A tale of two tattoos

Raven Mythology #4.5

“It’s not known which came first, the penny or the flag.” 
Cam Brewster’s World Famous Tattoo Studio on Centennial Drive in Porter Creek, located between a daycare centre and a pawn shop/second-hand store, plays the game by the rules. This includes a $100 deposit, pre-inking interview, a two-page legal document with health questions to read, initial and sign, and a personal interview with the artiste regarding any previous tattoos the applicant may have. Five days later, the ink enters the flesh.

That’s when I noticed times sure have changed since my first tattoo (left bicep) which was done late at night on the main drag of Oceanside, California, after a night of watching go-go dancers just days before being deployed to South Vietnam as part of the 3rd Marine Division in June of 1966. That small tattoo is the face of an ugly bulldog wearing a drill instructor’s hat above the letters “USMC,” meaning United States Marine Corps. The cost was originally $10, but a sale had it marked down to $7.50. I wanted it because the old city salts told us young recruits from the suburbs that it was a good idea to get a tattoo before going into combat to make sure they could identify your body as American and not bury you in Vietnam. Getting the tattoo was my final preparation for going to war. No questions were asked, no papers were signed, no waivers were mentioned and the job took about 20 minutes between beers. Four of us got inked together.

That was 53 years ago and I was 19 years old. Now I’m 72 and I suddenly wanted a raven tattoo on my right bicep to balance my body in old age. There are several reasons why, but I told Brewster only one during the pre-game interview: The marine tattoo brought me great good luck. I not only survived 13 months of combat, I also survived 53 years of rough living in northern and western Canada and made it long enough to BS my grandchildren which, frankly, was the simplified version of my most serious goal in life. When Billy Joel sang “only the good die young” he missed the point, but nonetheless eulogized the 58,000 young men and women who came home in rubber bags.

Vietnam was a total crapshoot in which luck loomed large. Some had good luck and got through; some had bad luck and didn’t; some had no luck at all and their bodies survived, but their brains suffered lifelong trauma. This has been true of most every war since the first cavemen scrimmaged over the rights to a watering hole.

Of course, it’s ridiculous to think a tiny tattoo could have played a role in my survival, but facts are facts and the only two that seemed to matter at the time were getting the bulldog on the way to war and coming home alive 13 months later. Call me crazy (many have), but don’t call me lazy or late to the next meal. So much for the lucky bulldog, which covered my butt from 1966 to 2019. He now has a buddy on the other arm, also a war motif, to keep him company the rest of the way.

In the course of researching our ongoing series on the mythology of ravens, the official bird of the Yukon Territory, this raven symbol popped up out of nowhere on a Viking attack flag. It was flown on their longboats, much the same as the skull and crossbones flag later used by pirates. It first appeared in history in 878 during a local 9th century dust-up between rival Viking tribes. It was woven as a lance decoration by the wife of the chieftain who won. Of course, it was a tribute to Odin, the Norse god of war, and was also found on a Viking penny carbon dated to the same period. It’s not known which came first, the penny or the flag:

When I showed the flag and penny to artiste Brewster and told him I wanted the ancient Viking raven on my right arm, in the exact same place as the old bulldog on the left, to give me balance, he was impressed.

“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” he said. “It’s probably not the oldest design I’ve ever drawn into a tattoo, some Christian crosses go back farther than that, but it’s probably the oldest bird.”

Then he threw some rocking Eagles tunes on for background atmosphere, donned his biker do-rag and was actually singing as he created the first ever (we assume) modern tattoo of a sacred Viking raven flag.

The assumed first-ever modern tattoo of a sacred Viking raven flag

It’s purely coincidence that both tattoos have a war background. The raven was chosen for the ubiquitous presence of Corvus corax (Latin for common raven) in the Yukon, where it is honoured as the official bird of the realm.

Indeed, our territory is rightfully known for some humans who have passed through in the last 14,000 years or so, but it is famous for the mighty birds which have been here since the dinosaurs and possibly earlier.

We are here at their invitation and I wanted to mutilate a small part of my body in their honour as a way of saying thanks for the good luck and long life. Because of all ravens, and a few humans, you can never feel alone in the Yukon.