Why Do We Get Travel Tattoos?

Maggie Kirkpatrick

Written by  November 9, 2016

Living abroad teaches us to accept that (almost) nothing lasts forever.

It’s not that I particularly like hurting myself. And I don’t enjoy pain, per sé. Yet occasionally, I decide to voluntarily put myself through it. I paid for this pain, I tell myself. I want this pain; I can handle this pain because I chose it.

Can I really though? I asked myself while my chewed on the collar of the t-shirt I was wearing, nearly puncturing the cotton. This was the only thing I could do with my body to try and counteract the torture it was going through.

This particular pain, I’ve tried to make sense of before, to sum up why I do it in one sentence, but the conclusion I have come to is more complicated.

The needle sunk into the skin above my ribs over and over again, and with each point of contact I was more certain that it was actually drilling into the bone. It felt like being at the dentist, except I always cry at the dentist and I was determined not to do that here. Because I chose this pain. I was only 15 minutes into what was about to be a three-hour tattoo session.

With each jab of the needle it felt like my brain was rattling and I asked myself to the rhythm of the tattoo gun why-why-why am I doing this again?

Being away from home—family, voices of reason and other things that you hold in your mind as permanent—makes it easier to think less about the consequences of tattoos. Not to mention the judgement from strangers and of course the inevitable “but what does it mean?” conversation that you will have for the rest of your life.

Even that concept doesn’t resonate as deeply as it should. If someone were to tell me that anything else about me was going to last the rest of my life, it would terrify me. That, by definition, is forever, as I know it. I cannot think about next year without feeling panicked and anxious but for some reason, letting someone scar me permanently doesn’t even phase me.

“I just don’t think our generation will ever get (understand) tattoos,” says my mother.

I’ve seen the proof of this over the years. I’ve been questioned about it many times and because of my need to have a quick-witted, smart-ass, shut-people-up-immediately response for everything, I’ve analyzed it a lot. And as I lay on the table yet again I had nothing better to do than think about it to try to distract myself, as my body fought to reject the foreign object that was penetrating it.

If someone were to tell me that anything else about me was going to last the rest of my life, it would terrify me. Yet, letting someone scar me permanently doesn’t even phase me.

But all that I’ve come up with is that over the years—since my first foolish tattoo at the age of 16 to my most recent ones at 27—is that they are the only things that remain unchanged. At various points in time, I decided to make a decision that was going to last forever, and that made me feel confident and like I wasn’t afraid of what was to come. Was that true? No. Were they all good decisions? Hell no. I can’t say that about any aspect of my life so why would this be any different? But do I regret any of them? Also no.

My days in Guatemala are limited, which is another reason that I find myself frolicking in a puddle of reflection every day. The familiar anxiety I feel as a trip comes to an end is beginning to work its way through my body, starting with the back of my throat. I’m certain that it will finish in my heart; my eyes will explode with tears as the inevitable finale.

It’s not that I don’t think I’ll ever come back here. On the contrary, I am sure that I will. But I know that unlike the tattoos I got here, the experience won’t be the same. Time will take its toll; the children will be older and many, if not all, of my current friends will be scattered all over the planet. Quite simply, I can never return to the life that I created this last year. I don’t mean to sound cynical or negative, but very few things in life are forever; even the seemingly strongest relationships can be eroded by the power of time. We can’t stop it and we can’t go backwards, but we can decide what we bring with us into tomorrow, whether they be friendships or memories embedded in our skin.

It’s not meant to sound pessimistic, but instead empowering. I used to think my need for constant change in my life was a character flaw; I crave it, yearn for it, seek it out and grasp for it as a life-saver in moments of desperation. I thought maybe I depended on it because I was fickle, flighty and afraid of commitment. Now I can see that it is much more unrealistic and quite frankly, depressing, to expect things to stay the same.

Living somewhere where the people in your life are on a constant rotation makes you appreciate this, and it has made me appreciate the other side of things, as well. Since I’ve been living in Guatemala, people have commended me on making a life here; knowing no one, having no plan and starting from scratch.

What I have yet to admit is that I don’t think what I did this past year should be commended. I believe that those who should be commended are people who don’t get up and leave, but those who stay. What is impressive, in my opinion, is finding a way to make yourself happy regardless of your surroundings. It’s a concept I am trying to wrap my head around as I prepare to go home. To have had the freedom to live here for the last year is something I appreciate greatly, as much as I need to appreciate my life in Canada.

My heart and my soul were craving exactly what I have been feeding them for the last 11 months: the culture, the language, the connections and the spirit of the children. To say saying goodbye to Guatemala will be upsetting is an understatement, but I won’t go back to Canada and let my heart ache for the life I had here. I will instead imagine the memories of this past year distilled in my mind like a snow globe that holds what once was, to be reflected upon but never re-entered.  It’s not about endings but rather about beginnings; it’s about the snow globe I now get to start creating with everything that began here as the base. 

So, Mom and Dad, grandparents, relatives and disappointed elders, I still can’t give you on a quick response about why us young 'uns can get tattoos with little to no thinking about the long-term consequences, yet we can’t commit to living in one place for longer than a year. And yes, we know it’s silly that we have let our friends tattoo us, or that we may or may not know what that Chinese symbol on our body means. And no, I didn’t think of this philosophy before my first tattoo, but I’m thinking of it now so, hear me out.

There are more things in life we have to leave behind than we get to remember, and we don’t often get to have control over the pain we go through. So maybe it’s about enduring something, or maybe it’s about bringing something with us into the future that would otherwise be forgotten. Or maybe it’s just a ridiculous story that will make us laugh, forever.

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Published in Work Abroad Blogs
Maggie Kirkpatrick

After falling in love with Latin America on a solo trip to Ecuador in 2010, Maggie Kirkpatrick studied Spanish and Latin American studies in University. She is now living in Guatemala, where she writes for Verge and manages volunteer projects in small towns surrounding La Antigua.

Website: beautifullyinsane.com

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