I knew before I boarded the plane for Greece this year that I wanted to get a tattoo, but it wasn’t until a week into my trip that I knew what I wanted to get: a quote from Seferis, the Greek poet who was exiled from his home for 28 years.
His quote is this: Ὀπου και να ταξιδέψω η Ελλάδα με πληγώνει.
Wherever I travel, Greece wounds me.
If you’ve been following this blog for a while, this quote and its significance won’t surprise you. But if you’re new to me or to this blog, then you’ll probably question my mental stability and consider this quote dark and depressing, much like I did the first time I saw it.
During my first trip to Greece in 2015, I was traveling with a writing workshop, and our first day in Thessaloniki we were given T-shirts with the company’s logo and with this quote on the back. I was so excited when I saw Greek characters, and so upset when the teachers told me what it meant. “Why would I want to wear this?” I thought.
And here I am, five years later, permanently tattooing it on my body.
I don’t think I can adequately summarize the last five years of my life in this blog* but you can find the beginning of “The Wounding” here, when I was young and naive on my first trip to Thassos, and suffice it to say: the quote has become meaningful to me, particularly so after this summer.
*I fell in love with Greece, tried to move there, couldn’t stay, and have been trying to find a way to do so ever since. Oh hey, look! I did it.
After my “Thirty-Three on Thassos” birthday party, I spent another three weeks in Greece, and two days before my return flight to the States, I sat in a restaurant in Thessaloniki and Google searched, “Tattoo studios near me.”
The first result was 0.3km from my table, which was literally around the corner, and I thought, This is a sign! But when I arrived all I saw was a building with closed doors resembling a garage, with wavy metal spray-painted green: “Tattooligans: Tattoo Studio and Art Café.” I was in the right place, but it was definitely closed.
Maybe the sign was that I shouldn’t get a tattoo?
I consulted the map again, looking for the next closest marker. Nico Tattoo Crew was a fifteen-minute walk away, and it had 255 five-star reviews on Google. I figured it was worth stopping by.
This place did not have a café attached to it, which I had (theoretically) admired about the place with the closed garage doors, but there were brightly painted walls beyond the glass doors and it felt inviting.
Two people, a man and a woman, greeted me with curious smiles. In Greek I said hello, and then I switched to English to tell them what I wanted. The man behind the counter looked at my cell phone, where I pulled the quote from, and said, “Where do you want it?”
I pointed to my upper arm, in front of my bicep, where it’s visible if I raise my arm (or flex), but would otherwise be hidden against my side.
“It would need to be in two lines probably, otherwise it would be to small and thin,” he said.
“Yes, that sounds good,” I said.
“You want to do this now?” he asked.
My heart rate doubled. “Do you have anything available tomorrow?”
He pulled out a small leather bound notebook, a schedule planner with faintly lined paper. He wrote in pencil and added my name at 3pm.
“You know you can’t go into the sea after you have this done?” he asked.
“I leave Greece the day after tomorrow,” I replied.
He nodded. He didn’t look like the Greeks I’d just become accustomed to in Crete, with that Gerard-Butler-as-King-Leonidas look: thick dark hair, black goatees, brooding eyes**. This tattoo artist looked more like an adult version of the skater kids I used to know in high school who spent their lunch breaks smoking behind the building. He had light brown hair pulled into a low ponytail and a baby face, though he was trying to grow a goatee. Extending from the corners of his small, downturned eyes were light lines, the only evidence of his age. But when he smiled, I saw genuine kindness.
**I didn’t see enough shirtless men carrying javelins to comment on their muscular status (sadly).
“How much would something like this cost?” I asked.
“Fifty to sixty euros,” he said. “Does that work?”
The baseline cost in Rhode Island for a tattoo is fifty dollars, so this seemed reasonable. “Yes, that’s fine,” I said, and he handed me a business card.
“This is my number. If anything changes, let me know.”
I thanked him and the woman standing off to his side, whose nose and upper lip were pierced, and she offered me a friendly smile.
As the glass door shut quietly behind me, I thought, I guess we’re doing this. I prefer using the royal “we” when it comes to big decisions like permanently altering my body. My only concern was whether or not I’d get to visit the beach one last time before my appointment.
Going to the beach proved more difficult than I imagined, but it was my last day in Greece and I was determined. I took a ferry, splashed around and got some sun, and then miscalculated the length of the return trip. Let’s just say that in order to make my appointment, I needed to sprint thirteen blocks to my hotel and take a record-breaking quick shower. I quickly popped two Tylenol to stave off pain, gathered my cash and credit card, and jumped into a cab.
I burst through the glass doors only four minutes late, glistening either from the shower or renewed sweat. “Signomi, argisa,” I said, apologizing that I was late.
“You’re not late,” the tattoo artist said. I didn’t realize until after my tattoo was finished that I didn’t know his name, and at that point, after someone has created a piece of artwork on your body, it’s a little late to go back and say, “So, who are you are again?” Retrospectively, I’ve learned his name is Thomas.
“Any time before 4:00pm would have been fine,” he said, smiling.
I must have given him a look that directly matched my thoughts because he responded with a shrug. “Greeks,” he said.
“I literally ran from the ferry.”
“I believe you.”
“I took a taxi!”
His assistant, or at least that’s who I assume she was, the woman with the facial piercings, sat on a cushioned bench beside us while Thomas and I went over the design again. “What font do you want?” he asked. “Normal? Cursive?”
“Oooh. Cursive, maybe?”
He typed the quote into a document, copying the line five times and choosing five different fonts. He handed me the print out.
They all looked the same. I looked closer. They still looked mostly the same, but with slight differences. It occurred to me I’m the least decisive person I know. Who allowed me to freely enter tattoo parlors and permanently mar my body? This was a terrible idea.
I somewhat arbitrarily eliminated two fonts, the first and the last. Then another. It was down to #2 and #3, but before Thomas could reprint my options or chime in, I defied my own expectations and said, “I like the second one the best.”
Now it was time to experiment with sizes, using my chosen font to create a small and large representation. He split the quote into two lines, the second indented below the first, and printed this as well. I stared at it.
“Do you want to look in the mirror?” he suggested.
“Yes,” I said.
He took the piece of paper and we walked to the back of the room where there was a floor to ceiling mirror. He folded the paper around the quote and held it up to my arm in the place I wanted my tattoo, beginning with the larger size.
When I looked at him, he seemed to know what I was thinking. “You prefer the smaller size.”
“Is that okay? Is it too small?”
“If it were too small, I would tell you,” he said.
He traced it onto carbon paper, and as he worked, he asked me questions about Greece: where’d I’d been, why I speak Greek, how many times I’ve visited. He, of course, had been to Thassos, my beloved island, because it was only three hours from his city, and he immediately told me I should try visiting less-touristic islands.
“Thassos is touristic?” I cried.
“Yes. You want a wild island? Visit Samothraki.”
We argued about which island was better, and his assistant came to my defense. “Maybe where she goes it’s quiet. You keep saying ‘Golden Beach,’ but that’s not where she stays.”
The conversation continued, in both Greek and English, and even though we were arguing, it wasn’t like real arguing. It was the way you gauge a person. When I told him I’d been to Ikaria, he stopped tracing. “Really?” he said. “What’d you think?”
I told him I loved it, because it reminded me of Thassos. I asked Thomas what his favorite island was. “Ikaria,” he said. And he finally consented that maybe this little spot in Aliki village was the hidden gem of Thassos that I claimed it to be.
“Go to Archodissa and eat the food,” I challenged. “I promise, it’s the best in the world.”
He finished the carbon stencil and we returned to the mirror. He put it on my arm and said, in Greek, he could move it right, left, up, down—whatever I wanted. “I’m guessing you want practice in Greek, but if you don’t understand, I can speak in English,” he said.
“No it’s fine,” I said.
“What did I say?” he asked, verifying that I’d understood his prompts.
After staring for some time at the mirror, I looked at him. “Could we try a bigger size?”
“I knew it!”
A few minutes later we returned to the mirror with the larger size.
“Well?” he asked.
“It’s fine,” I said.
“Fine?” he said. “You should love it. It shouldn’t be ‘fine.’”
He had a point, which freaked me out. I stared at my arm in the mirror. Did I like the way it looked? I tried to envision it somewhere else, but I didn’t have other ideas.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“It matters what you think.”
“Is the placement okay? Does it look okay?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Where else could I put it?”
He shrugged. “Your leg, maybe?” He pressed the paper faintly against my upper thigh, leaving a faint outline of the text. As soon as I sat down, I vetoed that idea. “I don’t like my legs.”
He looked at me like I was crazy, but he responded, “Okay. What about the other arm, to balance your first tattoo?” he asked, referring to the one in my handwriting, on my right ribcage.
“No, I like this arm.”
His assistant came over. He asked her in Greek what she thought.
“I like it.”
“Can you think of any other ideas?” I asked.
“Maybe your leg?”
By now I was sitting on the tattoo bench, opposite the giant mirror. I held my arm up like I was showing off my bicep. I continued to think.
“Do you want a beer?” Thomas asked.
“I thought it’s bad to drink alcohol before a tattoo.”
“Doesn’t it thin your blood?”
“One beer is fine. You don’t want to be drunk. That’s bad, for many reasons.”
After another minute, he said, “You know, we don’t have to do this. You can take these stencils home and—”
“We have to do it today.”
“Okay.” He lit a cigarette while I continued to stare at my arm.
Some time went by.
“You know, I was happy until you instilled doubt in my mind.”
“That’s my job,” he said. “You need to know.”
I vacillated. And then I said, with resolve, “I like it. Let’s do it. Let’s go.”
He smiled again.
I lied down on the bench while he put latex gloves on and unwrapped a needle. I made a mental note to tell my mom.*** He filled a cylinder smaller than a thimble with black ink, and as soon as I heard the buzz of the needle, I looked away.
***she was convinced I’d end up somewhere that used reusable needles even though I assured her I would not look for a tattoo artist at a prison.
It didn’t hurt, really. It was uncomfortable, but not as bad I expected. I asked if Americans came in often.
“Occasionally. We got a lot back in 1999, during the war in Kosovo. There were U.S. ships docked here at the port of Thessaloniki, only for a few days, but we had military coming in nonstop.”
“You were here in 1999?” I asked.
“Yes. I’m 41 years old,” he said.
“Wow,” I said. This made me feel better. He’d been tattooing people since I was ten years old—surely he knew what he was doing by now.
When he asked me about Trump, I asked him about the Prime Minister.
He laughed. “All politicians are corrupt,” he said.
Every now and then his assistant would chime in. They were both very curious about podcasts. “What is a podcast? I don’t understand it.”
After he had finished, he smoked another cigarette and told me how to care for the tattoo. “There’s a sign, you can take a picture of it,” he told me. I later realized he had laminated the English set of instructions—this was the sign. He also had instructions written in Greek, printed onto small squares of paper, which he gave me.
“Can you read Greek?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Okay…” and he nodded at the instructions.
I began to read aloud. “Afairite ti zelatina meta apo 2-4 ores,” I began. “Do I have to know what the words mean?”
“No,” he said, and his assistant translated, “Remove the plastic wrap.”
I continued until I was about halfway. “Do I need to keep going?” I asked.
“No,” he laughed. “You passed the test.”
Thomas emphasized the importance of the cream. “Make sure the pharmacy gives you exactly this cream—Bepanthol Balm—no other variation. This is important. If it scabs, don’t pick the scabs. Scabs…you know this?”
“Okay. Leave it alone. The hope, of course, is that it doesn’t make this because you must keep it hydrated. This is important.”
Finally, it was time for everyone to drink. “What do you want? Beer? Wine? Cider?”
“They have cider here?” I gasped.
I’d never had a Greek cider before. His assistant also asked for one.
“I’ll be right back,” he said, and he left to a liquor store, returning with two ciders and a beer.
We sat around the studio together for another 45 minutes, drinking and talking, and I explained my plight of trying to move to Greece and not being able to. Every suggestion they offered was one I’ve tried, or was otherwise impossible. “Is it really this hard? But you love Greece so much.”
“I know,” I said.
And simultaneously, I saw their understanding of why I’d chosen this quote to tattoo on my arm.
“You could get married?” Thomas said.
Every person says this to me, joking-but-not-joking, as if they’re the first one to suggest it.
“Sure,” I smiled, “if you know any nice, single men out there.”
“We can find you one,” said his assistant. “You will have no problem.”
After 2.5 hours, I finally pulled out my wallet. Thomas was finishing his third cigarette.
“Sixty is okay?” he asked.
This was the best tattoo experience I’d ever had, and even though my sample size is only two, I would return to this shop without question. “Yes, of course.”
I paid with a card, the first credit card they had ever run—on a new machine, no less—and I took 20 euros in cash from my wallet. “Will you accept a tip?” I asked.
“No,” he said, and walked out of my reach. “Thank you, though. The fact that you asked, that is my tip.”
“We wish the best for you,” he and his assistant said as I left. “You will find a way.”
The glass door closed silently behind me, and Seferis’ words glimmered on my arm as I walked back to the hotel.