I have three tattoos. A Tolkien-inspired one on my right upper arm, a turtle and sparrow on my back, and a very small fish on the left side of my rib-cage, just below the armpit.
As with most people who get tattoos, each one of my tattoos has a story. The Tolkien tattoo is inspired by my favourite Tolkien poem, sung by Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings, and features the line ‘leaves of gold there grew’. The turtle and sparrow is for my kids, because they are my turtle and my sparrow.
The fish on my ribs is an image that has been with my for a long time. It was on the cover of my first book, a collection of poems published in Sweden. I can remember finding the image somewhere (though I can’t remember where exactly…maybe it was in a book of poetry?) and keeping a photo copy of it with me for years. Then, when my book of poetry was accepted and set to be published, the publisher asked if I had any ideas for the cover.
The title of the book was “Blå” which means blue in Swedish, and I told the publisher that the only definite idea I had was that there be no blue at all used on the cover. Oh, and I also had this fish. Maybe they could do something with that? And they did. I still love this cover madly, and not just because it was my debut as a writer.
Many years later when I was old enough to want to try this crazy tattoo thing (2011 to be precise), the fish came to mind again. I knew I wanted something small (in case I’d freak out or couldn’t stand the tattooing process), and I wanted something that meant something to me. Again: the fish.
So what is it about the fish that keeps me holding on to it and coming back to it?
For one, it reminds me that I am a writer, because it reminds me of that first book. But it’s also that the fish looks like I sometimes feel on the inside: desperate, hungry, scary, scared, somewhat crazed, with an expression teetering between comical/funny and disturbed/twisted. Is that me? People who know me are probably laughing by now, and no, it’s not all of me, but it is a part of me: the part that swims below the surface, at least most of the time.
Getting the tattoo done turned out to be a lot less traumatizing and painful than I had feared. I went to Catra at Osmosis Tattoo in Langley, and she was fantastic: reassuring, professional, calm, friendly. Just all-around awesome. I was nervous about getting it done on my ribcage (supposedly one of the most painful places for a tattoo), but I knew it had to go there.
The procedure took about 25 minutes, and it didn’t hurt that bad. I wouldn’t even really call it “hurt”, more like “discomfort”. I always imagined it would feel like being poked with a pin or stabbed with a knife (drama!), but it was more like a slight burning sensation.
The year after, in 2012, I got my back tattoo, done by Phil Kwan in Vancouver. That one took almost five hours, and I am still in love with it though I don’t see it too often, since it’s on my back and all.
In 2013, Phil Kwan (again) came up with the design for my Tolkien-tattoo and I fell in love with it: it required two sittings (one for outline and one for colour), and it is still the most gorgeous thing that I’ve ever bought for myself.
But the fish was first, and while my other tattoos are very much on display, that one is for me. Memory, reminder, and ink.
- Osmosis Tattoo, now Rebellion Tattoos Studio
- Phil Kwan Tattoo
- “Blå” is available in translation in ‘Cuts & Collected Poems 1989-2015‘