If we were to shake hands in a business meeting or spark up a conversation at a dinner party I’m confident you wouldn’t dare guess a significant portion of my body was covered in tattoos (six to be exact).
Because I don’t fit the stereotype traditionally associated with tattoos (or the people who have them) you would never assume various areas of my body were permanently covered in body art.
First of all, I have never been arrested or had any affiliation with a biker gang. I am also far from the reckless type. For example:
- I went to Catholic schools growing up,
- I graduated with honours from a distinguished University in Canada,
- I have worked with very reputable companies in senior management and leadership positions,
- I have spoken in front of large crowds at business conventions, and
- I have written several business books and manuals.
I am also not a fan of pain. I can put up with it … but avoid it if I have a choice (i.e., going to the dentist, getting waxed, etc.).
The stereotype that was true, in my case, was that I got my first tattoo when I was nineteen, under the influence of my peers. I don’t remember the name of the tattoo shop, the artist, or even what it felt like. It was like it never happened and was just some random dream.
It wasn’t until I started my last two tattoos, twenty years after that first time, that I truly came to understand the meaning of tattoo and my connection to it.
THE TATTOO CONNECTION
Growing up in a small northern town, I wasn’t familiar with tattoo shops or how it all worked. Come to think of it, I didn’t know of anyone who had actually gotten a tattoo except for the truckers who stopped in town and the young priest with a large cross (with a serpent wrapped around it) on his forearm. I was always curious to learn the story but was just too shy to ask.
I believed the stereotypes about tattooing and saw it as an act of rebellion or a symbol of one’s place in the underbelly of society. I didn’t understand why someone would mark up his or her body or go through all that pain on purpose.
The closest things to tattoo that I could even relate to were the scars I had collected from countless injuries I’d earned as an athlete. The journey towards each medal and trophy included blood, sweat, tears and countless hours inching towards the win. I still look down at my right knee, my left ankle and the fingers I’ve sprained time and time again and remember the glorious victories, like it was yesterday.
When I got my first tattoo I came to understand that this, for me, was a way to document the roadmap of my life … the key moments that changed me for the better. They are visible reminders of the life experiences that have made me who I am today.
Each tattoo was rightfully “earned”. Because I went through something significant in my life, changing the way I looked at the world, I deserved a beautiful reminder of the struggle and the learnings that came from it.
Here is my journey through tattoo, one agonizing piece at a time.
TATTOO #1: MAKING HISTORY
To keep me out of trouble (in a small town with lots of bad influences) my parents enrolled me in sports. In middle and high school I spent thousands of hours in the gym, on the court, and on the field mastering my skills. From track and field and badminton to basketball and volleyball, I learned teamwork, sacrifice, determination, courage, how to be resilient, how to win, and how to lose. Earning a spot and playing on a University varsity volleyball team was a dream come true for me!
As a first year rookie, I was fortunate to play a significant amount and saw court time during the CIAU National Championships. That year our team made history … we won the very first national championship in women’s volleyball since the University opened its doors in 1908. As many of my teammates were graduating that year we did one last thing together as a team at the request of our captain. We got tattoos to commemorate our win!
The first thought that went through my mind was not about the pain involved in the tattoo process … it was concern about what people would say (or think) about me when they saw it. Would I fall into the stereotype of being “irresponsible” or “sexually promiscuous”? Would this tattoo get in the way of me getting the jobs I wanted in the future? Regardless of the significance of what our team accomplished (against all odds) I cared more about being judged than being “immortal”.
In the end, those thoughts faded away as I looked at my teammates and was proud to be a part of that journey. In fact, our team went on to win another three national championships during my time at the University. That tattoo was a constant reminder that, regardless of the loss or the adversity we faced, we were champions and could beat the odds!
TATTOO #2: SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST
Fast-forward ten years to a new life (in a new city), the start of my second career, and the next BIG goal … my first marathon! After playing professional volleyball and working for a pharmaceutical company, I was back into fitness (working for the top Pilates company in the world and overseeing the first onsite fitness center at Microsoft). After knee surgery I stopped playing volleyball and missed having a focus outside of my work. So, when a friend had asked if I would train with her, motivate her, and help her complete her first marathon I immediately said “YES!”. Unfortunately, because I was a natural power athlete, long distance running or training for endurance was something that I avoided at all costs (because the thought of “failure” or the inability to finish terrified me).
Nothing could have prepared me for the physical and mental struggles I would face the sixteen gruelling weeks leading up to race day. I logged 26 to 50 miles per week, encountered chaffing, blisters, nagging colds, and countless physiotherapy and massage appointments. Agony and exhaustion became my “normal”.
Although I was confident I could finish the race, I had decided about six weeks into training that I wanted to run it in under four hours. I had no idea whether it was possible but had that number burned into my brain. The thought of getting a tattoo never entered my mind … until I completed the race that tested every ounce of my soul.
I crossed the finish line in 3 hours, 59 minutes and 40 seconds. This day marked the moment I became a member of the human race. I was truly independent. I didn’t need the support or approval of anyone else to live a fulfilled life. I didn’t need to listen to the naysayers who thought my ideas silly or insignificant. I could take risks and go against all odds and come out the other side.
One week later I visited a tattoo shop a friend recommended and added a red Chinese character for “challenge” to my collection.
TATTOO #3: THE LITTLE COMPANY THAT COULD
The next few years marked an exciting time in my career. After my time with Microsoft I teamed up with a group out in Denver to start an active gaming company, launching groundbreaking products and services into the fitness industry (a hybrid between video games and exercise where you used your body like a human joystick). Products like Nintendo Wii, Dance Dance Revolution, Xbox Kinect and other virtual simulation technologies were starting to come out into the market and our company “bridged the gap” bringing active video games into fitness clubs and schools as a fun alternative to physical activity for both kids and families. This was my first major venture into big business … and it was my “baby”.
When we first started out people didn’t think we would last. They turned their back on us as we struggled to build recognition from the start. But … when we opened our first 25 locations in North America, and we were named to Entrepreneur Magazine’s Top 100 Brilliant Companies in 2010, it was time to commemorate yet another achievement! The brand logo became tattoo number three in my growing collection of life memories and achievements!
** (WAIT! There is a continuation to this story. Read on to find out more!) **
TATTOO #4: I AM ENOUGH
Although my first tattoos represented great achievements in my younger years, the next three came from a very different place. This is where my appreciation of tattoo evolved.
I came to realize these tattoos were merely replacements for the medals and trophies I could show off … proof that I was good at something (at some point in my life). These were reminders of a success that “used to be” and not who I am now.
What I’ve learned over the years is that people don’t evolve when life is easy or when they are always successful. Failures, heartbreak, and embarrassing losses are what test a person’s ability to survive and often shows their true colours. If I was to legitimately “earn” my tattoos I also needed to document the lowest moments and what I learned from them.
Much of what makes me a valuable human being are the stories that are hard to admit to others … the humbling experiences that grow us and make us whole. The next three tattoos are very personal reminders of my own inner strength, resilience, the ability to withstand deep emotional pain, and get back up again after falling.
Tattoo number four came into my life in 2012 … and was the most emotionally painful of them all. After ending a very volatile relationship this tattoo was earned when I took an honest look at the relationship I had with MYSELF (and my personal struggle to find self-worth). As successful as I had been throughout my career as an athlete and in business, there was always a deep-seeded fear that I was inadequate and (potentially) a fraud.
I realized that there were very few things in life I could ultimately control – my actions, my words and my thoughts. That meant the only person who could bring happiness to my life was me. I had to stop pointing fingers at others and had to take full responsibility for my situation. I had to see the world with different eyes and make my own happiness … not expect others to do that for me. My motto became my next tattoo:
“Live an extraordinary life. One where each day begins with unlimited opportunities and ends knowing no regrets.”
TATTOO #5: FORGIVE … BUT NEVER FORGET
Although tattoo number three was a crowning achievement in my career (at the time), it was sadly short lived with the downturn in the economy. I struggled for many years and resented seeing the mark on my skin every day. It was a constant reminder of the mistakes I had made and the people I trusted along the way.
When I moved back to Canada in 2014, I was ready to start my life all over again. I wanted to let go of the past and start fresh … with no regrets. Although the easy solution would have been to remove the original tattoo (via laser treatment), I decided to keep it and get a cover up.
I took complete responsibility for everything that happened to my business and took stock in everything that I learned. I also came to realize that my ability to survive the fallout of that experience also opened the doors to some of the greatest opportunities to come my way … and the incredible mentors who taught me to thrive despite my situation. It was a blessing in disguise!
My original tattoo evolved to become a beautiful cherry blossom tree that covers a significant portion of my side and ribs. A memorable line from my favourite Disney movies inspired this tattoo:
“The flower that blooms in adversity is the rarest and most beautiful of all.”
This was the first time I was brave enough to endure a tattoo session longer than two hours (six and a half hours to be exact). I was not afraid to put the design in the hands of the tattoo artist (because I designed out each of my previous tattoos for the artist to draw). I was also not afraid to have a large tattoo on my body that couldn’t be easily hidden. What others thought about me was no longer relevant. I didn’t have to answer to anyone for the story of my life. It was one of the clearest acts of strength I’d ever experienced. My life has never been the same.
This would not have been possible without the talent and artistry of Chiwon An, an incredibly talented tattoo artist who moved to Canada to pursue his art … and his dream. When I was first introduced to his beautiful work (from a friend who had just completed an Alice in Wonderland inspired sleeve) I knew I wanted to work with him.
When we had our first meeting he openly refused to do the tattoo I originally wanted. He was capable of doing such beautiful work and knew that what I had asked for was clearly not up to his calibre. He told me a small piece would not be beautiful enough or reflect who I was as a person. He was right. I wanted to give him a chance … and believed in his vision (even though I had no idea what he had in mind). After a few conversations and a couple weeks of sketching he revealed the cherry blossoms that would cover up my painful past. I’ve never doubted him since.
Getting to know him in that first tattoo session, and the obvious passion he has for this craft, is how I came to truly respect and appreciate the history and heritage of tattoo.
To read more about Chiwon An, click here.
TATTOO #6: RISING FROM THE ASHES
They say that once you get a tattoo, it’s never the last. In my case, this is certainly true in every sense of the word!
Some get a “high” from being a living piece of art. Others actually enjoy the physical tattooing experience. For me, I could do without feeling the pain of the tattoo machine depositing ink into my skin. But what I have come to appreciate about the tattoo experience are the thoughts that go through my mind and rush of emotions I feel as I lay on the table for several hours. Each session I walk a fine line between being incredibly strong and completely vulnerable from one moment to the next.
It didn’t take me long to plan out my next tattoo with Chiwon An. It was one that had been on my mind long before he did the cover up a few months earlier and was one that had been on his bucket list as well. It was time for the PHOENIX.
Since I was a little girl I was captivated by the story of the Chinese phoenix, the mythical bird that came down from the heavens to the guide the Empress, representing power, honesty, integrity and grace. Greek mythology further connected me to this mythical creature … as a majestic bird consumed in flames and then rising from the ashes to live and breathe again.
I gave Chiwon complete control over the design (just like the cherry blossoms), letting him know how much area he had the opportunity to use. A few weeks later I was completely blown away when he showed me the stencil. I had waited 40 years for my beautiful phoenix … and here it was!
To be honest, nothing could have prepared me for the six sessions and 40 hours of work that went into the completion of this tattoo. This mythical bird is forever displayed from my left ribs to my mid thigh, masterfully sketched and showcased in brilliant colours.
WHAT’S NEXT …
At this point about ten percent of my body is covered in artwork … telling the story of my life so far. The pain from each drop of ink came and went and seems so insignificant now when I look in the mirror and see the final result.
Will this be my last tattoo? It’s hard to say.
I don’t know what life has in store for me or what epic experiences will need to be documented down the road. For now, I am proud of the life I’ve lived so far, the colourful stories I get to share, and am excited with each day to see what awaits me.
Luckily … I have a lot more room on this body for ink as those stories unfold!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrea Oh is an accomplished writer, published author, podcaster, and local blogger in Calgary, AB (Canada). Follow her adventures at www.sixfootcanasian.ca or on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (@sixfootcanasian).