Tattoo? A Story of Permanence and the Camino de Santiago

The summer after freshman year of college, I walked the Camino de Santiago with one of my good friends whose mother had wanted to hike across Spain for a while. It took about a month, and navigating a country on foot with countless other pilgrims following the same route to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela was life-changing.

I’ve been debating getting a tattoo to commemorate it during the two years since, and I’m not sure what that says about the idea. Permanent decisions like these take time, I guess, but even though I haven’t ditched the idea, I haven’t made a move to get myself inked.

The design is pretty simple, just the shell that’s used as a way marker and has hung off the backpack of pilgrims since they began walking The Way. I’ve gone back and forth about where I’d get it, but I’ve settled on the left upper arm, so I could hide it with shirts as needed.

The shell pointing the way to the next couple towns.

The specific shell I’d like on my body pointing the way to the next couple towns.

I’m notorious for not doing well with permanent things. Growing up in more than ten houses (too many more than that, if you count all the places we parked the RV during the year I turned 13) has done something to my already-nomadic wiring that’s prompted me to attend school far from home and plan to head around the world ASAP. I excel at maximizing efficiency and planning trips, all so I can do something new faster.

All this to say I chose to wear a much more temporary necklace I’d bought in a shop behind the cathedral the day after we received certificates noting our 500-mile trek. Then I realized there needed to be some consequences if I never got the tattoo, so I took it off. Its origin story points to an even deeper fear of commitment.

We spent a night in Santiago de Compostela before flying out the next evening, and while our friends a day’s hike behind us kept trickling through town, I walked back and forth in front of the shop that displayed gaudy charms and delicate chains for sentimental pilgrims in the window. I couldn’t make a decision then, either, and before night fell, I said no to it.

All the pilgrims who showed up that day ended up sitting in front of the cathedral as the sun went down, drinking 40s and swapping stories about how much the Camino meant to them. After being sent on the third beer trip, I finally stopped in the store, picked out the simplest charm and chain and didn’t take it off for a year.

The necklace in question.

The necklace in question.

You can’t see it here, but the shell is hollowed out, and the other side holds a small silver Saint James. I don’t wear the necklace anymore, as a test of how much I needed the permanence. I ended up buying another charm to replace it, but it doesn’t feel quite right. It’s almost like I’m missing something.

It feels almost like an unhealthy relationship, and I keep setting ultimatums for the other person, like “I’ll marry them once I have enough money saved up,” or “We’ll move in together if we don’t fight for a whole week.” Pretty inadvisable. But I love the idea of this tattoo, I really do.

Maybe I’ll drink a couple beers one night and wake up with a shell on my arm. Or maybe it’ll happen healthily, while the sun’s still up and it’ll be the more in-depth illustration of an anatomically correct heart with poppies — the most common flower along the route of the Camino — growing from the aorta and the stars of Orion’s belt on a banner encircling it.

Who knows? Because I don’t, but this debate has been a central part of my life for the past two years, and that’s more than I can say about most permanent things.

If you’re interested in how the rest of the Camino was, check out the blog I kept during that particular adventure at


4 thoughts on “Tattoo? A Story of Permanence and the Camino de Santiago

  1. One way of looking at it is that, even though you will not always be the person you are now, and the things that matter to you about your life will change in unexpected ways, you will always *have been* this person. You will always be the person who took this journey, even if the meaning of that journey changes. (I’m definitely biased towards tattoos, although I agree that at this point it’s a good idea to make sure you can easily cover it up.)

      • For me, I think that life leaves marks on my body, whether I want it to or not. I have scars from stupid things that I thought were a good idea when I was 15. I have stretch marks and wrinkles and gray hairs. Tattoos, to me, are kind of like that, except I get to actually *choose* them.

        We build monuments, not because things don’t ever change, but because they do. For me, tattoos are a way of building personal monuments.

  2. Pingback: I Did a Thing | Adulting, one day at a time

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