Tattoos and Travel

The relationship between tattoos and travel has been on my mind for quite sometime. 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? (Come on, I know a good percentage of people who got tribal tattoos, or dolphin/butterfly tramp stamps during their one week stay in Hawaii, Mexico, or [insert another tropical location].)

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 eighteen- 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 to be discovered.

Frolicking in the waves in Cahuita, Costa Rica. You can barely see my little snake tattoo- but alas, there it is!

Frolicking in the waves in Cahuita, Costa Rica. You can barely see my little snake tattoo- but alas, there it is!

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 eighteen and already had sleeves on both of 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…

In retrospect, what the fuck was I thinking?

Getting my second tattoo in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In retrospect, what the fuck was I thinking?

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 USD 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.

Enjoying a caipirinha with friends in Belo Horizonte. I miss my lip piercing!

Enjoying a caipirinha with friends in Belo Horizonte. I miss my lip piercing!

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 for 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.

The uber-talented Martians and me at their Martian Arts Studio in Portland, OR, USA

The uber-talented Martians and me at their Martian Arts Studio in Portland, OR, USA

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.

I couldn't have been- and still couldn't be- happier with the way that my flower mandala came out. I've gotten compliments all over the world for this piece, thanks to Joanne.

I couldn’t have been- and still couldn’t be- happier with the way that my flower mandala came out. I’ve gotten compliments all over the world for this piece, thanks to Joanne.

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.

“Escribir” means “to write” in Spanish. It’s easy to tell good art from bad, no?

Not three months later, I found myself in Malaysian Borneo- Kuching, Sarawak, to be exact. I had just finished volunteering teaching English in Chupei, Taiwan, and decided to head out to Malaysia when I saw how cheap the flights were. I had been dreaming about volunteering with orangutans in Borneo since I was a teenager-or possibly a preteen. 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 I arrived in Kuching, I set my bags down in the hostel room, starved, and headed downstairs to grab a bite to eat. 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. My 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.

Can you say

Can you say “badass?!” Notice the skulls in the case? Yeah, Ibans weren’t called “head hunters” for no reason.

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.

Robin getting ready for my tattoo and the mat where I'd earn my owl.

Robin getting ready for my tattoo and the mat where I’d earn my owl.

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.

The final results of my traditional Iban owl tattoo, by Ernesto Kalum.

The fresh, final results of my traditional Iban owl tattoo, by Ernesto Kalum.

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’d just so happened to never have met beforehand.

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.

What do you think? Have you gotten tattoos while on the road, and what have your experiences been? 

15 thoughts on “Tattoos and Travel

  1. adrianstraveltales says:

    Snap! You are a stronger person than I. I have two baby tattoos, both took less than 40 minutes to complete and are on my feet. I bow down to you, being able to be under the needle for that long multiple times. I was told that bamboo tattoos hurt less but I agree.. They hurt the same amount. I went about 7 years between my 1st and 2nd. Probably be another 7 before another. But they both represent my time spent abroad. An Australian flag for the year I spent as an exchange student in HS and a bamboo tattoo to represent my 1+ spent living in Asia. I have 5 more continents and not many places left on my feet. OOps? haha!


    • Cristina Luisa says:

      Hey Adrian! How are you? Maybe the bamboo hurt so much because the tattoo is along my spine. All I know is, I usually handle pain rather well, but this was excruciating! Wow, I can’t imagine waiting seven years for my next tattoo! I love that both of yours represent your travels as well. As you travel to more continents, maybe you’ll just have to move up to your legs! 😀


  2. dawnkealing says:

    I like a lot of your tattoos and the thought of getting tattoos around the world but I don’t think I could do it. :O I work full time at a tattoo shop that my husband is the owner and main artist of, I don’t think I could take the step to trusting someone else to tattoo me. As well, I like to be adventurous while traveling and getting tattooed and taking care of it would be very tough while abroad. Last but not least .. I am extremely anal about sanitation, especially since I work at a tattoo shop, I would be very very picky. However, I am in the process of designing a travel leg sleeve for myself but it will all be done at my husbands tattoo shop, hehe. 🙂


    • Cristina Luisa says:

      Hey Dawn! Thanks for the comment. I can totally understand where you’re coming from for many reasons. The first tattoo I got abroad, I just walked into a random tattoo shop without doing any research. I asked them if they used clean needles, they said yes, and wore gloves, so I figured it was legit. Then again, I was 23 and much more carefree then. I have since found an artist in Portland whom I adore and have gotten three tattoos from her. (She’s also become one of my good friends!) It is risky getting a tattoo abroad when you know you have someone (your husband) you trust to do an excellent job. After all, your husband has to look at you everyday and most other tattoo artists will never see you again! Haha. I’m eager to see what your leg sleeve will look like! That’s exciting!


    • Cristina Luisa says:

      Hey Mia! Nope, unfortunately I didn’t get a tattoo in Taipei. The general rule is about 2 weeks without going into the water for an extended period of time. Do you already have tattoos? I got a tattoo in Borneo and went into the river a few days later, but I already had a sense of how long my tattoos took to heal. I would consult the tattoo artist you’re looking to work with and ask her/his advice. Be sure to include the activities you will be doing afterward. I hope this helps. I love tattoos, but can’t offer the advice a professional artist can!


  3. Boots says:

    I really liked this piece! Well written and totally relatable. I’ve got that tattoo travel itch (not the bad kind) as well and have recently gotten inked in Thailand and Burma. Did quite a bit of research on both artists beforehand (impulsive, but responsibly so) and am extremely happy with the results. I’d LOVE to get a bamboo needle piece as well. The owl is really nice with great line work. And your mandala is beautiful.


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