How I became a tattooed tree

‘The sun was going down, behind a tattooed tree, and the simple act of an oar’s stroke put diamonds in the sea, and all because of the phosphorous there in quantity, as I dug you diggin’ me in Mexico.’

My username ‘tattooedtree’ comes from this line from the psychedelic folk singer Donovan’s 1967 hit ‘Sand and Foam’.  Yes, my parents were hippies.  I took the name when I first went travelling at 18, footloose and tattoo-free.  I had a one-way ticket to Bangkok, but my travel fever had been incubated long before listening to the troubadour’s promises of Mexican grasshoppers creaking in the velvet jungle night.  Ten years later and Mexico is still top of my to-see list.  As with most travellers, the list gets longer with every trip I take.

I thought the name inspirational, but when people saw it their first response was to ask what tattoos I had.  I have a few now, but through a combination of fear and disapproval it took me until I was 25 to come good on my chosen moniker.

After a tempestuous few weeks travelling with my girlfriend (never travel with a partner unless you want to find out) things came to a head in Santiago.  I stormed off into the city, with rebellion in my eye, desperate to prove some vitally important point I can no longer remember.

A storm that might consume itself for want of playmates on a deserted stretch of coastline finds plenty of opportunities for mayhem in a metropolis.  I raged from bar to bar until I came across a shopping centre, complete with its own tattoo parlour.  In the UK such places are normally consigned to dingy back alleys, bedsits over betting shops – and Camden.  Either I got lucky, or mainstream Chile has an appetite for body art.  Pride still stinging with self-reproach, I threw caution to the wind and stepped inside.

The tattooist was an unctuous bear of a man in a sleeveless leather waistcoat with a sleek ponytail and a luxurious moustache that drooped to the corners of his mouth.  His arms and chest were covered with ink.  Beneath his dark mass of body hair it was hard to tell the quality of the work, but I wasn’t about to ask for a closer view.  My Spanish was poor, but his English was worse.  I took out my journal and showed him a couple of designs I’d been working on. they were doodles really, just a starting point for a skilled artist to develop.  He pointed at one, a sixteen pointed sunburst, and grunted.

“Il Sol.”

“Yes, the sun. can you do something like that?”

He grunted again, ripped out the page of my journal and set to work with some tracing paper, his brow knitted in concentration.

“Should I come back later?”


“Dónde? Oh, my shoulder I think.  So I’ll always have the South American sun on my back… does it hurt much there?”

He looked at me blankly.  I pointed, and he grinned and grabbed at my shirt.


“What now?”

He showed me his paper. He had traced my shonky uneven doodle exactly.


“Wait… will it hurt?”


“Mucho peña?”

“No, no. Es vale la peña!”

Before I had time to change my mind my shirt was off and he was sticking the tracing paper to my shoulder with roll-on deodorant to transfer the image. His huge paw was on my shoulder, guiding me into his leather chair. He pulled up a seat next to me and pushed me forward to expose my shoulder. The buzzing of the needle began. And then, my new found friend, who had previously shown no ability to speak English whatsoever, bent forward and whispered in my ear:

“Enjoy the pain.”