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J.R.’s Five Elements

September 28th, 2009
At the end of August, I spent a couple of minutes on the R train with J.R., who has quite a few tattoos. I didn’t have time to take notes, just photos, and I hoped that she would e-mail me with all the details of her work. Fortunately, she did. So, what follows is her explanation of the tattoos, with a little bit of friendly editing.

“My left arm? Dedicated to the five elements…as I see them to be. Earth, Air, Water, Fire and Friendship.
The ants (done by Roni from Hidden Hand Tattoo in Seattle) represent Earth.


Ants are the closest social structure to mirror humans. They have no real strength individually, but together can achieve so much. As a human, I feel it is destined to feel lonely and when I got the tattoo, I came to terms with that and even found beauty in it. I want to feel less like an ant in the sense that there is something that I’m “supposed” to do and if I don’t do it I’ll be punished or kicked out of the colony, so to say. I want to feel more that there is a greater purpose for my life (or at least one that reflects me as an individual and not what society tells me to be) and that with the help of others I can realize that to it’s fullest potential.

The clouds and birds (done by Jeff Cornell owner/artist at Hidden Hand Tattoo) represent Air.


There is a Leonard Cohen song called “Bird on the Wire” that I think is one of the most beautiful songs ever written. I feel the lyrics of the song so deeply and feel that they express such a core sense of who I am. Always, trying to be free. I aspire to someday be free instead of always trying and the tattoo is an attempt to remind myself that the feeling of trying is also a choice just as easy as the feeling of being free is a choice. The past tense nature of the words remind me to be light and free as a bird…

The blue tattoo on my inner arm (done by a girl in her apartment 10 years ago and I can’t even remember her name) represents Water.


It is a play on yin and yang as well as a the symbol for Cancer, which is my astrological moon sign. Cancer is ruled by the moon and your moon signs make up your emotional nature. So, I feel this sign very strongly and luckily balances my Leo sun sign which I will get to more later. The symbol has stars instead of circles like a traditional yin yang because I wanted it to represent the universe within myself versus me questioning the universe around me. I got the box around it to express the feeling of being limited due to the human mind. I wanted to remind myself that any limitations are just an illusion and the healthy balance is one in which I’m learning from my experiences but also pushing my own boundaries.

The red and orange tattoo on my outer arm was done by the same forgotten artist though I will mention I was one of her first clients and that she was the perfect person for the job due to her own self-exploratory nature. She provided a healing space in which I was able to have an out of body experience.


The tattoo represents Fire. It captures my before mentioned fire sign of Leo, which is ruled by the sun. It is also Buddhist themed using a Tibetan mantra Om Mani Padme Hum which roughly translates to “the jewel is in the lotus,” which to me is a beautiful way to live life. The lotus roots reach far into the muck and swamp but emerge with a beautiful flower on top. The tattoo is an attempt to capture the notion of living in the world yet being separate from it, as to not get burned or be consumed by it. The circle in the tattoo represents the sun and myself and the red is the part of myself that struggles to find my way in the world.


The beehive (done by Louis Barak here in NYC) is a tribute to Emer and Naomi, two best friends of mine, and the tattoo as a whole captures what I consider to be the fifth element, Friendship…It bears the lyrics of The Beatles‘ “With a Little Help from My Friends.” We lived together in Seattle and called our lovely house the Beehive. We used to listen to The Beatles A LOT…though now I’m more of a Stones fan.

There are two bees buzzing to represent them


and the three forget-me-not flowers represent each of us. Emer and Naomi have known me the longest and have seen me through thick and thin. They mean the world to me and I love them both like sisters. I know in my heart that we will know each other forever.”

A big thanks to J.R. for sharing her tattoos with me on the subway and then writing so eloquently about them for us to read here on Tattoosday!

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