In mid-October I crossed into Spain and shifted into pilgrim mode. For the next few weeks I would be following the Camino de Santiago de Compostela (The Way of St-James) which has been one of the most important Christian pilgrimages since the Middle Ages. I’m not a religious person, but since I was going to cross over to Spain’s west coast anyway, I thought it would be interesting to see what the Camino was all about.
It seems that making the journey is a growing trend; less than 700 people did it in 1985, but nowadays the number of pilgrims is closer to 200,000 per year. I’d heard a lot of stories from people who’ve done it (or parts of it), and the further south I moved into the Basque region of France, the more it came up in conversation. Naturally, I became convinced that passing up an opportunity to do the pilgrimage would be a mistake. So I got myself a credencial (pilgrim’s passport), crossed into Spain along the Atlantic coast, tied a large white seashell to one of my bags like an I.D. badge, and set off towards the west.
From the start I knew that my routine would be different for the duration of the pilgrimage. I wouldn’t be couch surfing or camping the way I’d done in the other countries I’ve cycled through since March. Instead I would be living like the rest of the pilgrims – travelling over large distances day after day, sharing evening meals with new acquaintances in the bustling common rooms of albergues, sleeping in crowded dormitories full of bunk-beds, and starting all over again at 7am the next morning. And since I’m sure pilgrims don’t expect to get tattooed while on the Camino, I knew that my activities as a tattoo artist would probably diminish significantly, if not disappear altogether for the duration of the journey. So I fell in with the rest the pilgrims, and focused on my day-to-day progression towards the west.
For about three weeks, I did what thousands of others have done on this journey over the centuries: I took in the scenery (a lot of it was breathtaking) and enjoyed discovering what the various Spanish landscapes, villages and cities have to offer. I followed the extensive network of yellow spray-painted arrows and innumerable seashell sculptures, plaques, tiles and signs, pushing through fatigue, pain and all kinds of weather to get to where I needed to go from one day to the next. I met people along the way with whom I almost instantly felt a strong connection, others who impressed me with their tales or personal histories, and yes, even a few who within minutes made it clear that you can’t always click with everyone you meet. I spent a lot of time alone on the road (nothing new there), and many an hour making small talk with new friends (guess I’ve done that once or twice before, too.) I worked on my Spanish speaking abilities, (which I’m happy to say got a bit better every day), and enjoyed interacting with the locals I met along the way, some of whom have been watching pilgrims walk through their towns their entire lives.
About two thirds of the way in, I reverted into my role as The Travelling Tattoo Artist when I met a 27-year-old Italian pilgrim named Michele, who decided that this would be the day he got his first tattoo. He’d been thinking about it for a while, and he felt that meeting a tattoo artist on the Camino was a serendipitous encounter that he should make the most of. So in the morning, once all of the other pilgrims had left, we set up a little tattoo studio in the pilgrims’ kitchen and got to work on Michele’s piece.
After graduating from university three years ago, Michele immediately started travelling, and he’s been out discovering the world since. For two years he lived in Ethiopia, and now he’s walking the Camino; one can only guess what he’ll be doing next. And it’s his lifestyle that has inspired him to get a wolf’s head tattooed on his shoulder-blade. He feels that he shares some of the wolf’s traits – he’s a lone traveller at times, but he’s also a loyal companion in times when he’s not wandering in the world. After about an hour of work, Michele pulled his shirt back on, hefted his pack onto his back, gave me a warm hug and left the albergue, joining the stream of pilgrims walking across the mountainous Spanish landscape that day.
A few days later, I happened to be staying in the same albergue as a man I’d met a few days earlier, an Icelandic-Italian named Thorwald. One of the first things out of Thor’s mouth after we greeted one another was that he wanted me to give him a tattoo. Apparently he’d spent a bit of time walking with Michele along the way, and learning of his fresh ink motivated Thor to get some too.
Thor is in his mid-forties, and he’s one of the more interesting people I’ve met on the camino. He’s been walking for 15 years, taking only brief breaks here and there to return home to see his family and record some music. He’s walked from Italy to Jerusalem, passing through Turkey, Syria and Jordan to get there, and on a separate journey he crossed the Sahara desert. On his longest trip, he spent eight months walking to the Gobi desert, and after living with a group of nomads in Mongolia for about a year and a half, took another eight months to walk back.
He hasn’t always led such an unconventional life. He has a degree in Physics and a second one in Mathematics, and until he was 30 years old, he was an engineer at CERN. But he’d felt that something was missing in his life, that he needed to make a change. In time, he turned his life completely around, and one day, he simply walked away from it… literally.
And now here he was, ready to commemorate something that has been a big part of his life since he started walking across great expanses of land. For this was the eighth time he’d walked the Camino. He’s done the tough but picturesque Camino Norte along the north coast of Spain twice, and this was his sixth time walking the main route, the Camino Frances. So in the morning, before heading off, we set up in front of the albergue (we had to be out by 8:30am), and Thor got a tattoo of the red cross of Santiago, a symbol that can be seen everywhere along the Camino, along with the shells and yellow arrows.
A few days after that, I did a third tattoo, this time on a 19-year-old Swiss man named Florian. He’d seen me ride past him on the road earlier that day, and when we were introduced in the evening at a restaurant, he told me he’d been hoping we would end up in the same place so that he could get a tattoo. It’s like they say: “Whatever your needs, the Camino provides…”
When we first started chatting, he told me he had no idea what he wanted to get done. But with a bit of probing, it became clear that he’d indeed thought of a few options. One of them was a feather, to represent his travels, the way he goes with the wind, just floating along, following the currents and moving to wherever they lead him. Once again, I set up my equipment in a quiet corner of the albergue, and within two hours of our initial conversation after dinner, Florian was tattooed.
After a few more rainy days of mountainous riding, I arrived in Santiago on a clear, sunny Friday afternoon. And after a few celebratory snapshots in front of the cathedral, I headed for the Estrella de Santiago Albergue, where I would be staying with other pilgrims for a few days to rest and enjoy the city. Soon I got word from folks I’d met along the way that there were people looking for me. Word had spread among the pilgrims that there was a tattoo artist cycling the Camino, and some were on the lookout, hoping that our paths would cross so that they could get some work done before heading home. I got a few messages from pilgrims telling me that they would arrive in Santiago in a few days. So I settled in and made myself comfortable, and waited for them to arrive.
Before the week was through, I’d done six more tattoos. Most were related to the pilgrimage, but there were a few touch-ups of pre-existing tattoos too. And I wasn’t the only one who’d wielded a tattoo machine that week. A few people had fun tattooing oranges, including Martin, an artistically talented German pilgrim who’d cycled from Munich to the south of France and then walked the rest of the way. And when his ornately detailed orange was finished, he decided he was ready to step it up from tattooing fruit to tattooing human skin…
So for his first real tattoo experience, he sat hunched over his own leg, tattooing an infinity symbol on the top of his foot while I held a light on his work, guiding him through the process. It took almost two hours (these things take time!) but I’m pleased to report that it looked pretty good in the end! Oh, the stories he’ll have to tell, that one…
After one week of tattoo fun, lovely strolls around the city, jovial communal dinners, late nights in local bars, traditional Galician music and goofy dance moves in nightclubs with an ever-changing group of pilgrims, it was time to say goodbye and move on. With less than one month in Europe before my return to Canada for the winter, it was time to make my next move and head for Finisterre, ‘the End of the Earth,’ where most pilgrims really end their journey… or where it all begins!