A Permanent Souvenir
Artists in Costa Rica tattoo the country’s soul in permanent souvenirs
Mary Kathryn Carpenter
The needle plunges into the skin over and over faster than the eye can follow. Bright splashes of ink appear, etching out a design half-stenciled, half-imagined. The client’s hands clench and a slight groan of pain escapes between tightly pressed lips. The artist’s focus remains centered on the work before him. There is no margin for error. His art is permanent. His canvas is human skin.
Tattoos have been found on human remains dating back to the “Iceman Otzi,” who died in roughly 3300 B.C. and was preserved in ice in the Alps. The way tattoos are made, the reasons people want them and their cultural significance may have changed and evolved through the years, but tattooing continues to fascinate.
In the modern world, getting a tattoo is quick, safe and relatively inexpensive.
“To have a place like this is really hard,” said Magaly Vasquez, who has worked at Anchor’s End Tattoo studio in Jacó for four months. “You have to invest a lot of money. There are a lot of requirements. Even the inks we use here need to be a special ink, only one brand.”
"People today wear tattoos like a watch or shoe, but when the generation or style changes it may become something the old people did."
Left: Inks used at Anchor's End Tattoo in Jacó are made by a specific brand that is certified high quality. Vida Magazine | Mary Kathryn Carpenter
Center: Inks and needle are new for each customer. Surfaces and equipment at reputable shops are cleansed with medical grade solutions. Vida Magazine | Mary Kathryn Carpenter
Reasons to get a tattoo range from the love of the craft, to honoring a loved one, to religious expression and everything in between. One trend is rising in mainstream popularity as travelers fuel the souvenir tattoo industry.
The earliest record of souvenir tattooing documented when European sailors first visited the Polynesian islands in the 16th century. Sailors marked their skin in striking, geometric patterns like those of the Māori and Samoan peoples, said Dr. Christopher Lynn, a biological anthropologist whose studies include the history and commonalities across cultures of tattoo.
Today, wanderers visiting new places document their journeys permanently on their skin. In Costa Rica, which has no history of widespread tattooing, the art often commemorates the natural wonders that are found in the Central American country.
Costa Rica-based artists Andrès Peñaranda and Gabriel Miranda said the most common tattoo tourists ask for is the country’s well-known national phrase, “Pura Vida.” In addition to this lettering, they see a lot of requests for nature themes, waves, monkeys, birds and sloths.
“Costa Rica’s tattoo style is wildlife,” said Peñaranda, who owns and operates Andrès Peña Tattoo in Heredia. “It is iconic from this country.”
Two visiting Americans, Tyson Beckman and Andrew Olson, received tattoos at Anchor’s End Tattoo. Both were acquiring their third souvenir tattoo. Beckman said he would prefer to get a tattoo that references his experiences in the country while he is there, but it’s more important to make an informed decision.
“If you don’t find something, you don’t like it that time, it’s OK,” Beckman said. “It’s going to be on your body forever so, obviously, you should like it before you just get it to say you got it.”
Olson advised anyone considering getting a tattoo abroad or at home to put safety first, then focus on the artwork and style. Tattoo parlors in Costa Rica are required to adhere to strict hygiene and operational practices set by the Ministerio de Salud (Ministry of Health) in order to remain in business.
The tattoo culture has grown steadily in Costa Rica as the demand for high quality work has increased. Peñaranda, who began tattooing on his own two years ago, said he tries to attend a few of the tattoo conventions held in San José every year to learn new styles and techniques.
Miranda, who applied his love of street art and spray paint to tattooing six years ago, said he enjoys working with visitors who want a tattoo. It is an opportunity to craft something personal and significant to them that will be remembered. He said he would not mind getting a souvenir tattoo, but for a different reason.
“Yes, I would like to get a souvenir tattoo, but not like something from the country, but just to get a tattoo from another artist,” Vasquez translated for Miranda.
Top: Tyson Beckman talks about his decision to get souvenir tattoos when he travels to new places. Vida Magazine | Mary Kathryn Carpenter
Bottom: Beckman currently sports a Costa Rican sunset next to symbols from Peru and Zion National Park. Vida Magazine | Mary Kathryn Carpenter
Both artists said they primarily see walk-in customers, and they leave time open in their schedules to work in clients. Eric Smith, the current owner and manager of Anchor’s End, said the company sticks to late founder, Keely Tackett's, stance on souvenir tattooing: work in the best interest of the client. That means encouraging them to think carefully about their tattoo decisions.
Peñaranda also encourages prospective tattoo seekers to consider carefully their choice of image or text before committing to a permanent piece of art.
“People today wear tattoos like a watch or shoe, but when the generation or style changes it may become something the old people did,” Peñaranda said.