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Tom's Tattoo

Tom's Tattoo
by Todd Jarrell

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We think we must be in the wrong place as we wind around shelves of inexpensive carved and woven souvenirs - things for the tourists to take home. Further on these give way to household goods for local folk - medical items, toiletries, school supplies and so on, all imported from the countries these same tourists come from.

Turning a corner, we find a small vestibule in the back of the store, between the Ninja Warrior sword sets on the one side, and the French get-well cards on the other. We've found our man - Bernard, the tattoo artist of Bora Bora.

Bernard: "That's because I come from a journey - sometimes I go to the other islands to tattoo a group of people. And like this Monday I was in Tahaa. Uh, uh yea, you know Tahaa."

Bernard sails throughout all of French Polynesia to provide traditional tattooing to the locals and the occasional tourist. Tom Ward is third officer on the Picton Castle, our three masted sailing ship, and our home. He came today to see about "getting inked" - tattooed, that is. To say that sailors love their tattoos is to state the obvious, and, as with all things of the sea, a strong tradition has evolved around tattooing. We are, after all, sailing around the world, and what better way for a sailor to permanently mark the experience? Tom carefully chooses his tattoo. A blend of many symbols really, creating one overall, traditional Bora Boran design. Bernard explains as he begins.

Bernard: "This a upper part-it's round. It's a whale. Now first, the total symbol, the complete symbol, this is Ta Aroa, this is a sea god. Then under the whale you have-this is teeth shark. That's triangles. That's look like teeth sharks. This is a shark on - the left. And here down you have the Mata Hoata - the eyes of the chief. And when this is tattooed, this is large protection because that, that part look for him."

A tropical storm takes the edge off the sound of Bernard's machine. The dermograph is electric and the blue spark of power is visible at the butt of it as the outline is traced and the color filled in by the inked needle.

In the meantime Vicki, another crewmember, is considering a second tattoo. She flips through books of design, page upon page of traditional Polynesian body art.

With a crew of thirty-two, we bump into each other frequently in this small island town. The word spreads quickly that the third mate is getting inked. Soon a small rotating crowd of crewmembers gathers to see the progress, savor the tradition, and reinforce personal decisions: to be or not to be tattooed.

Crew: "'What's Vicki doing?' -Vicki's thinking."

Her mind as yet unmade, Vicki continues to turn the pages. It is a very personal decision.

Inside the shop it is sweltering - the downpour outside is driving the humidity up and the mosquitoes in. We talk about things that are worse than having a needle driven into your arm at three thousand times per minute. "I'd rather do this than go to the dentist." At first the pain was not too bad, but as Bernard moves the machine to the inside of the arm, Tom's jaw muscle starts working regularly and he becomes uncharacteristically quiet. There is a palpable low-grade tension in the room.

Slowly Ta Aroa takes form and grows over the shoulder, down and around the biceps to form a cuff: the whale, the shark's teeth, the eyes of Mata Hoata. It is the tradition of Bora Bora-it too is the tradition of the sailor"s life. When we return from this voyage, we will all have changed. We will not be the same people who upended our lives to come discover ourselves and other cultures. The dreams we dream by day or night will be different. But the marks on our journals, the pictures in our minds, and the memories etched onto our hearts by friends made along the way will all be just as permanent as Tom's tattoo.

Excerpt from audiobook SLOW DANCE WITH THE PLANET Todd S. Jarrell 1998,1999,2000

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