mall traffic passing just beyond the window.

Like many others, Paja left Sarajevo as the wars for control of the former Yugoslavia began to escalate. Spending a bit of time in several countries in his years away, Paja iterated his experiences with all sorts of customers.

“Some men very tough about tattoos,” he said, as his deft hand shaded with remarkable precision. “Some happy about it. Some are calm. But some…” he trailed off, a faint smile on his lips. “Some cry, very squirmy. I have one man, come in for little tattoo on arm. He squirm and shake, and finally I ask, ‘Do you want…’” Paja reached for the word, then started as he found it. “‘Anesthetic?’ And man says, ‘Yes! Please!’”

As he was explaining this story, he put down the needle. At the word “please,” this man pulled out a two-foot-long black rubber club from underneath the chair and leaned over me, holding it inches from my face.

“I ask, ‘You still want?’ And he screams, ‘No, no!’” At this, Paja put the club down and let out a rolling laugh, then picked up the needle and started back in.

I could only assume that was joke number two. I was starting to like this guy.

He finished in an hour and a half and refused the tip I tried to give him. “It is for you,” he said simply, speaking volumes as he inspected his work. It felt raw, every bit the open wound a tattoo is before it heals. More importantly, it was there to stay. Katie (whose seventh bird shone brilliantly) and I left the shop, bound for home on the river.