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The newest souvenir: a tattoo from your trip

As the popularity of tattoos continues to increase, so has the idea of using them to remember a special trip or destination

More travelers are getting permanent souvenirs of their trips in the form of tattoos.stock.adobe.com/jakkapan - stock.adobe.com

SAN DIEGO — Located as it is beside the home port of the Pacific Fleet, Chris Gonzales’s tattoo shop serves a lot of sailors, airmen, and Marines seeking to eternalize in ink some of the centuries-old symbols that commemorate the places they go.

They come in for tattoos of swallows after every 5,000 nautical miles traveled, of turtles after crossing the equator, of dragons when they traverse the International Date Line, of sailing ships for rounding Cape Horn, and of anchors after crossing the Atlantic.

But these days, Gonzales’s shop, SD Tattoo in San Diego’s Point Loma section, is seeing new kinds of customers who want to memorialize their travel in tattoos: civilians.


“Almost daily we have tourists coming in before they go back home,” Gonzales said. “Sometimes it’s a California poppy or a palm tree or a little California bear, or a big thing is to get an outline of the state and they’ll get a star where San Diego is,” Gonzales said.

“It’s like a time stamp that’s going to stand the test of time and be able to strike up that memory whenever people see it.”

As the popularity of tattoos continues to increase, so has the idea of using them to remember a special trip or destination. These can range from tattoos of iconic landmarks to tattoos of the globe, a compass, a passport stamp, an airplane, or an inspirational quotation — Robert Frost’s “miles to go before I sleep,” for instance, or J.R.R. Tolkien’s “not all who wander are lost” — to convey a general love of travel.

“It’s just nice to have it on me,” said Stephanie Orswell, a Medfield native studying toward her doctorate in England and a member of an international network of women travel aficionados called Her Adventures, who has four travel-related tattoos along her right arm, including one of an elephant to commemorate a trip to Thailand.


“I just look down and I see, oh, yeah there’s my elephant. It’s kind of nice having it always there with me.”

Chris DeBarge’s customers at Bird in Hand tattoo shop in Newton often want more universal reminders of their travel. “It might be an outline of a map or a palm tree, or more generic stuff like mountains,” DeBarge said. He’s had three clients return from Costa Rica and get tattoos of the words “pura vida,” a common saying there that means “pure life.”

“Something like that is perfect,” DeBarge said. “It’s not a huge tattoo but it’s enough to have that memory.”

Six of Retha Charette’s eight tattoos are travel related, collected in her role as a guide for the travel companies Whoa and Damesly.

“Each one has a story behind it,” said Charette, who is from Wareham — even if only certain people understand them.

Down one leg, for instance, is the elevation profile of the Long Trail in Vermont, where Charette now lives. “To some people it’s just a squiggly line, but [hikers comment], ‘That’s a trail. What trail is it?’ " Charette also has the coordinates on her arm of a peak she climbed in Antarctica, a Machu Picchu passport stamp, and the words “imara kama simba,” Swahili for “strong like a lion,” on her forearm to remember summiting Mount Kilimanjaro.


“It’s not to show off to other people,” she said. “Some people aren’t into tattoos, and that’s cool. They’re really just for me.”

Retha Charette got a tattoo after summiting Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Six of her eight tattoos are travel related, collected in her role as a guide for the travel companies Whoa and Damesly.Ben Curtis/Associated Press

It was because of travel that westerners learned of tattoos in the first place, during James Cook’s expedition to Tahiti, from which Cook’s crew returned with what the islanders called “tattaus.”

Tattos “have always been totemistic,” said Dave Marden, a photographer from Framingham who specializes in the tattoo scene. “They’ve always been something to remember the trip by.”

Tattooing has attained wide popular acceptance. Three in 10 Americans have at least one tattoo, up from two in 10 a decade ago, according to an Ipsos poll.

Still, Melita Reardon waited until she was 48 when, in May, she had a set of three waves inked on her bicep after traveling to Mexico on a women’s surfing trip.

“Making that leap later in life, I had to have something with a story behind it,” said Reardon, who lives near Portsmouth, N.H., and is also a Her Adventures member. She called her tattoo “a meaningful souvenir that’s not going into the back of a closet somewhere. It’s a really personal reminder of this one particular experience that was transformative for me.”

That’s the primary reason one study found that people give for getting a tattoo: to mark a significant experience.

“A tattoo is a mark and a mark signifies a time or place, something we can memorialize forever,” said Pat Sinatra, owner of Pat’s Tats in Woodstock, N.Y., and president of the Alliance of Professional Tattooists.


Some tattoo enthusiasts travel to sample different styles and techniques, which vary geographically and by culture — Japanese horimono, for example, which uses needles bundled at the end of a bamboo rod; single-needle tattoos applied in Jerusalem by the world’s oldest continuously operating tattoo business, using ancient patterns etched on wooden blocks; or sak yant tattoos, which Thai Buddhist monks offer as a blessing.

Some like to try out different tattoo artists, whose work they can see and with whom they can connect more easily than in the past thanks to social media.

That’s how Lauren Kendzierski, a chef and entrepreneur who owns Black Rabbit Farm in Southwick, came to incorporate tattoos into her travel plans.

“It’s a great opportunity to get artists and styles you can’t get at home,” Kendzierski said.

Her tattoos aren’t necessarily location-specific, but reflect the local tattoo scene.

“I’m not into buying tchotchkes, buying a T-shirt or something,” she said. “I want to get something beautiful I’ll have forever.”

The process, Kendzierski said, “is always an experience. It’s also a great way to meet new people and find a cool place to eat or get a good drink wherever you’re traveling.” And the tattoos are “kind of like a brain tool for remembering what you talked about, what the day was like.”

Vincent Hanna of Boston shows off his Red Sox tattoo during Opening Day at Fenway Park in 2017.Jessica Rinaldi

Travelers who come to Boston do this, too, said Rueben Kayden, who manages Chameleon Tattoo and goes by the professional name Horikei.

“Tattoo artists have always been a subculture, so when you meet people who are like-minded, you definitely bond,” Kayden said in the shop in Harvard Square during a rare lull.


Chameleon keeps a folder of tattoo designs devoted to “Bostonisms” for visitors: the Red Sox and Bruins Bs, a shamrock, the Citgo sign in Kenmore Square.

So widespread has this become that one Seattle hotel has brought in a tattoo artist in residence.

“Coming out of such a strange time, people are looking for very personal experiences when they travel that resonates with them and with the destination they’ve chosen. And what’s more personal than a tattoo?” said Allison Wied, director of sales for Thompson Seattle, which she said tends to attract people “who are more on the forefront of trends.”

Tattoo artists also visit their counterparts when traveling, said Kayden’s colleague, Paul Kapp, leaning on a drafting table outside the booths where customers get inked. “My wife and I try to get tattoos wherever we are. It doesn’t matter what it is,” said Kapp, who has a tattoo of a Polynesian turtle from Bora Bora and one of a troll from Iceland.

“After 10 years, that passport expires and you throw it in a drawer and forget about it,” Kapp said. “A tattoo is like your permanent passport stamp.”

Jon Marcus can be reached at jonmarcusboston@gmail.com.