Tattoo Culture: Past and Present

In 1991, a tattooed “Iceman” was discovered on the Italian-Austrian border. This buried cadaver was carbon-dated back 5200 years, making him the first tattooed individual known to us today. He is by no means an exception, however, but an example of the rule. Tattoos have been found on bodies belonging to all ancient cultures. Ancient Egyptian women buried near royals and elites. Britons marked in accordance with their societal status- so noticeably so that the Romans dubbed them the ‘painted people.’ Tattooed cadavers have been found in the Chinese Taklimakan Desert, Greenland, and Peru. We can only guess at the meaning behind the ink, but according to Joann Fletcher, an archaeologist at the University of York, tattoo symbolism spans a wide spectrum: from marking criminals to identifying religions to distinguishing royalty. Even such, there exists a common thread that pulls all of these ancient tattoos together: identification. Tattoos said something about who you were.

Flash forward to the 1800s, when American sailors used tattoos as a form of identification as well as a means of storytelling. The tattoos of a sailor were a sort of resume: a combination of identification information and a list of experiences.

After the American Revolution, American sailors were desperately seeking to avoid the English Royal Navy draft. Sailors were issued government ‘Protection Papers’ in order to reaffirm their American citizenship and dodge this dreary fate. Extremely unreliable, however, these papers contained only vague, generalizable descriptions. In order to solve this problem, sailors would use their tattoos as descriptors for the ‘Protection Papers.’ Commonly used tattoos were significant dates, crucifixes, or names of loved-ones.

But that was only the heading of the resume. A list of achievements and experiences followed suit. Within the variety of stock sailor tattoos that exist, there lies a code that marks where a sailor has been, and how far he has travelled. The iconic swallow tattoo is one such mark. According to sea-faring legend, each swallow signalled that a sailor had travelled 5,000 nautical miles. Similarly, a full-rigged ship distinguished that its bearer had sailed around Cape Horn, and an anchor indicated that he had sailed across the Atlantic Ocean. Tattoos said something about what you had done.

Where does that bring us to today? Do we have more in common with ancient Egyptian priestesses tattooed in order to assert their status, or the sailors, for whom tattoos tell their life story? Are they a mark of who we are or what we have done?

According to Hannah Ravening, a Fine Arts student at Emily Carr and an aspiring tattoo artist, tattoos are about collaboration and sharing art. It is a “highly collaborative process,” she tells me, and the industry in Vancouver is “very supportive and non-competitive.” When asked what compels most to get permanently inked, she says that some want to distinguish themselves as belonging to the “edgier” side of life. The majority, however, “are expressing their individuality, similarly to how people wear particular clothing and makeup.” What attracts Hannah to the tattoo scene the most is the communism of it all- the openness and collaboration. There is a sense of camaraderie and creative flow that connects artists in the tattoo industry, a common vein that links those who tap in and participate.

The tattoo community can be traced around the world today, thanks to social media platforms such as Instagram. Artists can travel to foreign fan-bases and hold flash tattoo sales. An artist in Vancouver can collaborate with an artist in Berlin. In sync with this heightened awareness of tattoo culture in foreign countries has come a decrease in culturally appropriated tattoos. Hannah remarks that a decade ago, Canadians commonly got mandala or Chinese character tattoos, but artists today refuse to give a client a culturally symbolic tattoo unless it is common to both of their cultures.

Today our tattoos tell not only a story, but also who we have become as a result of that story. Tattoos show at once belonging to a group- be it a sailor’s union, ancient Egyptian royalty, or North Van (ever seen a mountain biker with the North Shore mountains around their ankle?) and uniqueness. We mark ourselves to share who we are, reflect on where we come from, and remember where we want to go.

Hannah has a cherry bomb tattoo on her lower back to commemorate a fruity summer backpacking around Europe. The cherry bomb is also a nod to Cherie Curry, lead singer of the punk band The Runaways, and Hannah’s personal inspiration. Her tattoo illustrates an experience that influences who she is today. It is also a reminder of who she wants to be in the future.

Profile Image- “Much tattooed sailor aboard the USS New Jersey.” December 1944/ Lt. Comdr. Charles Fenno Jacobs (1904-1975) for the U.S. Navy/ General Photographic File of the Department of Navy. National Archives and Records Administration, Local Identifier 80-G-470222

A Tale of Three Bookstores

Shakespeare and Company

Nestled on the shore of the Seine across from the Notre Dame is possibly the most famous bookstore in the world. Established in 1951, Shakespeare and Company was a creative nook for writers of the Beat Generation, and continues to attract artists from all over the world to its hallowed shelves. During the day, tourists pour in and out, eager to sit where Burroughs sat and breathe the air that Wright breathed. These artists did more than sit and breathe and write in the building across from the Notre-Dame- they were also invited to sleep in the single cots squeezed between book shelves upstairs in exchange for helping around the shop! George Whitman, the owner, described his business as a “socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore.” It is estimated that 30,000 people have graced these cots since the store’s opening.

The bottom floor of Shakespeare and Co. is a meticulously-stuffed bookstore, where even the tiniest of us must watch to avoid bumping into shelves. At the back of the store, though, is a creaky, narrow set of stairs leading to where the real magic happens. Upstairs there are an infinite number of books too old and too precious to buy, but ready to be read. There’s a typewriter that sits overlooking the Seine and the Cathédrale beyond. There’s an old, slightly out-of-tune piano with a note on it that kindly entreats the player to play softly after 8pm. And there are letters climbing up the walls from visitors worldwide who have felt the urge to leave their mark on this historic place.

At night, Shakespeare and Company is a haven of warmth with the glow of yellowing pages. Open until 10pm, the tourists and their noise are shuffled out by nightfall. Only the stable energy of the books remains, and you can feel why this was the centre of bohemia for the entirety of the 20th century.

Atlantis Books

You know how every Greek travel advertisement is the same shot of white rooftops overlooking a deep blue ocean? This is Oia!- a town built into the rocky face of Santorini island. Most of Oia is resorts, fine dining, and souvenir shops. But there is one commercial enterprise that doesn’t feel like an enterprise at all. Atlantis Books is built into a white cave below street level on the edge of town. To enter the shop, you must manoeuvre your way down a very narrow set of stairs and through a small garden in order to enter a cramped cranny of bookshelves.

Many visitors get caught up with what is at eye-level however, when they should actually be looking up. The roof of Atlantis Books is scrawled with words and a timeline illustrating the life of the store. This timeline begins in 2004, when the doors of the shop opened with the goal of “bringing great art, literature, and conversation to one of the most beautiful environments in the world.” They got the beautiful part right. The roof of Atlantis Books offers a view on the Aegean Sea with the centre of Santorini island springing up in the forefront. I would recommend the roof of Atlantis Books as a prime reading spot, but it is impossible to focus on reading a book with that horizon in the background.

Livraria Lello

To anyone else whose childhood was entirely defined by Harry Potter, have you ever wondered if J.K. Rowling dreamt up Hogwarts entirely from her imagination, or whether she was inspired by real life along the way? The answer is the latter. Rowling lived in Porto, Portugal, for two years, and visited Livraria Lello, a beautiful bookstore in the centre of town. Established in 1906, Livraria Lello is the brainchild of the Lello brothers, and a long-time pillar of Porto literary and social circles. The facade of Lello is reminiscent of the Neo-Gothic, Art Deco, and Art Nouveau styles, but as though this mashup isn’t artistically sufficient, Lello also boasts intricate woodwork and massive stained-glass windows.

The second you step in the door, it is clear what is so ‘Harry Potter-esque’ about the place: the staircase. It twists and winds and bends over on itself. Unlike the Hogwarts staircases, however, it is bright red. The bookstore has reached an iconic status thanks to Rowling, a status that the owners have capitalized on: you must pay in order to get inside. Lello also has its own souvenir store, complete with Harry Potter propaganda in both Portuguese and English.

It is worth the hype though? Absolutely. This is by far the most beautiful bookstore I have ever seen, and it is absolutely worth pushing through the throng of tourists in order to pluck one the hundred identical Harry Potter books off the shelf.

Cover photo by Bonnie Elliott.

Monti: Rome's cool, creative quarter


Traveling to any major tourist destination can always be a stressful situation; weaving in and out of tourist traps, dodging vendors selling goods etc. the middle of the mayhem in Rome, just a few blocks away from the Colosseum, there is a haven for locals and visitors alike...Monti! The streets here are so picturesque, it feels like walking into an Anthropology store in real life. Rows of buildings coloured in pastel shades and hanging vines, the smell of Jasmine flowers radiate off of every breeze...


...Needless to say, I was completely enchanted by this neighbourhood. My husband and I spent much of our time wandering these winding streets. 


If you're familiar with Italian customs, then you know about Aperitivo. If not, it's like Italian Happy hour, where drinks are often accompanied by free snacks or a buffet. Here in Monti, the locals gather around the Piazza della Madonna dei Monti with a beer or a wine from the bar across the square. It's an excellent place to gather with friends, or people watch if you're traveling solo. For those interested in a little more structure and more of something to eat, Aperitivo at Analema Cafe has an excellent buffet and a great atmosphere. 


Have a little time before dinner? It's time to get that perfect "Roma Photograph". Trust me, it won't take long to find a picturesque spot. There's also Gelato right around the corner from the Piazza if it's hot and you need to cool down a little or if you're just in the mood for a tasty treat. Really, is there ever a bad time for Gelato? (No, the answer is no).

I scream, you scream, we all scream... for gelato?

A post shared by Deanna Forte Rule (@deannarule) on


For dinner there are so many incredible places lining the streets. My husband and I chose to try Urbana 47 (recommended by the Roman Guy) on their Monti travel guide. It's trendy and delicious with rotating daily specials that will blow your mind. In addition to an excellent cocktail selection. 


Be sure to take a stroll through Monti next time you're in Rome. I guarantee your stomach and Instagram feed will thank you.



We might never be able to explain what makes us connect with certain places or people more than others. This instant unexplainable connection might not happen very often but that’s what makes it special when it does. I clicked with the Portuguese capital as soon as I landed, little did I know that this short trip will have such a big impact on me.


Lisbon took me by surprise because I wasn’t sure what to expect, and not having much time to explore the city due to a hectic work schedule made the experience a little more intense then I imagined. Nevertheless in the short time I had I discovered a town full of history, taste, color and a lot of soul. I also discovered that packing 4 pairs of heels and no flats is a big (actually make it huge) mistake in an old steeply town that is built from tiny slippery cobble stones.

The emotional souvenir I took from this trip will remain disclosed for now, but what I will reveal is that you will be seeing me in front of those pastel buildings very soon.

Words by Roza Sinaysky @moodyroza

Photos: by Liya Geldman