How do you distill your life story down into something that can be explained in a nutshell, in a foreign language? I don’t know, but that is just what we were instructed to do by our favorite Marquesan Tattoo artist.
Tattoos are a significant part of the Marquesan culture. All the locals have tattoos, men and women alike; many people even have face tattoos. These tattoos are beautiful, generally forming a major image using various smaller Marquesan symbols. You don’t get to choose your design; instead, you describe your life to the tattoo artist and he designs your tattoo based upon the story you describe. Marquesans can read the symbols in your tattoo like a story. For this reason, it is taboo to copy another person’s tattoo. You cannot live another person’s life, and therefore, you couldn’t possibly have the same tattoo.
Likewise, tattoos are a significant part of sailing culture. Sailors have a long list of symbols they tattoo on their bodies once they have accomplished various sailing feats. For example, you can tattoo a sea turtle standing on his hind legs once you have crossed the equator or the international date line. Just like the Marquesans, sailors can read the symbols identified for various sailing feats and know another person’s sailing history.
The tattoo artist we have chosen has been recommended by a number of people as the best in the Marquesas. He is in his twenties or early thirties and is, himself, covered in tattoos. Intricate Marquesan symbols are tattooed even in his hairline and around his ears. He has long black hair, pulled neatly in a ponytail. Like everyone, he wears flip-flops and shorts. For the third morning in a row, we woke early with the tattoo as the intended task of the day. This time, Moana was waiting for us, and we had our life stories written in French in hand.
Neither Andrew nor I have ever gotten a tattoo in the past. It seems with the confluence of our sailing experience and our exploration of the Marquesas, this is as sensible of a time as any to make the leap. Our tattoo artist takes us behind a curtain made of brightly colored island fabric. There is a bench with a red cushion and a red pillow. A poster depicting cheerful Marquesan Tikis hangs on the wall. Various colors of ink is stored in a shelf, just below boxes of freshly wrapped and sealed needles. A window without glass is open to a lush, tropical view just outside.
I start. I give Moana my life story, he reads it, and then instructs me to take a seat on his work bench/bed. He asks me on what part of my body I would like my tattoo, and I tell him I’m not sure. He suggests the ankle, but that is not my preference as it would show beneath skirts at work. So, I suggest my shoulder. He draws a beautiful design using markers, and I like the symbols he chooses very much.
When I look in the mirror, though, it just doesn’t strike my fancy. It isn’t me, but I can’t put my finger on why. Andrew takes pictures of me, and when I look at the camera screen I can see it in my eyes that I’m not that into this tattoo thing after all. Maybe it’s the location of the tattoo? Maybe I don’t like the shoulder? I don’t know.
Andrew is next, and again, the tattoo artist reads Andrew’s story and asks Andrew where he wants his tattoo. Andrew wants a band around his leg. The tattoo artist starts sketching and draws a symbol for Andrew’s beloved mountains, growing his garden, his friends and family, his marriage, the sailing trip to the Marquesas, and the symbol for “the explorer”. As soon as I see Andrew’s tattoo, I love it. I think it looks great on him, and the symbols are spot on. Andrew is ready to pull the trigger. I tell him he can go first, and he hops up on the bench.
In the meantime, our friends hail us on the VHF radio and they are ready to come ashore. This day not to be without dinghy drama, I leave Andrew to head out to Sonrisa to pick them up. Back at the quay, all by myself, I look down at Grin with trepidation. “What crazy trick are you going to try today, Grin?” It is low tide again, so I have to make the long jump. The motor is still not quite right. Andrew tried to describe the push this, shove that, and hold this down strategy for starting the motor, but when I try to jerry-rig the thing by myself I can’t quite figure it out. I would rather row then break the motor, so I break out the oar.
I think as I paddle: What if I don’t like my tattoo? Isn’t it a little unbalanced? Should I have it wrap a little more to the back of my shoulder? The designs on my tattoo are so small and delicate, what if over time they smoosh into one big blob? On the other hand, I am not likely to be in the Marquesas again for the rest of my life. If I am going to get a tattoo, I like the idea of this tattoo. My mind raises arguments back and forth on the subject as if it is performing both pro and con in a debate competition.
I can see Crystal standing on deck, looking green, and wanting to escape. Twenty minutes later, I arrive at the boat. “I don’t like it.” Crystal declares when I am still ten feet away. I sigh. My inner-decision maker remains silent, letting the debate rage on: “Crystal doesn’t like it. People won’t like it. They will think you are impulsive. // Yeah, some people won’t like it, other people will. But what does it matter what other people like or don’t like. What do you like? // Your mom won’t like it. // Seriously, you are a wiener. Do you like it? // I don't know. // Well why don't you know? You are ridiculous for not knowing.”
Kevin decides he would rather get the motor started than row all the way back in, so I explain the step by step instructions Andrew provided to me. Kevin makes his attempt, too, but can’t figure it out. The motor is stuck in forward, and we can’t get it to shift to neutral. Just about the same time that Crystal is half in and half out of the dinghy, Kevin decides to try to start the motor even though it is stuck in forward gear. He pulls the rope and the motor roars to life. Grin rears up, pointing his bow to the sky and takes off like he’s in the Kentucky Derby. Crystal leans backwards, and luckily falls toward Sonrisa. Crystal grabs at Sonrisa’s lifelines, I grab her arm, and somehow Crystal is lofted onto Sonrisa’s deck.
Seriously, Grin. This is getting out of hand.
The engine cuts out, and Kevin turns Grin back toward Sonrisa. As he paddles our way, I declare my refusal to cooperate with any further attempt to turn on the motor. I am not going to force my friends to row if they don’t want to, but we are not turning that damn engine on again. They are good sports, though, and they help me row back to shore.
When we check on Andrew, he is working hard to stave off misery. We try to tell him about our adventure with Grin, but he couldn’t hear us through his tattoo induced pain-fog. The outline of his tattoo was complete, but now Moana was filling in the details. The buzz of the ink needle vibrated throughout the room, like the sound the dentist’s drill makes. When we check on Andrew again, his tattoo is finished. He pays his $150.00, and looks a little woozy. Moana tells me to return after lunch for my tattoo. Insert Marge-Simpson-Grumble here.
We go outside for some fresh air, and Andrew realizes he hasn’t eaten for hours. He begs me to buy him an ice-cream, and of course I do, but he doesn’t seem to enjoy it. He lays down in the grass, trying not to pass out. This is the same guy who likes to have his cavities drilled without Novocain. “I should have gotten Tweety Bird on my ankle,” Andrew says in his misery. A friendly stray dog comes over to see if Andrew is ok. I shoo her away, but she takes only a few steps away then looks back. She stands guard five feet away or so.
I pour Andrew into Grin and take up the oar. I explain Grin’s latest mischief and proclaim I will row back to Sonrisa. We zig and zag ever so slowly in the tropical afternoon heat. Once we get Andrew some lunch, he will be much better. Osmond the Comfort Owl sees us approaching and gears up to tackle a major project. I get Andrew aboard, and Osmond takes over while I make lunch. By the time I return on deck, Osmond has Andrew smiling again. Osmond is excited because the Tiki eyes resemble his likeness. He does consider himself a protector, so that all makes sense. He's just glad he makes a cameo on Andrew's tattoo.
We return to shore with lunch for our friends and I stop in to the tattoo office to tell Moana I remain uncertain. He is kind, and he understands. He asks when we are leaving Nuku Hiva, and we tell him the day after next. He offers to meet with me the next morning for another round of design. He tells me to think overnight where to put the tattoo and to be certain in the morning. A pit continues to weigh heavy in my stomach because I know certainty will be difficult to attain. “Andrew’s tattoo is awesome, don’t you want to be awesome like Andrew? // Yeah, but your design is different. We haven’t liked the ladies tattoos we have seen around town nearly as much as we like the ones the guys get. // Maybe we should get a chunkier band like Andrew. // I don’t want a tattoo like a dude. // Yeah, but you aren’t exactly the most feminine gal in the world. Maybe a chunkier tattoo would be better for you. // That wasn’t very nice. I’m feminine! // No you aren’t. // That hurt my feelings. // Andrew got a symbol front and center that represents your marriage. Are you going to make him have a symbol of your marriage all alone? Isn’t that sort of ironic?….” At this point I am becoming really irritated with myself and not a little concerned that I am schizophrenic.
I admire people with tattoos. They know themselves. They are certain. They know what symbol or art or drawing they are interested in having on their body for the rest of their lives. They are not afraid of mistakes. I don’t think they are impulsive, they are solid and confident individuals. How do you decipher between the self-criticism that should not rule your life and your true inner motivation? This question sparks Nuku Hiva Meltdown #3.
Back at the boat that evening, I retreat to my journal to hash this out. In the end, I determine that I’m not willing to give up the length of time I want to make a decision about a particular design and/or placement on my body. I don’t know if I’m a tattoo person, but just getting one is probably not the best way to find out. In any case, Andrew walked away with a tattoo that reflects his personal history, and it's nice. It wraps around his leg, about three inches above his knee.
The above symbol represents Andrew's birth and childhood in the mountains of Utah, and his love for growing his garden. The two little people on the left represent Andrew's relationship with family and friends.
This symbol represents Andrew's marriage. (Now he really can't divorce me, he has a tattoo permanently memorializing my presence in his life.)
The symbol on the left stands for "explorer"/scientist and the symbol on the right is the Marquesan cross.
This group of symbols represents the voyage to the Marquesas. On the far left is a sailboat, not a a traditional symbol, but awesome nonetheless. The center is a half compass, signifying that the journey is not complete. The eyes above the compass are Tiki eyes looking down upon Andrew to protect him. To the right are symbols describing the crossing of the Pacific.