Do You Even Love Maine If You Don’t Have a Maine-y Tattoo?

Four questions for author and tattoo artist Phuc Tran about the most conspicuous manifestations of Maine pride.

Phuc Tran of Portland’s Tsunami Tattoo
Photographed by Michael D. Wilson

Perhaps you’ve noticed that a lot of Maine’s native, adopted, and seasonal residents tend to wear their fondness for the motherland on their sleeves — and that many, in fact, tattoo it there. We talked to author and tattoo artist Phuc Tran, proprietor of Portland’s Tsunami Tattoo, about those whose love for the Pine Tree State is truly indelible.

What do you think of our unscientific observation that Mainers are more chest-thumpy about where they live than folks from other states?

Oh, for sure. I would agree with that.

So how often does someone come in asking for a tattoo that somehow celebrates Maine?

Pretty often. Sometimes it’s summer people who have some deep connection to Maine, which makes sense to me, because it’s a way for them to be connected to it even when they’re not here. We’ll get summer-camp counselors — one summer we had a whole bunch from New Zealand who all came and got Maine tattoos. Then, obviously, year-round residents do it too. I would say the ratio of year-round residents getting Maine tattoos to part-time residents or visitors is probably about 50/50.

Do people talk to you about why they’re inking Maine onto their skin?

Honestly, with Maine, I think it’s kind of unspoken. Like, if someone was getting a tattoo of their mom, I would never ask why. There’s such a deep love for the state, it feels so patently clear. I would say people’s love for Maine, and why they get that tattoo, it’s up there with tattoos that celebrate their children or their parents or their heritage. It’s so deeply baked into their DNA and who they are. Like, I think I’d get punched in the face if I asked somebody, “Why are you getting a tattoo of your kids?”

Scanning your Instagram, I see tattoos you’ve given of lupines, moose, harbor seals — what other sorts of Maine emblems have clients asked for?

I’ve done the state seal a couple of times. That’s a tricky one. Then people started bringing in the old state flag pattern, with the pine and the star. We’ve done that a bunch of times — people are into the simplicity of it. People love the pine cone and animals — the natural world. I’ve done lots of lobsters and seashells. There’s just a pretty long list of things: a mountain, the seashore, a rocky cliff, pine trees. I think the natural iconography that Maine offers is just so rich.

Tran’s new book is Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In (Flatiron Books). Tsunami Tattoo is open by appointment only. 583 Forest Ave., Portland. 207-756-6766. Follow Tran on Instagram to see more of his work.


The July 2020 issue is sold out!
See more from this issue.
Don’t miss another special issue: Subscribe to Down East.

July 2020