July 28, 2013

Half Bodysuit: Why I’m Getting a Japanese Tattoo. ~ Elodie Saracco

Why am I getting a tattoo?

I’ve always been intrigued by the tattoo and its process, a very strong and symbolic one—the pain to endure, the wounds and the scars it leaves on my skin, in my flesh and from that, what a beautiful piece of art emerges, the permanent and definitive mark I’ve decided to get, the commitment.

For many tribes, tattooing was and still is the means to tell a story, one’s own story that you carry every single moment, like a reminder or a testimony. We don’t choose the body we’re living in, yet we can choose who we are and what we want this body to be like.

Getting tattooed is a way to mark myself out, make this body uniquely mine, adding some pieces of art and beauty to value it, reclaim what is me, define an identity and assume it. By having tattoos, I am changing my connection to the outside and others. Positive or negative, the way people will first look at you won’t be the same anymore. I expose and reveal more of myself and have to accept that not everybody will understand or approve of it, but what matters is to be true to myself.

I’ve waited until my mid-20s to get inked. I wanted to be sure of my decision to permanently modify my body with an irreversible alteration. I started with a very small design—a salamander I drew and then got inked on my left shoulder.

I quickly realized this wasn’t enough. I kept going with a Maori pattern on my right foot, followed by a bigger piece—a Polynesian tattoo that runs along my right leg from my calf to my buttocks that I got before embarking on a year-round-the-world journey in 2006. The artist and I agreed on a general shape of the tattoo that he filled up with symbols as I was telling him my story.

Five hours later, meaningful components of my personal history permanently darkened my skin.


Several significant events have happened in my life since: a dramatic change of life style, my move to the US, a green card, the vipassana meditation retreats, my love for Thailand and its Buddhist spirituality. I wanted to tell those stories too.

I’ve been considering having a Japanese sleeve for many years but never took the step. Today, this project became reality. It was important to ink it in Lexington (my “home base”), so that I’ll always carry with me a part of Kentucky.

I thought a lot of what I wanted to convey and spread on my skin, and it felt natural for these symbols to form the actual design and come together, obvious and clear.

Most of them come from my practice of meditation and Buddhist mindset. I picked each pattern for the meaning that lies within it: mountains, a Bodhi tree, a Buddha head, a red lotus flower, cherry blossoms, Japanese maple tree leaves and I extended the sleeve with a koi fish becoming a dragon that becomes a phoenix, chrysanthemum, dharma wheel and peonies running from my left ankle to my left shoulder.

I tried to put the mental picture I had into words so that tattoo artist, Robert Alleyne, could interpret it. After some emailing and idea exchanges, I went to his shop, Charmed Life Tattoo, for a freehand drawing. Three and a half hours later, the materialization of this project happened as an incredible and meaningful combination of patterns emerging on my skin.

Since, the symbols have been spread on my entire left side—a long term project, started a year ago, 24 sessions so far (of an average five hours each). Lots of time, commitment, suffering and investment, but I’ve been learning so much through the process and the pain. Each session brings me closer to my inner, putting me in touch with my very self, deeply, truly, thoroughly. It is growth leaving a permanent, visible and irreversible trace inside and outside the self.

I am becoming who I am and thanks to the colorful and beautiful art covering my skin, I have the reminder of this journey and its steps with me at any time; I feel stronger, bolder, more centered, true to myself and in harmony.

I’m reaching a veracity, my own veracity.

My Japanese half bodysuit combines mountains, a Bodhi tree with a Buddha head, a lotus flower, cherry blossoms, maple leaves, a Koi Fish, a dragon, a phoenix, a chrysanthemum, peonies, a dharma wheel, waves, clouds and wind bars. Here are some of the meanings and explanations collected through different source on the web:


Rock climbing (of course!), ascension, outdoors, nature and challenge (going beyond limits).

Bodhi tree and Buddha head

A Bodhi tree is a symbol of the ultimate potential that lies within us all. The Bodhi tree was symbolic of “awake-ness” long before Prince Siddartha Gautama entered the opening of enlightenment beneath its leaves in 528 B.C. Indeed, the name Bodhi (also known as “bo”) means “awakening.” Even the scientific world recognizes the spiritual associations with this tree as its botanical name: ficus religiosa (religious fig).

Additionally, the Bodhi moves its body in wild rhythmic contortions, forming organic twists that curl up in our imaginations. When we look upon it with childlike eyes, we can see whirling clouds, dancing maidens and beautifully wrinkled faces of old sages laughing in the Bodhi bark. More symbolic attributes of the sacred Bodhi tree are: joy, play, luck, light, calm, hope, peace, charm, patience, laughter, softness, brilliance, endurance, awakening, longevity, innocence, tranquility, preservation and enlightenment.

Lotus flower

The Lotus (padma) is a very important symbol in India and of Buddhism. In brief, it refers to the complete purification of body, speech and mind and the blossoming of wholesome deeds in liberation. The lotus refers to many aspects of the path as it grows from the mud (samsara or cycle of birth and death), up through muddy water it appears, clean on the surface (purification) and finally produces a beautiful flower (enlightenment). The white blossom represents purity; the stem stands for the practice of Buddhist teachings which raise the mind above the “mud” of worldly existence and gives rise to purity of mind. An open blossom signifies full enlightenment; a closed blossom signifies the potential for enlightenment.

Red lotus flower

Red lotus (Skt: kamala; Tib: padmachuskyes) signifies the original nature and purity of the hrdya (heart). It is the lotus of love, compassion, passion and all other qualities of the heart. It is the flower of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion.

Japanese cherry blossom

For the Japanese, the cherry blossom is a very delicate flower that blooms for a very short time. For the Japanese, this represents the transience of life. This concept ties in very deeply with the fundamental teachings of Buddhism that state all life is suffering and transitory. The Japanese have long held strong to the Buddhist belief of the transitory nature of life and it is very noble to not get too attached to a particular outcome nor become emotional because it will all pass in time.

Maple leaf

One of the most popular backgrounds for tattoos is the Japanese maple, a symbol of time passing, a symbol of the wind. The design often conveys the leaves as floating, carried with the wind or in the water. In Japan, it’s also the symbol of lovers. In some Japanese tattoo designs, canopies of maple leaves float over shoulders and drift over the torso. A single leaf or a multitude of leaves are also potent symbols of regeneration and resurrection as they cycle through the seasons.

Changing seasons are marked by the transformation of the leaves from trees. Spring, summer, fall and winter are potent reminders of the circle of life. Leaves are vivid reminders to us all of the life-and-death cycle of all living things. A tree losing the last of its leaves in the cold winds of autumn, to be stripped bare for the onset of winter has a poignancy that has long stirred the souls of poets, philosophers and men alike. The parallels of our own human lifetime are all too obvious. We could do worse than to meditate upon a rotting leaf on a damp forest path, often just a ghost of its former self. ‘This too will pass,” said the Buddha.

Koi tattoos

Koi fish (carp) are a fixture of Japanese tattooing and play important roles in both Chinese and Japanese myths, legends, fables and stories. In many of those stories, koi are transformed through their efforts and perseverance, able to climb waterfalls or become dragons. The koi, as a symbol, represents perseverance in the face of adversity and strength of character or purpose. The carp can also represents wisdom, knowledge, longevity and loyalty.

Dragon and phoenix

In Japanese tattooing, certain design elements are often paired together with specific flowers figuring prominently. There are several traditional combinations, e.g. ryu (dragon) with kiku (chrysanthemum). The Japanese like to entwine the phoenix with the dragon. This also symbolizes yin and yang for the Japanese, mixing the highest qualities of the masculine and feminine together.

In general, men tend to use dragon tattoos to represent courage, strength, raw power and force, wisdom, reason and protectors of sacred items.

Gold-colored dragons are special because they have many special attributes such as wisdom, kindness and the ability to face challenges head on. Many men tend to associate with the dragon which is why they get them as tattoos. Some men see themselves as guardians over loved ones, so, since the dragon tends to symbolize protection, it fits the mold of a guardian.

In general, women tend to use dragon tattoos to represent the Creator, a protector of life and strength.


This flower is regarded as the ‘solar flower’ of Japan. The chrysanthemum is the flower of fall and of fullness, symbolizing not only a long life but a complete and happy one as well. It also symbolizes withdrawal and retreat.


In Japanese culture, the peony is considered the “king of flowers” and symbolizes bravery, honor, courage, good fortune and wealth. In addition though, since the peony is part of an old Japanese card game (reported to have been played by gamblers sporting tattoos), it also suggests a sort of gambling courage and even a masculine devil-may-care attitude, quite unlike its character in the west. The peony is a potent symbol of beauty, of the fragility and fleeting nature of existence and the knowledge that acquiring great rewards comes only by taking great risks.

 Dharma wheel

Dharmachakra (dharma wheel) is one of the oldest symbols of Buddhism. Around the globe it is used to represent Buddhism in the same way that a cross represents Christianity or a star of David represents Judaism. It is also one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism. A traditional dharma wheel is a chariot wheel with a varying number of spokes. It can be in any color, although it is most often gold. At the center sometimes there are three shapes swirling together, although sometimes at the center is a yin-yang symbol, another wheel or an empty circle.

What the dharma wheel represents: It has three basic parts—the hub, the rim, and the spokes. Over the centuries, various teachers and traditions have proposed diverse meanings for these parts. Explaining all of them would possibly take a book.

Here are some common understandings of the wheel’s symbolism: The circle, the round shape of the wheel, represents the perfection of the dharma, the Buddha’s teaching. The rim of the wheel represents meditative concentration and mindfulness, which holds a practice together. The hub represents moral discipline. The three swirls often seen on the hub are sometimes said to represent the “Three Treasures” or “Three Jewels”—Buddha, dharma and sangha (community). They may also represent joy.


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Assistant Ed: Steph Richard/Ed: Brianna Bemel

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Elodie Saracco