Tattoo: To Strike

by Kelly Chastain

I belong to several online travel groups comprised exclusively of women, many of whom have tattoos. Their ink represents a wide spectrum of artists and styles. From designs in the Thai Sak Yant tradition to tattoos engraved by shaky-handed apprentices in Moscow, Idaho. Some are tattered passports, or airplanes circling a heart-shaped globe, or a compass rose, but most are phrases in a foreign tongue that denote emotions of desire and love and specific states of being. These phrases broadcast to the world a thread of our shared humanity while carving out a small corner of otherness. A sub-culture of tumbleweed hearts. 

Solivagant: a person who revels in the act of wandering alone–preferably in destinations  they have not previously visited. (Latin)

I ponder these words and phrases. Their instagramability. Their pinterest rankings. The ways in which they communicate otherness and sameness simultaneously through their striking fonts and bold lines. The curlicues and serifs. Foreign words, particularly Arabic, have been used for years to embellish everyday objects with a spirit of sophistication. The long sloping lines evoke camel caravans and spice markets, Pashas and tiled mosques. Words that have been exposed as gibberish are still employed for aesthetic reasons. 

Words on a body suggests careful deliberation. Constellations of letters on a forearm. Islands of syllables mapped onto a shoulder blade. A ribcage cartography. Tattoos hint at something even when hidden beneath layers of clothing. A peek-a-boo under a shirt sleeve. A glimpse under the fringe of hair at the nape of a neck. The bearers coyly declaring that we are the same, you and I, even though we are all solitary wanderers. 

Marahuyo: to be enchanted. (Filipino)

I know these tattoos are pointing toward connection. All of our hearts race and our mouths go dry. We all feel butterflies in our stomachs at the thought of jumping out of an airplane, or the possibility of love at first sight, or eating bad schnitzel on a belly full of beer. Yet every human experience brings about something uniquely personal within us. That no one will ever feel it exactly the same way we do is a reminder of our disconnection. 

So we reduce ourselves to metaphors and similes to connect. The fraternal twin whose features we recognize as kin, yet with a slightly different freckle pattern. An almost the same. A kind of like. An essence that two people might be able to thread together into some parallel meaning. Traversing this minefield of poorly translated miscommunication bears a definition that only borders on true. These foreign word trip wires. Metaphoric landmines. It’s kind of like that. Just enough to understand, and more than enough to enchant.

Abditory: A place into which you can disappear; a hiding place. (Medieval Latin)

There are naysayers, naturally. Some believe that people who express emotions with a word non-native speakers can never truly understand are hiding behind linguistic smokescreens. Perhaps, some argue, tattoo bearers are more interested in the division these words will sew. How they signal a select tribe from the wider world, while shutting everyone else out.

Tattooing and social branding have enjoyed a union that spans several millennia from the ancient Egyptians to your modern day hipster. Each society’s perception of this relationship has waxed and waned over time. In the sixteenth century, a sailor’s tribal tattoos marked him as a man who had communed with the exotic and had seen things that most never would. 

Tattoos have also retained their power to mark outsiders, and societies have associated them with their most volatile or undesirable groups: criminals, indigenous peoples, battle-hardened veterans, whores. Black teardrops on high cheekbones, tribal arm bands, a grenade wrapped in a flag, and hearts strangled by thorny roses all say something too.  

Orenda: a mystical force present in all people that empowers them to affect the world, or to effect change in their own lives. (Iroquois)

Who chooses a tattoo that must be researched and translated and worked out in a different alphabet or character-set altogether? Who is that thoughtful and defiant? Who is that eager to hide behind an indirect translation? Who is that great a thief? Yet inside my travel groups this tends to be the mark of the in-group, even when the translation is bad or wrong.

It is how we identify one another from across a crowded bar in Mykonos. It is how we can tell those who can define their lives from those who cannot. Those whose language is felt and not so much heard. For most of us language simply articulates for the head what the heart has known all along. When these women sprawl in bikinis on island beaches and stroll through ancient sunlit temples and hike deep into the back country, their hearts beat the drum of belonging to a tribe that speaks without sound.

The Japanese call that wandering boketto: the act of going vacantly into the distance without a thought. Some wanderers will infuse their journey with the Greek’s kefi: the spirit of joy, enthusiasm, high spirits and frenzy. And for others, these journeys overflow with intense longing for either here or there. For the Welsh it’s Hireath: a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was. And to the Germans, Fernweh: far-sickness. A longing for far off places.

Querencia: a place from which one’s strength is drawn, where one feels at home; the place where you are your most authentic self. (Spanish)

No matter where these wandering women find themselves, they all concur that home is wherever they are most themselves. The foreign is a seat of power and strength, and where broken attempts at language result in a clearer understanding of yourself. That, most say, is a lucky find. A trouvaille. They drift into new places and back out. Find themselves. Define themselves. Blur the edges of what they want to say with what they can say before they absquatulate: leave without saying goodbye.

BIO: Kelly Chastain holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Pittsburgh. A selection of her published work can be found at


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