When I looked at my maps a bit more closely a few weeks back while still in Italy, I saw that the Alps stood directly between me and my next major destination, Vienna. I’m not usually shy when it comes to hills, having spent a lot of time in recent years cycling in the mountains of Taiwan. But travelling through hilly terrain on a touring bike with about 25 kg of extra weight is a whole other story. When things get too steep (and it doesn’t take that much of an incline for that to happen), I have to get off my bike and push it, a process that is as exhausting as it is time consuming. I knew I’d have to find another way to get there, which is what led me to look more seriously at passing some time in Slovenia. As it turns out, the Alps, which run along the entire north side of the country, peter out in the east, just before the border with Hungary. And so into Slovenia I went, and I enjoyed every minute I spent there.
The first fifty kilometers or so were a bit tough, but then I descended into Planina (which is the most beautiful village I’ve seen to date) and from then on, the riding was not only gorgeous, but also pretty flat. After camping on my first night in the country, I arrived in Cerklje na Gorenjskem, about 20 kilometers north of Slovenia’s capital city, Ljubljana. It was mid-day when I met up with my host family for the next few days, and within minutes of my arrival, I was brought along to the local football pitch for the boys’ final games of the season. While Jaka (6) and Oskar (8) were finishing up their matches, I was sitting with ‘the parents’ and within minutes, everyone was talking ink.
When a group of people learns that there’s a tattoo artist in their midst, a pretty standard mix of reactions tends to occur. Some people immediately start to giggle and make jokes about getting something outrageous done, while others playfully try to encourage their friends to go under the needle, again, usually suggesting something completely outlandish. Others are more serious, and you can see their brains working as they try to think of something they could realistically have done. And then there are those who have been thinking about getting a tattoo for a long time, but for whatever reason haven’t gotten around to it yet. Some of them have a very precise idea of what they want; they might even have the design with them, drawn on a folded piece of paper they keep in their wallet.
When all the jokes have been made and the initial excitement of the conversation fades, most people move on to the next subject and that’s as far as they’ll go with the tattoo talk. But there sometimes remain one or two people who are no longer interested in talking about anything else. They become quiet, pensive, and they’re trying to make decisions: To be inked, or not to be? What to get? Am I ready to do this now? Throughout this whole process, I tend to be pretty quiet too. I answer any questions people have, but I leave it to them to go through the decision process and to come to their own conclusion on whether or not they want to go through with actually getting something done.
There were two people in the group that day who seemed to be seriously considering getting ink done. Bojan was interested in getting something on his upper arm; for twenty years he’d been thinking about getting a skull wearing a top hat, but for some reason he didn’t like the idea of going to a tattoo shop to get it done. Naturally, my arrival in town seemed to be the perfect solution. Maybe this would be his chance to finally get it done. And then there was Sonja, a hip young mother who spent a great deal of time brainstorming and looking at images of tattoos on her smartphone with her 13-year-old daughter, Pia, trying to decide what to get. The duo looked more like sisters than a mother-daughter team; it was nice to see how well they got on. By the time I left, everyone was still a bit undecided, so I suggested they sleep on it. I told them if they were still interested in getting something done the next day, we’d make it happen.
In the meantime, I spent some time getting to know the family I was staying with. Janez and Klaudia are a fun, friendly and open-minded couple, about the same age as me, and they’re raising two sons. They’re creative, healthy and active, with a taste for adventure travelling and doing all sorts of cool stuff. I enjoyed spending time with the family going on bike rides, visiting different parts of the town, and sharing tasty home-cooked meals with them. Being around the kids also brought me back to my teaching days in Taiwan, which I still miss sometimes.
On my third day in town, it was time to set up my machines and get to work. Bojan was ready to get his tattoo, though after a lot of deliberation and discussion with his wife (and a little input from yours truly) he’d decided to go in another direction. A top hat-wearing skull might have suited him well when he was in his twenties, but as his wife pointed out, it wasn’t really him anymore. So he went with an image of a lion instead, which seemed a better choice in everyone’s opinion, and very appropriate since he’s a Leo.
While the needles were at work on Bojan’s lion, Sonja and Pia were not far away, still looking through images on Google, talking about different ideas and trying to decide between getting stars tattooed on Sonja’s foot or shoulder, or getting something completely different. Of course I’d advised her to make sure she wasn’t rushing into this, getting it for the wrong reasons and so on. But she seemed pretty determined to have a tattoo done by the end of the night, so I let the pair of beauties work it out.
In the end, after hours of weighing the pros and cons of each of her options, Sonja decided to get a simple, stylized angel tattooed on her shoulder blade. She’d seen a picture of a similar tattoo I’d done on a woman in Greece, and she wanted something along the same lines done for her. When I left Bojan’s home, everyone seemed happy with their decisions, and I was pleased to leave two first-timers with their new ink and a big smile on their faces.
My workday wasn’t finished, however. When I got home, it was Janez’s turn to get his first tattoo. When I’d first arrived in town, he hadn’t even considered getting a tattoo done… ever. But as we spent more time together during my short stay, with all the tattoo talk going on around us, he started to think about it and to develop some ideas for a possible design of his own.
By the time my last night in Cerklje na Gorenjskem arrived, a design had been prepared, and Janez was ready to get inked for the first time. As a Libra, he chose an ancient scale as the focal point of his tattoo, and on either side of the scale, in perfect balance, he put a book on the left, and a moon on the right. The book represents his will to choose how he writes his own life story, while the moon represents destiny/fate; the overall image, of course, represents his way of seeing life.
The next day it was time to say goodbye to my little Slovenian family, and I set off for Ljubljana, from where I would continue east to get to Austria. I stopped at a Harley Davidson bar on the way to kill a few hours before going to a lunch meeting. I was wearing my ‘travelling tattoo artist’ shirt and at one point I was approached by a man who asked me if I really was what my shirt said I was. Within minutes, he was showing me a picture of a wolf he wanted to have tattooed on his chest, and asking me how much it would cost to get it done.
As it turns out, the man was the owner of the bar. We went into his office and started making plans for his new tattoo, and I started to get a pretty good idea of who it was I was dealing with. Already he’d convinced me to stay in town longer than I’d planned so that I could do his tattoo. (He’d sealed the deal by declaring that I would stay, and that he would pay me four times the amount I’d said it would cost). I could see that when Bogdan got it in his head that he wanted something, there was little that could stand in his way. Once we’d settled on a design, we made plans to meet the next morning to get it done.
Bogdan has wanted to have a wolf tattoo for many years. Half Jewish, half Serb, Bogdan was the son of a military man. Some of his earliest memories are of growing up in his grandparents’ house in the Balkans while his father was away on duty. They lived in the mountains and were surrounded by wilderness; wolves are some of the first animals he remembers ever seeing as a child.
The last tattoo I did in Ljubljana was a scorpion, done on the wrist of my couchsurfing host, Kamilo. On his left wrist, he already had his Chinese zodiac sign, a snake. Now with the second sign on the opposite wrist, things were more balanced. Looking at the five tattoos I’ve done in this country, it seems that people not only like to know what zodiac sign others have, but they also seem to identify themselves according to their own signs, and enough to display them on their skin permanently. It would be interesting to see what other people would get done if I could’ve stayed in Slovenia for a while longer… Alas, it was time to move on. There’s still so much that lies ahead!