I’ve never had to decide where a tattoo should go: I feel it waiting under my skin. It sometimes takes years before it becomes clear to me what the tattoo looks like, and longer still to draw it out well enough that an artist can make it visible to others.
My first tattoo made itself known to me in Hong Kong, where I was staying for a few days on my way home from Tibet. A girl I’d just met wanted me to go along with her and hold her hand while she got a rose tattooed on her ankle. As I watched her design being placed, I suddenly knew what my tattoo was and felt it burning over my left breast. I drew it for the old man in the shop: a small orange sun above a black crescent moon. It was a symbol of protection I had seen painted on my hotel door in Lhasa, slashed in white on houses and barns all over Tibet, and, once, tattooed on the hand of a truck driver. I wanted to carry a piece of Tibet with me for the rest of my life. I sometimes wonder now, though, if it does too good a job of keeping my heart from harm.