Over the past two years many of us have been confronted with the realities of death and grieving. During this time the pandemic has killed hundreds of thousands of people — and is continuing to do so each day. It comes as no surprise that there’s been a surge in memorial tattoos (and tattoos in general) throughout 2021 as shops have reopened.
Tattooers have been doing a booming business, from California to Texas, tattoo artists are very, very busy. In a recent piece from Vox, tattooist Tiffany Garcia noted that more people than ever are coming into her shop in Torrance, California, “It felt like people were trying to find themselves or fulfill a purpose with tattoos,” Garcia told Vox reporter Terry Nguyen. “I’ve had clients say they never thought to get one in their life.
Adam Sky opened Morningstar Tattoo in Belmont, California in January 2020. A few weeks later, the pandemic forced the shop to shut down. Now he says he’s booked at least a year out,“I’ve never been this busy in my 25 years of tattooing,” said Sky, “My advice would be to make your tattoo plans well in advance, because everybody is slammed.” People are, Sky said, “living out their tattoo dreams” as restrictions ease.
A search for the hashtag “covidtattoo” on Instagram reveals over 3,200 posts, as of this writing. Most of them are similarly themed: plague doctors, bottles of sanitizer, and masked nurses are all common. People who get these tattoos are literally marking this moment in time on their skin. Funny or serious, they’re a (sometimes literal) declaration of survival.
People are not only marking their survival through the pandemic, but also their losses with memorial tattoos. In some cases people will even get a very small amount of cremains mixed into the ink, allowing them to carry a piece of their loved one with them forever, in much the same way someone else would carry a locket.
In her 2009 Masters thesis for Smith College, Eliza Schiffrin explores the memorial tattoo as a kind of modern mourning ritual. The paper notes that Western society as a whole has largely left behind public grieving rituals connected with death and mourning.
Schiffrin mentions the Jewish tradition of Kriyah (also spelled Kriah), where clothes or a black ribbon worn on someone’s clothing are torn to represent the internal anguish of losing a loved one. The week after a death, called Shiva, is spent remembering the events that led up to the deceased’s death as well as the events of their life. Participants in an Irish wake throw a party in honor of the deceased’s life and get to see that person out of their homes for the final time before they’re buried.
Both rituals provide a framework people can use to deal with the emotions they’re feeling and be supported by members of their community. Schiffrin argues that memorial tattoos can serve a similar purpose to grieving rituals by inviting conversation about the story, and thus the person, behind the art. The tattoo can be an externalization of the wearer’s grief, a physical marker that helps separate it from the person emotionally.
Another practice that started before the pandemic is preserving the tattoos of a loved one after death.
Companies like Save My Ink Forever work with funeral homes and crematories, sending them a “recovery kit” with all the required equipment needed to carefully remove and process the tattooed areas of a person’s skin. Once that’s done, the skin is sealed in high-quality glass to protect and preserve the art, then framed. The end result looks something like papyrus, and if someone is open to it can be a valuable keepsake.
Megan Rosenbloom, author of the book Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin, says the practice is something tattooed people might appreciate: “When you talk to tattoo people about ‘would you wanna preserve your tattoos forever…it doesn’t seem to gross them out. They’re like ‘oh yeah, that’d be cool’…I can’t speak for everyone but…If your loved ones you left behind have similar values about it…you’d have something that is very uniquely that person.”
Memorial tattoos seem to occupy a strange middle ground in our societal relationship with the sacred. They’re reminiscent of other traditions that honor dead ancestors, but aren’t part of any one religious practice, and separate from the mainstream Christian ideal of maintaining a supernatural relationship only with god.
Deborah Davidson, a professor of sociology at Ontario’s York University who’s studied memorial tattoos extensively, says her research confirms the idea of these tattoos as a sort of bond with the sacred dead. “As a tangible part of living flesh, tattoos serve as a translator of experience into a language more readable by others – a language comforting to the griever, and less disturbing to others,” she said. “All of my participants in my memorial tattoo research expressed the specific detail that they felt the deceased were still ‘with them.’”
Davidson’s interest in memorial tattoos started in 2009. While volunteering with the nonprofit Bereaved Families of Ontario, she met a woman with a tattoo memorializing the daughter they lost to suicide. Davidson set out to find more people with this type of ink, eventually starting her website The Tattoo Project dedicated to her findings, which later became a book. The work caused Davidson to reevaluate her opinions on tattoos, and she’s gotten several of her own since starting the project.
She identified five main reasons why people get memorial tattoos, from enduring physical bond with the deceased to facilitator of conversation. “We live in a culture where grief is still a taboo subject and…a difficult dialogue,” says Davidson. “Talking about one’s tattoo becomes a method to maintain a memory of someone in our external environment but also to introduce this person to new acquaintances by bringing knowledge of their existence into our new relationships.”
Whether they lost someone to COVID or not, people getting tattooed now seem to have a desire to mark the dark stretch of time we’ve lived through in some way. We want to point to a box on the calendar or a design on our skin and say “That’s when it ended. That’s when it started to get better.”
Memento mori can also be translated from its original Latin as, “remember that you must die.” Objects that symbolize death, like skulls or dead flowers, can be memento mori. They remind us to wake up and live, because we’ve only got so many minutes, and in the case of a memorial tattoo, they can remind us what we’ve survived, and who we’re carrying on for.
John Bogna is a freelance writer and photographer based in Houston, Texas. He’s covered everything from crypto use in Venezuela to state Senate elections, and you can find his work at johnbogna.com.
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