A few days ago I arrived in Lefkada, a lovely island off the west coast of Greece, after two arduous days of riding north along beautiful coastlines and over hilly terrain. The journey was often breathtaking, and challenging enough with the 30 kilos or so of gear that I’m carrying on my bike these days. After pushing all that weight up one ascent after another, I sure was happy to finally arrive.
I parked my bike in front of the first café I saw as I pulled up to the main drag, settled my sore buns on a nice cushioned chair and promptly ordered some dinner to calm my grumbling stomach. My couchsurfing hostess, Labrini, was with me within minutes, and we were soon joined by a few more of her friends for some good old fashioned Greek merriment. As such gatherings so often are, this meeting of friends was a great opportunity for me to meet a few locals, and soon enough plans were made for me to join them the next day for an afternoon at one of Lefkada’s gorgeous beaches.
That day, after a few quick refreshing dips in the chilly and dazzlingly beautiful turquoise sea, we were joined by John (Yannis), one of the owners at Libre, a popular beach bar on Kathisma beach. John was an interesting person, to say the least. He was talkative and animated, a person who liked to ponder and discuss just about anything. He had had a colourful and eventful life, to be sure.
When he found out I was a tattoo artist, he wasted no time to declare that he didn’t like tattoos. Yet his skin wasn’t tattoo free. He had a pair of crossed bones on his upper back, and had he and his friends not used stamp-pad ink for the tattoos they’d given one another during their mandatory military service, he would have also had a peace sign on his ankle with the words ‘WAR PIGS’ written around it. Luckily, office ink doesn’t have much staying power beyond paper surfaces, and so three months later, the peace sign, along with the Black Sabbath song title, had disappeared.
The bones, John explained, had been chosen to remind him that death was coming, and that it could arrive at any time. And strangely enough, moments after affirming that he didn’t like tattoos, he asked me if I could give him a tattoo of a butterfly, a symbol of life, to balance out the tattoo he already had. He asked me to draw something out, and if he liked it, we’d go ahead and put it on his skin. So I went home and put something down on paper.
The next day, John picked me up in his little European car and we spent the next 8 hours visiting the island. He was a good tour guide, keeping me entertained with interesting stories about the people who lived here, and of some of the events that had occurred on the island over thousands of years of history.
He spoke of an old man who lives up in the hills, ostracized by the rest of the islanders for the things he’d done during the civil war that had consumed Greece after WWII. For decades he’s lived a life of seclusion because during those years of war, he’d been an executioner. One of his duties had been to throw ‘enemies’ (often simple villagers) into ‘the hole’, a deep pit up in the mountains of Lefkada which is now overgrown with vegetation. And though in a conversation with John, he’d claimed to have only been responsible for the death of 18 people using this method, the history books say that it was closer to 300 who’d been thrown to their death in the pit. I suppose the only way to find out for sure would be to climb down in the hole and start counting bones… If it hasn’t already been done, it must be because there’s a general consensus that some things are better left buried in the past.
In the hours John had spent with this man, he got to see a side of the ‘monster’ that most people would never know, a more human side of him that most folks would perhaps never even want to acknowledge existed. In truth, his death count of 18 victims in the pit might well have been 20, had it not been for two events that set our executioner apart from complete psychopaths. One of these instances concerned a man, battered and broken, whom the executioner saw crawling out of the hole he’d been thrown into hours before. The survivor was the only of his victims who’d managed the incredible feat… and so he decided to let the man live. “He’d earned it.”
The other event in which a soul was saved by the executioner concerned a young woman who had been among those he’d been ordered to throw in the hole. As if in a scene of a Hollywood movie, she looked him straight in the eye and told him: “If I must die, it must be you who kills me; your comrades are all pussies.” He’d been so struck by her fierce beauty, her ferocious air of defiance, and the absolute absence of fear in her eyes, that he chose a different fate for her. He let her live, and eventually, in true Hollywood style, they fell in love and spent the rest of their lives as man and wife.
The stories kept coming as we travelled from one postcard-perfect beach to another, visiting the ruins of ancient monasteries and temples that are scattered all over this history-rich island. We visited the grave of the German archaeologist Wilhelm Dörpfeld, who came to Lefkada to perform excavations at various locations of the island in search of the palace of Odysseus (which some believe he found) and other important historical sites, determined to prove that Lefkada was the real location of Homer’s Ithaca.
In all those hours spent touring the island, I also got to know John better. He told me of his childhood on the island, of his days going around old archaeological sites with his friends and digging up ancient bones. (This early fascination with bones might have had something to do with the tattoo he ended up getting later in life…) He remembers finding a child’s bone, breaking it in two, varnishing one of the pieces, and then wearing it around his neck as a pendant. He also remembers his mom finding ancient adult femur bones under his bed and giving him hell for it. To this day he still feels a bit guilty about that, because those old bones ended up being tossed out in the trash…
He also told me about the day that turned his world upside down when he was only 8 years old… It was the day he learned that his father, who had been sick with lung cancer, was dead. He remembered the shock of it all, because somehow he had been the last to know. Even his friends had known before he did. By the time he was given the news, his father was already in the ground. He remembers how he didn’t cry that day. Or any day after that for several years, for that matter. He just ran straight to his friends, knowing that from that day on, he would have to step up and protect his family in his father’s stead.
In very little time, the boy became a man. While still in elementary school, John was already reading large historical novels and some pretty heavy-duty stuff for a person of any age, including writings by the Marquis de Sade. As he got older, he became more aggressive, more violent in his way of thinking. His time in the military did nothing to slow him down in his transformation, and eventually he would associate with some pretty radical anarchists. He never became affiliated with any groups, however, and he refused to take part in public demonstrations. He knew that this would play into the hands of those in power. He was no fool; he knew how things were done. Any time things got a bit crazy on the streets, undercover cops would come out and throw a few molotov cocktails at men in uniform, which would give them the excuse they needed to start firing on the crowds of demonstrators.
During the years that followed his military service, John lived in Athens for about 4 years. He got pretty heavily involved with drugs, mostly chemically-laced marijuana (an addiction that would eventually lead to a serious condition in his lungs, which put him in the hospital for some serious surgery.) He dabbled with other types of drugs too, but he managed to steer clear of the really dirty stuff. And luckily he had always been uncomfortable with injections, an aversion that he says may have saved his life, in the end…
Finally, at the age of 24, John moved back to Lefkada, and so began his metamorphosis. Upon his return, he focused on rebuilding his body and improving his health, on becoming a more positive person, and on letting go of his aggression and anger.
Ten years later, John is a very different person than he was in those darker days in Athens. He runs a successful business with his family, and surrounds himself with kind, loving people. He takes care of himself but looks for ways to serve others too. He always looks for ways to improve himself, and to better understand the world he lives in. He opts to resolve conflicts through communication and compromise rather than with sharp words. Life is good now, and he has faith that in time, everything will fall into place just as it should, as long as he maintains a positive outlook and attitude.
The idea of a butterfly tattoo is nothing new for John. He first thought about getting it done about 15 years ago. But it wasn’t until now that he felt compelled and ready to go through with it. As our day of sightseeing came to an end, he played a Tool song for me on his car stereo: “It’s time now, my time now. Give me my wings.” I showed him the drawing I’d done for him the night before. A butterfly, one of the most enduring symbols for metamorphosis. He looked down at the drawing, paused for only a moment, and nodded his approval. It was time for John to finally get his wings.