According to a Centre for Public Opinion Research study (2017), eight out of one hundred adult Poles have at least one tattoo. The heroines of the following article have many more than one.
“From my first time I remember two feelings – full happiness and terrible pain”, says Oriana, then she pulls up her shirt and shows me the devil. ”“I had it made out of spite. I think we all have a devil under the skin.”.
Ania has an RH+ sign on her wrist, a lioness on her collarbone, and an unidentifiable shape on her shoulder. “It was supposed to look like a bird of paradise, and it came out terrible. This heron looks like a baobab …”
Kamila shows a phoenix and explains that she gave him two tasks: to pass the exam and divorce her husband. But it all turned out differently.
Devil under the skin
Oriana from the Polish dumplings section at Mariaszek’s restaurant has a devil on her back. “It’s been there for 8 years,” says the owner of the devil and sits herself down comfortably in the armchair. “It started with my dad who often went away. He was a sailor. At first, he sailed on fishing boats, and then they transferred him to deep-sea shipping. Uruguay, Paraguay, Canada and all those distant countries. He would be gone for eight months, and I missed him so much. When he came home and lived with us for half a year, it was like an endless child’s day. He was like God to me. He had a cat on his chest, a seagull on one of his wrists, and an anchor on the other. They didn’t look good because he had them made when he was a child. But since my dad had tattoos, so did I. I think it’s obvious.
“My dream was getting a tattoo with my dad – at the same time, in the same studio and preferably the same pattern! But he did not agree. Because health is the most important thing, because I could catch something, because… In the meantime, my mother had a stroke. And the topic of tattoos faded. But I did not give up. One day a friend told me about Olek, a beginner tattoo artist. I called him immediately. Olek showed me the patterns. One of them was this”, Oriana pulls up her shirt and presents the devil. “I had him made out of spite. I think we all have a devil under the skin, right?!
“From my first time I remember two feelings – happiness and terrible pain. Sitting in an armchair in the studio, I cursed myself. And I’m still paying for it – I thought to myself! Nevertheless, two months later I visited Olek for the second time. You know, with a tattoo it’s probably like with giving birth, you forget about the pain. I gave my devil a companion – a fallen angel. I liked the symbolism of this pattern. Because he was a strong angel who was not afraid to stand up. It hurt like hell, but I was happy. I already had two tattoos.
“And then came the hardest time – my father’s illness. I watched it like a viewer who has no influence on anything. First came the feeling of being powerless. The doctor said that with a little luck dad would live three months. Great shock and rebellion. Later I was furious. At God. At this damn cancer. At the whole world. And at other, healthy people. I negotiated with all saints – Jesus, Buddha, angels. Nothing happened. So, I stopped believing. I was also scared all the time. For mother, dad and myself. That’s how the idea of another tattoo was born. I thought that I want my parents always close to me. I chose their wedding picture; they were so beautiful. And I had them tattooed on my back. Under the fallen angel.
“Later, a koi fish appeared. Here on the hip. It symbolizes struggle, change and victory. I wanted to curse fate. I was getting tattooed when my dad was going to chemotherapy. The apartment was empty and sad, so I found a new home – a studio. Going there became a ritual, a therapy that helped me survive. A few months later, my father died. I was at the hospital with him when it happened.
“On the very same day I called the studio and made an appointment for the next day. It was the most painless session. I felt nothing, and a Chinese snow lion was waking up on my left side. It took eight months. Then I had my arm tattooed. As a sign of mourning. I had no idea what was going to be there, but I felt better in the studio. I didn’t have to think. And so, the Hindu deity Ganesha joined my collection, then an infinity symbol together with a protective sign from the island of Borneo, later a lotus flower and a quote from the Holy Bible about dying, which I found in my father’s notebook. I’ve got it here on my left breast. A priest once told me that all this tattooing is a sin. Because I destroy and hurt the body that God gave me. But for me it is colouring and embellishing it, instead of destroying.”
Three diplomas in a drawer
Next Gosia comes in. She doesn’t sit down in the armchair, only looks at patterns available in the folder. And with her, it comes a colourful phoenix. “I cried when they were making it. It hurt the most when they worked on the humerus. Here. At first, I couldn’t make up my mind about this tattooing. Twice I made an appointment in the studio and cancelled it. It wasn’t until my third attempt that I dared go. It was when my husband cheated on me. I came up with the phoenix because it was supposed to bring me a new life, to revive me from the ashes. I gave the phoenix two specific tasks: to help me pass the sworn translator exam and to divorce my husband. Do you think the phoenix helped? No way! It all turned out differently.
“I was an exemplary wife before. In the morning I would get up and make sandwiches for my husband. I ironed and folded his underpants. And then from one job I went to another. In the evenings we sat hand in hand in front of the TV. We sort of agreed with each other, but still were at odds. Because I was possessive and he was stubborn. When he wanted to go out with his friends, I wouldn’t let him. If I didn’t go out, he should stay at home too.
“Later the children were born and everything really started to break down. More and more often I had the impression that my husband didn’t listen to me or talk to me. So, I opened up more to people. At school, when I picked up the children, I met other mothers. We were meeting for coffee. I also eased up on my husband – l let him go out from time to time. And then it turned out that he was having an affair. That woman’s husband caught them. I couldn’t figure out how he did it. Him, such a mummy’s boy. I have three university diplomas in the drawer, and he cheats on me with a sales clerk. I felt terrible. As if someone close to me had died.
“I had a great need to do something different just for myself. I wanted to feel important and special. So I had a phoenix tattooed. I also started preparing for the sworn translator exam. I tried four times but to no avail, though in one case I’m sure they were wrong with the scoring. I also signed up for a bicycle club. I left the classes physically tired but with an empty head. All my sorrows weathered. The thought of divorce also, for a moment. Because my husband tried very hard to wash away his guilt. But then only I and my new friends from the club mattered to me. Including Kuba, who was ten years younger. We would meet after classes, then go for a walk and drive home in his car. After three months, my husband caught us. He read the emails on the computer. I didn’t want to explain myself because I didn’t regret anything. To this day I don’t regret. Not even the phoenix.”
He is from China, she’s from Japan
Ania is the last person to sit down in the armchair. Currently unemployed, she is a former employee of the “Little Lavender” hair salon. On her wrist, she has the RH+ pattern tattooed, on the collarbone a lioness, on the shoulder a shape difficult to identify. “The first was the lioness, my sign of the Zodiac. I had it done fifteen years ago, when tattooing was associated more with prison than with the trend. The pattern was supposed to be small, but at the last moment I changed my mind. You only live once! For the first days I couldn’t stop looking at my lioness. I purposefully put on blouses with straps and straightened my back proudly. So what?! Let them stare! Well, unless I was going to my mother’s. Then the lioness got hidden under two thick shirts. Because when she saw her, my mother nearly got heart attack. ‘Child, what have you done? Only criminals get tattooed!’
“The heron was next. Birds have always reminded me of freedom and happiness, and I had just nearly died in a car accident. It was a head-on crash in Brzeziny near Lodz. All the airbags in the car popped out. The car was completely damaged. Fortunately, I only had a minor neck injury. So, I had a heron tattooed. Later a friend persuaded me to have it coloured in and change the shape a little. It was supposed to resemble a bird of paradise, but it came out terrible. You don’t know what it is. Look, this heron looks like a baobab.
“I am the proudest of the geisha,” says Ania and she shows her thigh and a slant-eyed girl with a sword. “It was my present for myself for my fortieth! I was only supposed to accompany my friend, because after many years she decided to get her first tattoo. And then I saw this geisha. She immediately amazed me and I knew I had to have her.
“The geisha is to remind me of my roots. And about a story that happened in my family many years ago.
“My name is Ju. Like my Chinese grandfather. Apparently, Ju in China is very popular surname, like Kowalski in Poland. My grandfather was a merchant from around Shanghai. He travelled around Asia with his little stall. In 1934, he came to Europe. First to Germany, then to Poland. One day in Częstochowa in the market he spotted my grandmother Tekla. They fell in love and had a child. Unfortunately, the war broke out and the Soviets took my grandfather to a labour camp. Soon after, word came to the city that Ju was dead.
“So, my grandmother married a widower with seven children. Probably more out of reason than out of love. Until one day … my Chinese grandfather knocked on her door. It turned out that he had survived, that the letter had been sent by mistake. And Tekla didn’t know what to do. Can you imagine? The love of your life comes back and you are with another man. But she chose the widower. After all that, however, she could not recover and died of anorexia. What about grandpa? He went to Germany and got involved with another Polish woman.
“I know that the geisha theme is not related to my grandfather’s story. Because he is from China, and she is from Japan. But I liked the pattern and later I remembered the story.”