Friday, September 25, 2015

Vegvísir - My Latest Tattoo

It is rare that Greg and I plan and book a trip so far in advance, with the exception of our around-the-world adventure in 2010-11. We generally prefer to wait until closer to departure, so as to have a better idea of our work obligations and overall mood in terms of the type of vacation we want. This also increases the possibility that we can take advantage of last minute deals, especially for cruises. With Iceland, we didn’t want to take that chance. Even though Icelandair started nonstop flights from Portland to Reykjavik this May, the route is seasonal and is only operated a few days each week. Options on legacy carriers often have undesirable connections and higher prices.

But I am digressing from the true focus of this blog post, which is to explain how and why I chose to get a new tattoo in Iceland. One advantage of having plenty of time to plan and prepare for a trip is to start thinking about how you want to preserve your memories or commemorate the occasion. Photographs are the obvious answer, as is purchasing small trinkets that help remind you of the fun times you had. Over the past 18 years, I have increasingly turned to another option, tattooing. I have written a few blog posts on the subject:

Shockingly, it has already been 3 ½ years since I got my last tattoo (the hop cone). In that time, I have come up with many ideas and sketched out numerous designs for my next one(s). As far as the travel theme is concerned, Greg and I have been on plenty of trips, but none where I really had the time and inclination to get a tattoo, with the possible exception of my extended trip to The Netherlands, northern England and Scotland in the spring of 2014.

Thus I was compelled to research my options in the months leading up to our trip to Iceland. Greg, for his part, kept jokingly suggesting that I get a tattoo of a glacier. I am more interested in symbolism, so I Googled keywords like “traditional Icelandic imagery.” I also incorporated words most relevant to my life like “travel” and “adventure.” It didn’t take me too long to find the vegvísir. What I didn’t realize until I delved deeper is how often it is used as a tattoo; even Björk has one! But this didn’t stop me from pursuing this course, as it truly represents everything that I want to convey at this time:

The Vegvísir can be seen in the Huld Manuscript of 1860, translated to mean signpost, however the word is derived from two Icelandic words: veg and vísir. Vegur means road or path, and Vísir stands for the word guide. The instruction given to this symbol has been translated as “If this sign is carried, one will never lose one’s way in storms or bad weather, even when the way is not known.”  The design and translation taken from the Galdraskræða Skugga is similar. That version was transcribed in 1940 but taken from earlier sources. Unfortunately the author did not share what those sources were.
Fen Alraun speculates that the Vegvísir incorporates 8 different charms of protection on each stave; thus the overall charm becomes one suitable to defend against many kinds of obstacles that might cause one to lose one’s way. He believes it is not necessary to understand the meaning of each stave: As long as the helm is written correctly every time it will still hold its power.

As it turned out, the Icelandic Tattoo Expo was taking place September 4-6 in Reykjavik. We were scheduled to arrive in Iceland the morning of the 3rd and would spend the first two days in Reykjavik before starting our driving tour of the country. I reached out to some well-known tattoo artists but quickly learned that many of them were booked for the expo. However, the owner of The Icelandic Tattoo Corp told me to contact one of their artists, Haffi, as he might be available during that time.

Via a Facebook Messenger chat with Haffi, I made an appointment for September 3 at 11:00 a.m., less than three hours after we were scheduled to land at Keflavik. Calculating the time to shop at duty free and collect our luggage, take the Flybus into the city, walk to our Airbnb, then walk to the tattoo shop, I would not have any room for error.

Luckily, we did not encounter any issues the morning of our arrival and had no trouble getting to the studio right on time. I had a thorough 30+ minute consult with Haffi, during which we talked about the size and location of the tattoo. He also offered us some budget restaurant recommendations, which we did actually use to good result. However, Haffi suggested I consider waiting to get the actual tattoo until the end of the trip, due to the fact that we planned to visit at least one geothermal spa (you shouldn’t soak a new tattoo for at least two weeks) and because we were staying in hostels with shared baths, which doesn’t guarantee the most sanitary conditions. I agreed with his logic, so we scheduled my new appointment for 7:00 p.m. on September 13, our very last night in Iceland.

It’s not especially easy to get lost in Iceland, as there’s only one main road, Highway 1 or the Ring Road which encircles the country. Yes, there are plenty of roads which turn off from this main track and are used to access more remote areas like the fjords or the highlands. Even so, there is adequate signage, and as long as you are prepared for sub-optimal driving conditions you should not ever, technically, get lost.

My new tattoo, while historically known as a signpost which prevents one from getting lost, has a deeper meaning for me. It is symbolic of the struggles I have overcome throughout my life, and, in light of recent events which cause me to question my current path, I trust that it will help me find my way going forward.