It’s been over a month since my touring bike and a whole lot of other stuff was stolen while I was napping in a train station waiting room in Athens. I’d been waiting for my friend Maria to arrive when it happened, and fortunately, when she finally did show up, I got more than I bargained for… in the best way! Not only did she help me deal with things like filing a police report, but she also took me home, where her family immediately took me in, providing me with a safe place to stay while I re-grouped and got things back in order. I had no idea that it would take this long to buy a new bike and replace all of the items that were lost that morning. But luckily, what might have been an inconvenience to all involved has turned out to be a wonderful experience.
In the time I’ve lived with Maria, her parents Giorgos and Polina, and her brothers Vagelis and Yannis, I’ve come to feel like a part of the family. At the end of the workday, we sit together for dinner and ask one another how our days went. We tell each other stories, talk about our families, and share jokes over delicious meals and a nice bottle of wine. In some ways, it feels a lot like home…
The time we’ve had together has been put to good use in another way; it turns out that many members of the family were interested in getting a tattoo, or having one touched up or covered altogether. Giorgos was especially keen to cover up a series of old, faded tattoos that had long ago become a source of mild embarrassment; he was never too eager to take his shirt off to go for a swim.
The oldest of his tattoos was done when he was 17, maybe 18 years old. It was a sun, crude and inelegant, with his first girlfriend’s initials inscribed on a ribbon underneath. Like so many tattoos done ‘back in the day’, it was done by hand with one needle – a long, painstaking process, to say the least.
When Giorgos was 19 years old, he went into the army to perform his mandatory military service, a duty which is still required of Greece’s youth today. He served for a year and a half, and it was during his time there that he got his second round of tattoos: an eagle, heart and rose with his second girlfriend’s name on his right arm, and the ‘pisces’ symbol under the sun (his first tattoo) on the other. Again, the pieces were done by hand.
At age 21, one month after he left the army, he married the girl whose name was now inked on his right arm. Two years after that, his son, Yannis (Giannis), was born. At that time, Giorgos was working in a book-binding factory. He’d worked with books for years, having started working in his father’s factory when he was 16 years old. But when he came out of the army, he went out and got his own machines, and opened a factory of his own with a few partners. Unfortunately, things didn’t go so well for him; over the course of three years, his partners, who were older than him, took advantage of his naïveté and lack of business experience and, well, screwed him. Disillusioned and looking for a fresh start, Giorgos left the book-binding industry and became a distributor of car parts for Mercedez.
When Yiannis was about 7, Giorgos ran into more bad luck: problems with customs and import taxes that landed him in jail for four months. It was during this time that he got his last two tattoos – Asterix on his right shoulder blade, and a strange and unrecognizable rendition of a cannabis plant on the other.
After his time in prison, a lot changed in Giorgos’s life. He met Polina, who would become his second wife and eventually the mother of his three youngest children. He also returned to the book-binding business, this time opting to work with his family. But the biggest change, and what would possibly be the most trying time of his life, came when Yannis, his first-born, was diagnosed with cancer of the lymph nodes. For nine grueling months of treatment and hospital visits, Giorgos, Polina and little Maria (who was 7 years old at the time) watched Yannis’s health deteriorate until finally, the young man was overcome. He was only 18.
Eleven years have since passed, but the effects of the loss can still be felt today. Yannis’s portrait hangs above the fireplace, and there are photos of him in the homes of each member of the extended family. After all these years, there’s a certain sadness that is still visible in Giorgos’s eyes whenever Yannis is mentioned… It’s no surprise that when we started talking about covering his old tattoos, the first thing he wanted to do was to find a way to honour his son. I had already done tattoos on Maria and Polina that were inspired by the memory of Yannis and the importance of family; now it was Giorgos’s turn.
After four long sessions, Giorgos’s old tattoos are now completely covered up. On his left arm, over the sun and pisces symbol, is an ornate cross with Yannis’s name written on it. On his right arm, covering the eagle, heart and rose, is an angel standing with a horse, with ravens flying above. The horse is representative of a passion that Giorgos had shared with Yannis.
They started riding together, and when Yannis got sick, Giorgos started building stables at the back of the property. When his son died, he was swallowed by his grief. But he also found a certain peace and consolation when he was in the presence of animals. So he filled his stables with horses, and started acquiring a wide assortment of animals: ponies, donkeys, deer, goats, peacocks, ostriches, swans, and many more. The time and energy it took to care for the animals gave him relief, and the distraction saved him from being consumed by the sadness that was constantly threatening to pull him under.
Today, Giorgos has fewer animals, but the four stalls in his stables are still being used to house his horses, which he loves deeply. They continue to bring him peace as he carries on the daily ritual of feeding them treats and giving each of them personal attention just before the sun sets.
He’s still at the book-binding factory, where he runs the business with his father and three younger brothers. And he has his children, Maria, Vagelis, and little Yannis, whom he loves affectionately. Life can certainly be hard at times, but it also graciously provides us with ways to overcome challenges, setbacks and tragedies. We may never forget the hard times, but fortunately, life is generous with gifts that can help us move on…