The Souvenir Tattoo

One of my old co-workers once had the name and image of the cruise ship we worked on tattooed to his upper arm. We were on Nassau in the Bahamas and he was drunk on this sudden, new found love for the cruise line industry as well as just plain drunk from two many tequila shots at the crew bar.

Last I heard he’s since gotten an office job on land somewhere in the suburbs of upstate New York. I wonder what he thinks about his mini-blue cruise ship tattoo now?

I’m not against souvenir tattoos in general (after all, I’ve got two of them!) and I actually like the one pictured above (although I’d never get something quite so large) but it makes me wonder: What is it about traveling that makes people want to immortalize the experience by undergoing the painful and expensive process of scarring themselves irreversibly?

Photo by Twiggy

Photo by Juan Pablo Giusepponi

For me, that answer lies somewhere in my fear of change. I find that right before I’m about to make a scary leap of faith into uncertainty, I’ll get this sudden urge to do something risky, challenging, frightening or drastic, like bungee jump, chop off all of hair or get something pierced or tattooed.

In a weird way, it makes whatever transition I’m about to face a lot less frightening. Leaving my job at Disney World and moving to New York, for example, seemed like a walk in the park after facing my fear of needles and getting my tongue pierced (fortunately, I came to my senses a few months later and took it out! So not classy).

But it also has to with nostalgia and the desire to preserve a cherished experience, as well. When I was in Germany, my best friend at the time and I got tattoos on the same place on the right side of our lower backs. We’d decided that our friendship, which we’d decided was already sealed by fate, should also be sealed by blood. We called ourselves ‘tattoo buddies’, (“We’ll be friends for life!”). Ironically, ‘life’ when I was 22, meant the following six months. I haven’t seen or spoken to my tattoo buddy since I last visited France, almost four years ago.

But I like the fact that wherever I go in the World, I’ll carry a little part of my Germany experience with me, even if it’s only the ink from a tiny back alley tattoo parlor in Leipzig.

Sure, I’ll probably regret it when I’m 80, and my red hibiscus tattoo has been so badly stretched out and faded that it looks like a painful welt or rash. But like Carlos, my tattoo artist in Japan told me, “A naked, old person is ugly with or without tattoos. At that point, you won’t care what you look like.”

Sometimes though, I think that there are a probably a lot less painful, less expensive ways to honor a memorable trip or time abroad. A picture or a postcard might not last as long, but it won’t be something you’ll regret as soon as that ‘vacation high’ wears off. I think I often fall easy victim to the thrill of a new experience and feel this impulsive need to get tattooed, just as I feel the impulsive need to buy a collection of hand-painted bobble head creatures in Mexico or a necklace made out of Yak teeth in India.

I think this dangerous ‘impulse tat’ habit I’ve been developing, is something that I definitely need to work on. After all, I wouldn’t want to ever rue the day I got suckered into getting something as cheesy as a Japanese cherry blossom etched onto my ankle, (oops! Too late…). Or how about the ever classy and sophisticated subway map on the stomach tattoo?

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Related posts:

  1. The Patriotic Tattoo
  2. 6 MORE of the Best Travel-Themed Tattoos
  3. Would You Buy These? The Hawaiian Souvenir Edition
  4. The 6 Best Travel-Themed Tattoos
  5. People I Will Never Know: Thoughts On Meeting People While Traveling

Comments ( 18 )

  1. koala

    At this weird 'I'm 26 and not grown up' phase of ours I found myself reunited with some of my 'friends forever' I haven't talked to in years so who knows what will happen when you leave Japan

  2. Erin

    Do you seriously have that stomach tattoo? Wow...but I'm guessing that's not you...

    I too am guilty of souvenir tattooing, but I've cut myself off due to poorness. I never thought it was actually "a thing" people do, but you are so right.

  3. Reannon

    That stomach tattoo is soooo not me! I found it through google images...Do you guys think it's real? I think it's photo-shopped. Does anyone recognize that train line?

  4. Erin

    Its the tube map of London. Someone must REALLy love London.

  5. kathrynoh

    That subway map is an awesome tattoo - or maybe I just think that cos I have no sense of direction!

    I've never got a tattoo because I'm too indecisive.

  6. aimlessambition

    I hate my tattoos, and they're not tourist tattoos. Well, at least I don't have a tramp stamp.

    I also get really nervous before a big decision and end up doing something drastic. I wonder why people do that? Not so much the "souvenir tattoo," but more "the souvenir experience."

    PS A sakura tattoo is better than some random kanji.

  7. Reannon

    When you say "souvenir experience" do you mean what I think you mean? ; )

    What tattoos do you guys have? And why do you hate them, Aimless Ambition?

  8. Reannon

    You guys should read this:

    http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/2009/02/10/121-funny-or-ironic-tattoos/

  9. Erin

    I got a lotus flower between my shoulder blades on my first trip to Japan. I don't regret it at all...but I'm glad I haven't felt the need to continue inking myself wherever I go.

  10. aimlessambition

    I probably don't mean what you think I mean. Unless I do? Well, sometimes I do. :)

    I hate them because they're kind of crap. One stretched out when I got pregnant (even though it was on my BACK - pregnancy is the most bizarre thing ever), and the other is too big, patchy, and the tattooist misspelled the Latin phrase. It should say "Mecum omnes plangite," (All Will Lament With Me) but actually says "mecum omnes piengite" (which means nothing).
    So yeah - I'm officially a hater of tattoos.

    I think I comment here as Kira, too. Just so you know, they're both me.

  11. Reannon

    Ahhh...The lotus flower tattoo. I have a couple of friends who've gotten that done recently. Seems the trend is ont he rise? I really like it though and thought about getting one...Never thought about getting it betwen my shoulder blades. Did that hurt a lot?

    But your back tattoo got stretched out, Kira? Scary! That's awful about the fact that he spelled it wrong! Did you tell him how to spell it correctly and he just messed up? Or did you spell it wrong, too? When did you realize the mistake? After you'd already paid for it?

    If it's any consolation, my little brother got a tattoo of the Jagermeister symbol on his butt on the way home from the bar one weekend. And I had a friend who went to a party and woke up the next day with a pot leaf tattooed on her ankle, (it looked like it's been drawn by a 10 year old).

    Google image "bad tattoos" and I'm sure it'll make you feel better. : )

  12. Erin

    Between the shoulder blades is okay...mine's fairly big (slightly larger than my palm) and it only hurt when he went over my spine. It took about two hours from a guy trapped inside a smoky little apartment in Shinjuku. Is in on the rise? I got mine in January of 2007...

    If you are interested, you can see a picture of it in it's shiny, raw glory here.

  13. Karen

    Great blog! I teach English in Prague. My favorite way to memorialize my trip (rather than scarring myself irreversibly) is to blog. Thanks for sharing your terrific photos.

  14. Anonymous

    "Erin said...

    Its the tube map of London. Someone must REALLy love London.
    22/3/09 4:09 AM "

    FAIL!

    This is a tattoo of the DC metro circa a few years ago. See http://dckaleidoscope.files.wordpress.com/2009/01/metro-map.jpg

    THIS is the london "tube":
    http://www.fatpandaproductions.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/10/londontube_thumb.png

  15. hatagtai

    Hello!

    I was googling tattoo souvenir when I came upon your blogsite. I am a student and I'm doing a paper on tattoos as souvenirs. May I ask your permission for me to use one of your photos for my paper? I particularly like the one with the Eiffel Tower. I will duly credit you/blogsite...

    Thank you.

  16. Reannon

    Hello Hatagtai,

    Sure, no problem! But that's not my photo so you don't need to credit me personally. I found it through a google image search.

  17. JuicydLoren

    I am not sure if this metro tattoo is real... it seems a bit too much and too ridiculous! But hey people out there like all sorts of things. As for the souvenir tattoos, I didn't start out with the intention, but because I moved so much I ended up hitting tattoo shops in many parts of the US. Eventually it's just been a thing to achieve. I don't care what they look like when I'm 100 and no one else will either. So we are all good there. I think it's whatever makes you happy. Good luck to you. LL

  18. Samm

    That map is of Washington D.C. If that person lives there, they'll always be able to find their way ;)

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