“The first tattoo I got is the coordinates on my left arm. I got it on Black Friday with my sisters when I was a freshman in college. We didn’t tell our mom, actually. We said we were going shopping in Murfreesboro, we just didn’t say what we were shopping for.
“I was going to get a tattoo by myself, but my oldest sister said she was going to scream if I got one before her, so I suggested we get one together with our third sister. At first, we were throwing around stupid ideas, like, ‘let’s go get cats!’ But we all wanted something important since it was our first one. So we got the coordinates of Sunset Beach in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. That’s where we have a huge family reunion every other year. For one week, my mom’s side of the family rent out these beach houses in Sunset Beach. We’ve been doing this since like the 1950’s.” Anna took out her phone to show me a picture of 60 or so family members, huddled around a flag with the letter ‘A’ on it. I asked her what the flag meant.
“The ‘A’ stands for Acosta. That’s very important. It’s my mother’s maiden name, it is Greek for ‘off the coast.’ I joke with my dad that he took Acosta away from me and instead gave me the last name of Johnson!
“My great-grandfather on my mom’s side had seven children. They were a close-knit family during the Great Depression. They all wrote these beautiful letters to each other, we actually have a binder of some of the letters and poems they wrote. My great grandfather was an incredible man. He met my great grandmother in a bar and three, maybe seven, days later, he married her. Because he was that in love. Before he died, he told his children to stay together, and that’s the point of the reunions. Those seven children had children and now we’re this crazy hybrid of Irish and Greek, which is so fun.
“My sisters and I knew this closeness in our family had been here long before we were born, and we wanted to claim it as a part of us, so we decided to get the coordinates of Sunset Beach tattooed on our arms. “We didn’t really own that we were a part of this legacy until we essentially branded ourselves with it. Now I’m watching how my view of family, how even the word itself, is changing for me. It’s something more beautiful, intricate, and weird. Because my family is so weird, but gosh do I love it. The coordinates are like the representation of family but in number form. It reminds me that I am a part of this beautiful set of people, this bigger clan.”
Next, I asked her to talk about the lion tattoo on her other arm.
“His name is Franz Roarington,” Anna laughed. “I didn’t want to name him, but my roommate in Italy kept calling him Roary. I told her that took away from his masculinity, so she changed it to Roarington. Then another girl on our study abroad trip wanted to name him too, so she came up with the first name of Franz. “I got him in London sometime in October last year at Kings Cross Tattoo Parlour. It was completely on a whim, but I was not drunk! It was 1 pm in the afternoon!
“We studied abroad in Italy, but we took a week long trip to London, and I fell in love! I remember one of the days, a group of my friends was going to Oxford or something, but I just wanted to stay behind in London, drink tea, and write postcards. That morning I started joking that maybe I’d go get a tattoo since I loved the city so much. I looked up London’s symbols and came across the Burberry Lion, these beautiful, bushy-maned lines are that now extinct. Immediately when I saw it, I thought, ‘Oh no, I’m getting this tattooed on my body today.’
“I love meaning behind stories and things. This lion symbolizes London, but it also stands for so much more. Like bravery, courage, or if you’re thinking in a C.S. Lewis sense, God.
“For my independent study, I am taking Narrative Psychology. It’s so hard to sum it up in a couple of sentences, but basically, it’s the study of stories, of finding meaning in the different chapters of our lives. The same thing can mean completely different things in different points of our lives, that’s what this tattoo is for me. It already means so much, and I can tell it will mean so much more in different chapters of my life.
“When I went to the tattoo parlor, I was originally going to get something really small on my ankle or something, but the receptionist was saying it was too intricate. Then this Italian artist, who had overheard me and was drawing in the corner, slides this paper across the table to me of an outline of a lion, as if to ask, ‘What about this?’ It was perfect.
“So he starts tattooing what he drew, but after awhile I realize he’s adding shading that wasn’t on the original drawing. So I called over one of the other artists and asked him to ask my Italian tattoo artist how much shading he was going to add. The Italian answers and the other artist translated, ‘Just enough.’ I had no idea what ‘just enough’ meant, but I thought, ‘Screw it, I’m going with it.’ And I love him so much now, which is good since it’s tattooed on my body!
“The way the meaning has evolved has been so cool. I journaled on the plane back from London to Italy and that just cemented the amount of meaning it does and will hold in the future. The journal turned into a prayer and at the end I said, ‘God, let me live bravely, help me be a lionhearted child.’ I didn’t even know what that meant, but now that’s how I’m trying to live.
“Everyone thinks of lions as ferocious, but I’m way more vulnerable. I am a very passionate person and can love strongly. Sometimes that ends up being detrimental. Sometimes all that love doesn’t come out right. The tattoo is a reminder that yes, I have that strong lion heart and sometimes it’s risky, but it’s still a part of me. I have to have the courage to claim that.
“What’s hard about courage is that it doesn’t stay, it isn’t consistent and you have to keep asking for it. It may be tattooed on you, but you still won’t have enough. I have this lion constantly staring up at me to remind me to keep fighting for courage and keep fighting for strength. “Looking back on my decisions, I wouldn’t change it for anything. This tattoo may have a negative side, I might not be able to get a job in the future because of it, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Having it branded on me helps me live into that courageous side that I know is in me. It’s a humbling and hard reminder that I am not always strong enough, but at the same time, an interesting and beautiful combination.”
What about you? What does being a lion-hearted child mean to you?
Thanks to Anna Johnson for sharing her story.
Special thanks to Jamie Pratt for photographing this week!