Have you ever traveled down a road and then once you got there asked yourself, “What the heck am I thinking doing this?” I guess we probably all have done that once or twice in our lives but at my age you’d think I was past that right? I mean you’d think I’d have reached the age where wisdom trumps stupidity. But, I guess that’s not always the case. Sometimes, as our dear friend, Jack, likes to say. “God takes care of the stupid people” and that’s probably what happened during my “sketchy tattoo experience”.
Let me back up and tell you that I never, ever, ever believed anyone would get me to put ink on my body. At least, not the kind you can’t take off anyway. Nope, it wasn’t happening. In fact, I’ve had more than one heated debate with friends over why tattoos are a ridiculous waste of money and nothing you’d ever see me doing. But that was years ago and long before we crossed the oceans and became shellbacks.
For sailors who cross the equator it’s like a rite of passage to get a tattoo when you reach the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia. Even though I’d heard the talk I still wasn’t prepared to do it but then, I arrived there and something inside me said, “You know what? I want one to memorialize this momentous accomplishment in my life. I want do do this as the islanders would.” And so, I got a small tattoo on my left ankle.
It’s a custom designed tattoo by a Marquesan man named Kaha and was done in Hiva Oa. Each symbol on it represents something that holds meaning about our crossing and our accomplishment. I hated the process and the pain but love the tattoo. It’s a one of a kind and it says exactly what I wanted so that was supposed to be the end of it.
Then we came back to Fiji for the second time this year. Our first time here in 2019 was amazing to say the least but something happened this time that I almost can’t put into words. There is a different feeling now as we revisit the villages and people we met on our last visit. We’ve a more in depth understanding of who they are and what they are about and they’ve welcomed us back in a way that is so warm and familiar. It is a bit like coming home and, after not being home with our families for close to three years, having Fijian family felt more amazing than you can ever know.
These people we met three years ago…some of which knew us for but a day or even just a few hours; they remember us and they have welcomed us back as part of their families, not as some tourists they met one time. They opened their homes to us and showed us a kindness that is not as common as it used to be in this world and it touched me to my very core. It’s something I don’t ever want to forget. The more I learn about them the more I truly aspire to be like the people who have taken us in and showed us such love and kindness.
So, how do I make certain they never leave my thoughts? How do I ensure that I think daily about what I need to do to be more like them? Well, I get an authentic Fijian tattoo that’s how.
What makes a Fijian tattoo different than the Marquesan one I got after our crossing? Well, while all Polynesian tattoos do have a similar tribal feel, each region tends to have a different way of presenting what you want it to say and mean. When islanders see your tattoo they can always tell you in what part of the islands it was do. And so having one that is from Fiji and has the added symbolism of the things that I have come to know and appreciate here is important to me.
After a great deal of thought and consideration I decided it was definitely going to happen. The first thing to do…find a tattoo artist who will listen to what I want the tattoo to mean and then translate that into Fijian symbols that reveal a piece of artwork on my body.
First we decided to talk with a Fijian who has some great tattoos. We spoke with a bar manager whom we’d befriended and he recommended a guy in Wailoaloa Beach near Port Denarau. I called the guy and was planning to go meet him. But, I checked him out on Google and found some reviews that weren’t so good. The one that truly changed my mind was when a guy said he and his friend went to get inked and the guy didn’t change the needle after doing the one guy before doing his friend. Nope! I’m already a bit on the edge about this so that was a huge no no for me.
While I was surfing the reviews I found this guy Tukai from Pacifink. The photos of his work were off the charts and the reviews were even better. People actually fly here from Australia or other parts of the world to have him create his masterpieces. Plus, they all mentioned the cleanliness and safety part that made me feel more comfortable. He definitely seemed like the guy I wanted to talk to about it so I called him. Ironically enough he was also in Wailoaloa Beach and was able to meet us that very day.
Meeting Your Tattoo Artist At The Bar!
We had barely dropped the hook and we needed to rush to meet him at one of the resorts on the beach. I was a bit nervous but also very excited. I had photos on my phone to show him and was ready for the adventure. I think…
We pulled Sparkle up on shore in front of the Wailoaloa Beach Club. This place is a hotel/hostel and not a bad place at all. My friend, Donna, and I stayed here for a night back in 2019. The staff is awesome and they will watch over your tender when you come ashore even if you want to go into town.
Tender secured we walked down to Smuggler’s Cove Beach Resort to meet Tukai. Dan got us a couple of brews at the Ghost Ship Bar which has excellent Chicken Parmesan by the way. Then we waited anxiously for Tuka’s arrival. We didn’t have to wait long. He and his brother-in-law showed up. Honestly they both appeared to have had a beer or two beforehand but hey, it’s Fiji. And, we weren’t going to do the tattoo at that very moment so I was okay with it. Well…sort of.
We chatted up a bit and got to know one another. Turns out Tukai and his brother-in-law had both served in the military. Tukai also went to Uni (university) to study art. It wasn’t long before both Dan and I were feeling quite comfortable with him and I decided that yes, I wanted him to do my Fijian and last ever tattoo.
Then came the time to discuss price etc…That’s Dan’s department. Tukai explained that his studio is owned by a Chinese family and they take 70% of whatever he charges if he does the tattoo in their studio. 70%!!!!! Let that sink in a moment. We didn’t doubt him because we know from others how the Chinese take such advantage of the islanders.
If he does the tattoo somewhere else then it’s substantially less. Let me stop here and say this was not about the cost of it. We’d have gladly paid the higher price if it meant making certain it was sanitary and done properly. But, we do have a philosophical problem with the way the Chinese treat the people in these countries so if we could help him out by cutting them out of the equation then that’s what we wanted to do.
We agreed that we’d do this outside of the studio. In fact, Tukai even said he’d pick us up the next morning and take us to his house. He would do it there and then we’d have a great meal and some drinks and all would be well. Hmmmm….sounded like pretty cool adventure.
Then he tells us he needed $150 FJD up front so that he can go and buy the needles and ink. He is required to buy this from a licensed dealer so he has to get it from the studio. Okay…even if he takes the money and runs it’s not that much money so we go along with it. After a few beers we make plans to meet at the resort at 1000 the following morning and head to Tukai’s house to get my right foot inked.
Is This Sketchy?
I think both of us left the bar with a few reservations in mind but neither was ready to say it to the either. Dan knew I really wanted this tattoo and I was so eager to get it done that I just wasn’t really ready to acknowledge the fact that something could go horribly wrong.
But as the evening went on I started to think about the German sailor in the Marquesas back in 2011 who was killed and thought to have been eaten by a local guide when he went out hunting goats with him. Ever since we were in Mexico and I read this story I’ve kept it in the back of my mind to remind us to never be overly trusting.
The thing is that once we were in Tukai’s car we’d be somewhat at his mercy. Sure, I trust Dan and his training but there are limits and you just never know what could go wrong. But, Dan didn’t say anything that night to make me feel like we shouldn’t do it so I was still on board and even began to think I was just over analyzing the situation. After all he did seem like a really cool and above board kind of guy.
But, just to try to add a little more comfort to my mind I started text messaging some of our Fijian friends. I sent them photos of him and asked if anyone knew of him. Our friend, Va, who we refer to as the mayor of Nadi, had never heard of him so that was a little unsettling but I was still trying to stay positive about it.
The next morning however, after I’d had somewhat of a sleepless night thinking about the German sailor’s experience, I decided I had to bring up my reservations even if it meant us losing the $150 FJD. Soon after waking I said to Dan, “So, if we were sitting in a bar listening to some newbie travelers and they told us this story and said they were going to this guy’s house for a tattoo, what would you say to them?”
Dan looked me dead in the eyes and said, “I’d tell them not to go.” That was all I needed to hear. We were clearly were not going to Tukai’s house. I felt a bit deflated about it but I knew it was the right decision.
After a few minutes of additional reflection, however, Dad did tell me that his years of training told him Tukai wasn’t a bad guy and would in all likelihood create an amazing tattoo. He just didn’t like the idea of putting us into “his domain” and potential control. He really felt that Tukai is a good guy with good intentions. It’s just about making certain that if he isn’t we aren’t at a disadvantage. I agreed.
We decided we’d rent a hotel room on Wailoaloa Beach for the day and have him come to do it there. We rented a places at the Beach Escape Resort that was just walking distance from Smuggler’s Cove. It is actually quite a cute place for a backpacker’s resort. It was really clean and tidy and the price at $80 FJD was perfect. So, we called Tukai and told him of the change of plans.
Tukai and his brother-in-law showed up in “Fiji time”. It’s sort of like a Mexican minute. You know it will happen you just aren’t absolutely sure when. If you want promptness, Fiji is not the place to go. We understand the concept of Fiji time so we just hung out and had a couple of beers while we waited.
When the guys arrived they had a couple of beers with them. Yes…now I realized he’s going to do this with a little buzz on which was, to be honest, slightly disconcerting. At this point, however, I was done worrying. The time had come to just do it. You know what they say, “Go big or go home.”
I knew from my first tattoo that whenever they put the needle in over the bone it’s not fun and this one was going on the top of my right foot. As Tukai began needling me I realized I was absolutely correct. The two beers I drank beforehand did nothing to ease the pain. I found myself gripping a pen between my teeth at more than one point. Ironically Dan, Tukai and the brother-in-law all seemed to get some perverse pleasure out of watching my pain.
So, I laid down on the bed an Tukai commenced to drawing on my foot as we discussed what symbolism I wanted and how I wanted it to look. After a few modifications the pen drawing looked fabulous and it was time to get down to business. I asked Dan to pop back up to the bar and pick up a couple more beers for me as I knew this one was going to hurt.
Throughout the process we got to know Tukai on a much more personal level and by the time it was done we both felt a bit sad that we didn’t take him up on his offer to go to his home for a day of food, fun and tattoos. But….you just don’t know and sometimes safety must come before fun.
A Work Of Art Filled With Symbolism
My tattoo has the Fijian symbols of strength, family, new beginnings, love, friendship, and courage. The turtle represents good health, longevity of life and peace. The wavy lines around it represent the journeys I’ve taken and those yet to come. The manta represents wisdom and graceful strength. Polynesians see the manta as a spirit guardian. Having a tribal manta tattoo is seen as a way to protect your spirit and help you gain these traits. Lord knows I could use some grace and wisdom. (Hush Dan….that wasn’t mean to be funny!)
Interestingly enough it turned out that Tukai is the uncle of our dear friend, Kata. She doesn’t have enough wonderful things to say about him and quite frankly, neither do we. In the end I got the most perfect tattoo and gained two new wonderful Fijian friends. It just goes to show you never know when something that seems sketchy can turn out to be truly wonderful.
I look at my new tattoo daily….many times a day at that. I have vowed to continue to think of all it represents and remember these incredible people who have truly made such difference in my life. It’s my hope that I will become more and more like them as time passes.
As for missing out on an afternoon at Tukai’s home….Honestly, even knowing what we know now about our new friend, I wouldn’t have changed the way we handled it. We took the safe route and it worked out for everyone. We were fortunate that Tukai turned out to be the upstanding and incredible man he is but we are ever mindful as we travel that it could have ended very differently.
Until next time,
Thanks Tukai! It’s absolutely AMAZIG!