Sylvia is a friend and so I had plenty of advance warning that she was going to be getting a Chicago flag (in part) tattoo and once it was healed up it was just a matter of popping over to her house for a formal interview:
CFT: Tell me about your Chicago flag and other things tattoo, and the story of it, and why you got it.
Sylvia: So I got a tattoo when I was 18, long time ago, and I immediately wanted more, but I forced myself to wait. Forcing myself to wait turned into 10 years. But I have always wanted another one, and I knew if I got another one, I wanted a big piece. I’m graphic. I didn’t want something that immediately represented anything, because I’m big into color and shapes and all that, I’m super drawn to big, bright objects. So I knew I wanted something like that. And I have always wanted a tattoo that represented sort of how I grew up, and I grew up in seven different countries, moving around a lot.
I think for a lot of my life, I blamed a lot of my problems and who I am on growing up that way, and moving around so much, not having a home, all of that. But in the last two years, I’ve come to sort of embrace what that’s turned me into and how that has shaped who I am as opposed to blaming it. So I felt like that was the right time to get that as a tattoo on me, to represent all of the places I lived.
That said, the hardest question in the world for me is “Where are you from?” Hardest thing in the world to answer. I’ve never been able to answer it.
CFT: I always just say “all over.”
Sylvia: All over, everywhere. And for the longest time, I think I blamed a lot of things on it, that I probably used it as an excuse. But yeah, we never stayed anywhere longer than three years. That was our max, too. Until undergrad was the first time I lived anywhere past that three year mark, because it was four years of college.
So I moved to Chicago, and Chicago, more than any, is the first place that’s ever felt like home. I think it’s the first place I’ve ever chosen to live as an adult, not where I was taken by my parents. And I fell in love with the city. I’ve always said if I were to move again, I would move back to Europe; I don’t have much of an interest in staying in the States or somewhere else in the world, but I have fallen so in love with this city that I don’t really want to go. Full-time; I always want to go somewhere for short amounts of time. But yeah, it’s the first place that I’ve felt like I’ve been able to settle into home, or a home. So I wanted Chicago to be the central, the focal point of the tattoo.
CFT: What are the pieces and parts? I recognize the star.
Sylvia: Right, you’ve got the star. And Serena Lander did the tattoo, Tattoos By Serena. And she’s wonderful, and I really went to her basically with what I just told you: I want a way to represent all these countries and not make it look messy, and lots of color. And I knew that I wanted each section to be the colors of the flag of that country, but for it to not look messy. And I’m not a designer.
She took it, she ran with it. Originally I was thinking flags, I was thinking an abstract world map with those places sort of marked. But she came up with the idea to find symbols and symbolism from each country and work that into those colors. So she designed it for me; I loved it. We went back and forth a few times.
The star is the central focal point, and the blue sort of stripes around it are the stripes of the star; they’re in the same shade of blue. We made it curved in that sense because the stripes represent the river and water, so creating more movement and stuff, we sort of made that—I’m making hand motions, but the arc. I wanted Chicago to be the biggest part, and then we sort of fanned out the rest of those countries all as part of the same whole.
On the top, you have Switzerland, which is red and white, and you have the Swiss flag. The Swiss cross surrounded by the edelweiss, which is the flower of Switzerland. And then you have France next to it, which is again the colors of those flags. I lived in the village of Grenoble, and their city symbol is a snowflake, because there’s a lot of skiing and stuff. We went with a lot of flowers and stars.
And then we have the little tiny nod to the stars and stripes, to America, because we didn’t need too much more. And like I said, I connect with Chicago more than I connect with this country, because it’s never been my country of origin.
Then we have the Tudor rose in the Union Jack colors. This is the Italy, which is the first place we lived, which is the Crown of Caesar and the Italian Republic star. And then this is Belgium, which is the Belgian Iron Cross and the lily, which is the national flower. And then we added an extra drop, just a drop from the water. So that’s what they all are.
CFT: I like that it’s laid out with graphic considerations rather than trying to tell your story in order.
Sylvia: And the sizes are different. For awhile, we sort of talked about does it mean something that some are smaller than others, or does it mean something that some are on top and on the bottom, and none of that was really thought about too much. It was more where does it look best. Except for the little tiny star. There’s a combo of stars and flowers. For awhile, we were looking at other symbols, like the fleur-de-lis and all sorts of other things, but it got too cluttered.
CFT: I like the swoopiness as well for water, and then also that it is a journey. It’s not a straight line journey. It’s not a “I started here and I knew I was going there.”
Sylvia: You never know where you’re going next. In fact, when we were in the second session—because this took about six hours—she was like, “Let’s add more.” I was like, “I have to live somewhere. I have to move somewhere first to add more.” That’s the nice part of it, is next time I move or next time I live somewhere, it can be easily added to.
But she wanted to keep going, and I was like “But I have to live somewhere first.” Serena was like, “Why don’t we just start putting all the places you visited? We can make it bigger and put all the places you visited?” I was like, “We don’t want to start that, because that’ll become a giant, giant project.” We joked a bit about maybe creating on the other leg a different kind of complementary piece that was the places I’ve been, but I don’t know.
CFT: Awesome. How long have you been in Chicago?
Sylvia: With the exception of the one year I left to go get my Masters, I moved here in ‘07. So six years. Actually almost seven years now, but I went away for one year. My parents moved here when I was an undergrad, so I went to high school in Kansas City When I went to college, they moved here, so this became home base for summers and Christmases, and I fell in love and moved here after college.
CFT: Awesome. And then you fell in love here.
Sylvia: And then I fell in love here, so then I was stuck in Chicago. No, I had a reason to come back here after I finished my Masters - because Lord knows where it would’ve taken me otherwise, because I have trouble sitting still.
CFT: It’s a gorgeous tattoo.
Sylvia: Thanks. She’s great. I would send anyone to her. She’s a beautiful designer, a great person, and her touch is so gentle. It was just like a pleasant experience.
CFT: Awesome. Well, thanks.
Sylvia: You’re welcome.