Even before we set off on this South Pacific sojourn, I knew that I wanted to get a tattoo to mark the journey. Somehow, it just seems right to celebrate the passage of a lifetime with a beautiful, permanent piece of artwork stamped into the skin like thousands of other sailors have done before me. Like millions of native South Pacific residents have done before to celebrate families, events, stories in their lives.
I thought, and thought and thought and thought about what tattoo I wanted to get to celebrate my own passage through Polynesia for months beforehand. It wasn’t until days before we were set to sail to Vaitahu on the island of Tahuata where we’d heard the best tattooist in the Marquesas lives that the image came to me one night as I was drifting off to sleep. I woke up the next morning and sketched it out on paper and tucked it away.
A few days later, along with the crew of Convivia, we were walking up the road to Fati’s tattoo shack in Vaitahu. It doesn’t have a sign and he no longer lives in the house next to it – you have to find someone in the village to phone him and he’ll drive down from his new house up on the hill to meet you. Everyone seems to know his number. Felix Fii — or Fati as he’s usually called – speaks only a handful of English but we suspect he understands a whole lot more than he lets on. But maybe not; like most people with the gift of an artist’s hand he looks at you and sees you, and there is no language barrier there.
Tucker and Victoria sat with Fati in his shack first, each in turn discussing their tattoos. They both were not sure what they wanted when they each walked into the small, plain, paint-peeled building but by the time they walked out some time later Fati knew. As our four kids ran around in the yard chasing chickens and running through the banana trees I walked up the couple of steps, sat down in front of Fati and showed him my drawing. “No problem,” he said as he looked at me. “Very simple.” He pointed at the drawing, then his head then at me and smiled hugely. “Your spirit is here. Very unique. Beautiful tattoo!” Then in French he told me to come back in two days, on Monday at 7 am sharp.
Two days later I am laying on his tattoo table, watching flies and bees travel in and out of the open door to the shack. I listen to the modern Polynesian reggae music playing on the stereo with the accompanying buzz of the tattoo gun. I listen to the rain pound on the metal roof. I watch a mother hen and two chicks stroll past the door, tiptoeing in the mud. I study the breadfruit tree outside in the small yard. For hours. And hours and hours as Fati fills in the design he’d drawn around my arm early that morning. It stings, it burns, it tickles, sometimes it hurts like he’s searing my arm with a hot iron. Fati is in the zone and works without stopping the entire day. Michael sits nearby, so patient. He’s chosen to get his tattoo later, if at all, and is happy watching me for now and handing me my water bottle to sip from.
Finally it is done: my story spiraling down permanently on my right arm. The spirit dolphin leads the way as they often do at the bow of our little ship. Michael’s tiki, our boat(s), our two daughters also in tiki form (the feeling one and the thinking one), the turtle representing not only our travels south but living a slow, meaningful life, the flower of Polynesia, and the sun setting over the western sea.
It’s not exactly the same as I had originally sketched out but I’ve come to love it even more. Fati knew.