Getting a tattoo in ThailandI stand nervously in my friend, Jodi’s, jungle hut placed perfectly in the heart of Elephant Nature Park. It’s a chilly morning and the sun has just crested the lush triangle mountains surrounding us. Around me, roosters crow, dogs bark and elephants begin their walk from their shelters to the vast sanctuary where they live.

Getting a tattoo in Chiang Mai

Spread out on the table in front of me, the sun coming through the large bamboo slats of the wall, are tubes of ink and cleaners. And a tattoo gun. I’m getting a tattoo in Thailand.

“I’m really nervous,” I confide to Jodi, who has lived at the park for more than a decade.

“You will be fine,” she reassures me as I take a seat in the cushioned chair, placing my right arm on a pillow. After all, she’s been tattooing since her days pre-Thailand and the steady stream of volunteers and return customers proudly show her talent on their bodies. They’ve done fine; I can, too. I think.

My friend grabs my wrist lightly.

Getting a tattoo in Thailand

The chair where the magic happens.

“What if I flinch?” I ask, concerned at the possibility of moving too much. Concerned at the possibility of moving at all.

“I’ve got you,” she says and then begins to clean my wrist with alcohol.

It’s a moment I’ve imagined for a long time: getting a tattoo in the jungle, from my close friend, surrounded by rescued elephants.

For years, I considered getting a reminder of my life somewhere on my body, but because of my Jewish upbringing, I never went through with it.

But, when I decided to leave Chiang Mai, it was different. I wanted something. I needed something. A reminder of the person I was, the person I am, the experiences with the elephants, with Lek, with people, I have had during my two-plus years as an expat in Chiang Mai.

When I left Las Vegas to move to Atlanta, I had contemplated getting a tiny pair of dice tattooed on the inside of my wrist … because I thought Vegas had changed me.

I never went through with it – somewhat because my Dad had asked me not to, and somewhat because, really? A pair of dice on my wrist? A reminder of my life in Vegas? At the time, I thought Vegas shaped me. And, in a large way, it did. But not to the extent the way Chiang Mai made me grow.

Life in Chiang Mai opened me up. It beat me up. It made my heart bigger. And made me understand what being humble means. To be open. To be graceful. To love, unconditionally. And to accept that life is not under my control.

Upon Dad’s approval of the tattoo (“Are you sure you don’t just want a bracelet with an elephant charm?”), I messaged Jodi. I wanted something simple. The same place I wanted the dice. A place for me to look. To stare down at my wrist when I type. To remind me of my experiences and to remember to always be graceful, humble and loving.

It was a simple idea: a tiny outline of an elephant on my right wrist.

The night before, under a starry-filled sky, Jodi and I sat in her hut looking at designs. There wasn’t one like I had envisioned, but one better: the outline of an elephant’s head with a trunk that turned into the “om” symbol.

It was perfect. It was me. It would be my reminder of who I was, who I became and who I want to remain forever.

And, on this crisp December morning, one week before I trade the actual jungle for a concrete jungle, I’m going through with it — fear of needles be damned.

Getting a tattoo in Thailand

“You should watch,” Jodi suggests as she prepares the gun.

I know myself better than that.

“I don’t think so,” I laugh. “But, maybe.”

Then, the buzz starts. A hum that overtakes the birds, the roosters, the foreign languages from the mahouts drifting through the tiny hut.

It doesn’t hurt … at all.

And then, the needle touches the skin and I feel it. The ink to tell my story slowly seep into my pores. The needle plowing along a small outline. It feels like the hairs on my arm are being plucked, slowly, one-by-one.

I suck the air through my teeth to keep my wits about me.

This is what you want, D. This means something to you. This tiny amount of pain is worth the lifelong reminder of this experience.

It takes a grand total of five minutes and I only utter “ouch” a couple of times, when the needle dances with my wrist bone.

When it’s done, I look down. Finally. There, raised and sightly red, is my forever reminder.

A friend in Vegas once said each tattoo tells a story. Each one means something. I look down at my wrist and see the elephant now etched in … forever.

This is my story.

Elephant tattoo from Elephant Nature Park

Jodi and I stand up and walk to her porch, which faces many of the elephant shelters. Under the golden morning sun, I embrace her.

“This,” I begin, choking my words before they even come out fully, “this is my special memory. We are forever connected. Thank you.”

I can feel the tears sting my eyes as I pull away and look out into the world which I have grown accustomed. A world I have treasured. A world I am leaving.

Getting a tattoo in Thailand: in the jungle

But, with this tattoo, Thailand will always be a part of me. Lek, the elephants, Jodi, the countless other people who have touched my life, and so much more. The life which made me the person I am. The life I am forever blessed to have experienced. A reminder that I can achieve what I set out to achieve. A reminder that I never can lose sight of what is important. And a dedication to fighting for those animals who cannot fight for themselves.

Do you have a tattoo? What’s the story behind the art?

22 comments

  1. So. Awesome. I actually just got two new tattoos last week in New York. I should have flown over to you and gotten them in the jungle hut. Sounds like such a cool — and really meaningful — experience 🙂

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  2. Beautifully written Diana and what a great souvenir to always remind you of your time in Chiang Mai.

    Great job Jodi!!

    We have a few tattoos but not all of them have meaning. We look at it the same way as someone looks at collecting art. Only we are collecting art on our bodies. We are living canvas.

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  3. Beautifully said and lovely to hear the real and personal meaning behind the tattoo rather than a list of how to get it done. A reminder you have forever, as well as this post to tell many others.

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  4. Yes, beautifully written and brought back to me the feelings I had when Jodi tattooed a small ele outline on the inside of my left wrist.
    I too needed a forever connection to the magical place that is ENP and for this to be achieved whilst in Jodi’s hut surrounded by the sounds of the sanctuary made it all the more special.
    Makes me whistful to return…….

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  5. Beautiful design as well, really stylish. I don’t think I’d ever have the confidence to go through with it (I’d be convinced I’d later change my mind!) but the story behind this is moving too. Onwards and upwards!

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  6. Diana,I too have had the privelege of being tattooed on two occasions by the pocket rocket Jodi T. Outlines of 3 elephants adorn my right wrist. On my left wrist l have the ahimsa symbol, these tattoos have great significance and l have my brother and his wife to thank for setting me on a path that has changed my life entirely.

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  7. You have no idea how much this spoke to me. After many years of dreaming of volunteering at ENP, I just booked a week for September. While I was in the planning stages, a friend who lived and worked at a dive school there suggested I check out your site – so glad I did! Reading about this amazing place and your adventures has made me that much more excited.

    I already have a couple tattoos…my most meaningful one was done two years ago, just after my divorce. It’s a starfish on my foot with the Latin phrase “ad astra per aspera” – translates to “a rough road leads to the stars”. I’m fairly certain that I’ll want my next tattoo to connect me to what I know will be a life-changing trip to Thailand, living and breathing with these wonderful creatures. Maybe I’ll even be lucky enough to have Jodi do it!

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    1. I’m so glad the post spoke to you. That made my day! Volunteering at ENP is absolutely an amazing (and life-changing!) experience.

      I love that tattoo, what a beautiful quote. Jodi is an incredible tattoo artist. Be sure to chat with her when you are at ENP. I’m sure, if she has time, she can do one for you!

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  8. That’s an amazing experience to have. I’d love to get a tattoo abroad some day – it just seems like it would make the memory and meaning that much more vivid. I have 4 tattoos -“believe” with a sparrow on my left wrist because I was 18 and thought I needed a tattoo, “wanderlove” on my right wrist from a quote I love about travel, “But in my heart there is a memory and there you’ll always be” on my shoulder in memory of a cousin that died, and a watercolor heart turning into birds on my right side to symbolize letting go. I’ve only got, oh, ten more planned. 😉

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