08 Jun Tattoo

Ron Tanner, chair of the Writing Department at Loyola College-Maryland, won a grant from the National Parks Service to help Marshallese college students preserve the oral culture of the Marshall Islands. He’s spending the 2008 spring semester (5 months) on Majuro to direct this pilot program, called the Marshall Islands Story Project. To get the full story of his personal experiences, be sure to check the archives to your left.

Jill didn’t believe me when I told her I got a tattoo My generation, the baby boomers, were taught to associate tattoos with decrepit sailors and outlaw bikers. “Why would you want to do that to your body?” Mom often told us. The campaign against tattoos was remarkably successful and grew in direct relation to the ascent of good hygiene and the reverence for clinical cleanliness–hospital-white kitchens and bathrooms tiled like swimming pools. But disapproval was also surprisingly short-lived, lasting only about 100 years. Tattoos have been around since 3000 B.C. Start with Jesus and count backwards one-thousand, two-thousand, three-thousand.

The Marshallese had elaborate tattoos, which were semi-sacred. Men and women had distinctly different kinds. You had to make an offering to see if the signs were propitious–and you were worthy–of having a tattoo. When the Spanish first arrived here in the late 1500s, the found the natives so heavily tattooed, they called them “los pintados” or “the painted.” Their tattoos rivaled those of New Zealand’s Maoris, whose intricate decorations are world famous. The missionaries got rid of all that. Ironically, so did the Japanese, whose own culture is rich with tattooing. The last of the Marshallese traditional tattoos died with their bearers in the 1950s. The national cultural museum published a book of traditional Marshallese tattoo designs. John, my tattoo artist, has the book in his office.

When tattoos started appearing on youngsters in the 1990s, I shook my head in wonder, mostly because it seemed kids weren’t putting much thought into marking themselves for life. Flowers, hearts, thunderbolts, dragons. Of course there’s a long tradition of that. You can’t go wrong with a bannered heart blazoned with “MOM.” But, alas, many a romantic has felt compelled to etch the name of his squeeze across his bicep. Much of John’s work involves covering up tattoo mistakes. He does a good job. John’s from Fiji. As far as I know, he’s the only tattoo artist on Majuro. I came to him because I heard he does traditional designs. I chose a sea turtle with Marshallese motifs on its shell. He wanted to do it with the head aimed up but I requested the head down, as if the turtle were swimming down my arm.

Jill said, “But you’ve got such a thing about protecting your body!” It seems I give the wrong impression sometimes. I admit that I didn’t like the idea of a guy needling at my arm. It made me queasy. And there was a time, I admit, when a tattoo would have been out of the question. But, then, I wasn’t in Micronesia. Jill arrives on Tuesday. She says she can’t believe she’s going to be here. She’s never left the country. The first thing we’ll do after she arrives is buy her a sunhat at the handicrafts shop, then we’ll get some take-out and go watch the waves.

As you see, I’ve included some photos of Majuro dogs. Though they are often loved, they have a hard time. It’s not the life Americans would want for dogs. Most live on scraps and handouts. But they roam freely and none are neutered, so they are abundant. Some complain that they are dangerous or, at least, surly. Some days a few would chase my bike. Other days the same dogs would ignore me.

Tomorrow Newton, a few students, and I visit the other high chief of the nation. It’s taken Newton a month to set this up. He’s exhausted. Me too. I put in twelve hours today. Our website’s much bigger than I expected. But it’s going to be cool. This time next week Jill and I will be in Honolulu and I’ll be in a daze. Here are some things I’ve missed (people are a separate category): broadband internet, brick-oven pizza, salads, organic produce, cool drizzly days, home cooking (e.g., Jill’s carrot cake), satellite radio, cheese, Sunday New York Times, a cat on my lap, mail, watermelon, fresh peaches, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, Italian food, thunderstorms, and hot water.