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Anthony Bourdain’s Tattoos Documented His Culinary Adventures

The chef, author, and TV host, who died at 61, said that photos were “inadequate to capture the moment.”

Anthony Bourdain
Anthony Bourdain has died at age 61.
Photo: Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images

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Anthony Bourdain — the superstar chef, author, and host of CNN’s Parts Unknown — has died at 61; CNN confirmed that he took his own life. He is survived by his 11-year-old daughter, Ariane, and his longtime girlfriend, activist and director Asia Argento.

For Parts Unknown, Bourdain crisscrossed the globe, with the most recent episodes taking viewers to Hong Kong and Armenia. But no matter where he traveled, one thing remained consistent: his appearance. He almost always appeared in distressed jeans and shirts that revealed the eclectic mix of tattoos on his arms. The sleeves of body art he’d acquired over the past two decades directly corresponded to his trajectory from a self-described obscure chef who couldn’t pay his rent on time to “the original rock star, the Elvis of bad boy chefs,” as the Smithsonian called him in 2014.

Bourdain’s ink started not as a youthful act of rebellion but at the age of 44. He made the move after the publication of his first book, 2000’s Kitchen Confidential; it gave the uninitiated an insider’s view of the culinary world’s sometimes unsavory elements. Although Bourdain may have been middle-aged when he got his first tattoo, on his right bicep, getting inked was still an act of rebellion — against his wife, anyway.

Anthony Bourdain’s tattoos.
Anthony Bourdain’s arm tattoos.
Photo: Laura Cavanaugh/FilmMagic

“I’d always wanted one,” he told The Manual in November. “My first wife was deathly opposed — existentially opposed — to tattoos, but I was feeling pretty good about the world after Kitchen Confidential. I guess I rewarded myself by slipping out unannounced and getting one.”

He called the tat, the sort of tribal band that became de rigueur for ink-loving Americans during the ’90s, a “starter tattoo.” Afterward, the number of tattoos on his trim frame quickly grew. “I’ve been tatted with a metal needle by hand by a monk in Chiang Mai,” he recalled. “I’ve had a number of tattoo parlors in the States. I’ve had one hammered into my chest by two drunken Iban tribesmen in Borneo.”

Rather than photos or souvenirs, the body art served to commemorate Bourdain’s journeys across the world. Photos, he said, simply couldn’t capture what he’d experienced during his travels. He stopped taking them a few years into his new life as a culinary adventurer. And he became disenchanted with mementos when they began to look more like clutter around his home than artifacts.

“There’s this realization that the lens is inadequate to capture the moment,” he told Maxim in August, “so maybe I’m just looking to mark time in another way that’s very personal.”

His tattoo collection included a skull on his right shoulder and an ouroboros on his left. He got the skull in 2008 on TLC’s reality show Miami Ink. There was also a chef’s knife, scorpion, seventh son, and philosophical musings like “I am certain of nothing” written in ancient Greek.

Bourdain was realistic about what the tattoos represented — for the most part, nothing “vitally important” — and that a baby boomer developing a hankering for body art could give the impression that he was suffering from a midlife crisis. He said he didn’t get tattoos because he wanted to appear more attractive, interesting, or hip, but simply because the tats pleased him. He likened his body to a beat-up car and his tattoos to dents.

“It’s a selfish, personal thing,” he told Maxim. “I jokingly say, ‘I’m driving an old car. It’s filled with dents. One more dent ain’t gonna make it any worse than this.’”

He documented what may have been his last tattoo, a blue chrysanthemum, on a 2017 episode of the web series Raw Craft. It was done tebori style, Japan’s ancient stick-and-poke method, in Brooklyn’s Runin Tattoo shop. The tattoo artist, Takashi Matsuba, made the ink himself and used an instrument called a nomi to etch the art into Bourdain’s skin. These traditional tattoos, which take longer than their mechanically created counterparts, revealed Bourdain’s ability to endure physical pain with stoicism. But tattoos, which Bourdain said gave him an endorphin rush, also allowed him to address emotional pain. Some of his alluded to themes like mortality and spirituality.

7th son tattoo

Posted by Anthony Bourdain on Thursday, July 2, 2015

During a 2011 visit to Miami for the Travel Channel show The Layover, the chef got a tattoo of a symbol that meant “to suspend judgment” or “to hold back.”

“Basically it means that if you live according to this notion …” he said, “you [can] be unperturbed, happy in your life, not tormented.”