Five years ago, just before Estonian pop singer Kerli turned 16, she asked her conservative mother to let her get a tattoo of a “little Chinese hieroglyph” on the back of her neck for a birthday present and reward for her academic prowess. “She said, “No fucking way’” Kerli remembers. Instead, her mom challenged er to find every book in town about China, read it, and report back. If she thought the teenager knew enough, she could get the tattoo. “She thought I was never going to do it, and of course I did. So that was my 16th birthday present. It cost $10 from this little shitty salon in Estonia.”

It wouldn’t be the last time Kerli would set her mind on something. Born Kerli Koiv, the 21-year-old singer grew up in a tiny communist town of 5,000 people in Eastern Europe that she describes as a place where “you were not supposed to cry or laugh. You were not supposed to show real feelings.” She dreamed of being a pop singer, something unimaginable for most in Estonia, and launched her career on a Baltic version of American Idol. Just don’t ask her about it. “It was like seven years ago and it was the very beginning of my career,” she says.
With dark eye makeup, porcelain skin, and white-blonde hair, the blueeyed singer looks a little like Avril Lavigne crossed with the sweet prettiness of Kate Bosworth. She describes her debut album, Love is Dead on Island/Def Jam, as “a diary of five years of my darkest moments.” It sounds like something that could be featured on a “If you’re a fan of Fiona Apple and Pink” page on iTunes. Cross all that with a chick who has serious piercings (two in her lip, one nose, one eyebrow, her tongue, below her lip, and one nipple) and fi ve tattoos and you’ve got Kerli.

The tattoo on her ankle is the letter “E,” the first initial of an ex. There’s also a butterfl y that symbolizes “living every day as if it were my last,” and two Latin phrases etched inside her arms. “My right hand is my hello hand. This says [I’m] a friend of a human race, and that’s how I greet people,” she explains. “My left hand is my heart hand; this is for me to never forget who I serve. This means the lamb or servant of God and is where my art comes from. It’s about channeling something beautiful into this world.”
Fairy wings on her shoulders and a lotus flower on her back are next, but she is pacing herself.

“When I go back to Estonia I can’t show my tattoos to my parents or grandparents. They would freak out,” Kerli says. “My mother once saw my arms and she said I look like a Russian prisoner. I have to comfort them and say, ‘Oh, it’s easy to remove it one day if I want to.’ But I never would. I never regret anything. Even if I grow out of this in 10 years, and think this is ridiculous. This was who I was.”

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