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Artistic Permanence Out of Mortal Impermanence

Representing Lost Love

Tattoos are a widespread and well-known art form around the globe, serving as identity statements, personal reminders, and aesthetic improvements. Tattoos may also be designed to provide comfort to those grieving after the loss of a family member, partner, friend, or pet. For many people, memorial tattoos are an artistic outlet for intense emotional experience that allows the wearer to pay homage to their loved ones in meaningful ways. In the article “Worn Worlds: Clothes, Mourning, and the Life of Things,” Peter Stallybrass describes the ways in which we imbue inanimate objects with great personal meaning in an effort to evoke powerful memories through shared things. While wearing the clothes of a passed loved does not pack the same temporal punch as getting a tattoo, both serve as ways to be “inhabited by [their] presence, taken over,” so as to preserve a close bond (Stallybrass, p. 28). The act of physically embedding someone in your skin, guarantees that your loved one’s memory will never fade from your mind and that their story will story be told—visually and/or by sparked conversation. This symbolism can now be topped by literally carrying your loved one with you, thanks to a newer trend where cremated remains may be mixed into tattoo ink. While this may seem a bit strange and unappealing to some people contemplating how to perfectly memorialize a loved one, it is certainly a powerful statement that takes some serious dedication.  

Dr. John Troyer, director of the Centre for Death and Society at University of Bath states that memorial tattoos are not exclusively a solitary experience. During an interview he notes that he has “come across another phenomena” where when “someone dies in a family, multiple family members will all get the same tattoo, or version of the same tattoo…everyone from the youngest to the grandmother.” He points out that memorial tattoos supersede the conventional stigma that tends to surround tattoos, saying it challenges “what is an appropriate kind of tattoo to get, what is an appropriate age, or who should get one of those tattoos.” Because grief is an undeniable and a common force during life, it makes sense that social rules would be set aside when handling loss.​​

Artistic Expression

 Just as mourning rituals vary from culture to culture, memorial tattoos can be found around the globe in many variations—symbolic representation, numerical dates, portraits, signatures, and names. For some, memorial tattoos are about portraying the essence of a person, generally through an artifact or object imbued with nostalgia or something the departed admired or enjoyed. Designs incorporating a departed loved one’s favorite flower are a quite common example of this. A symbol particularly common in the United States is that of the cancer ribbons, with the various strains with different colors, which represent a late loved one’s hard-fought battle against the offending disease. Cancer ribbons are meant to demonstrate the strength of the fighter and serve as a call to action for us as a species to find a cure. Other popular symbols include religious crosses, angels, and paw prints (for deceased pets). Portraits are another popular way to commemorate loved ones that can be seen around the world. In her book Virtual Afterlives: Grieving the Dead in the Twenty-First Century, Candi K. Cann writes that portrait tattoos, while common around the world, “are reminiscent of Catholic Latin American remembrance cards passed around at the memorial Masses…” (70). These symbols are often accompanied by inscribed names and important dates from the deceased’s life. Think of popularized sailor tattoos of a heart with “Mom” written inside. Dates might represent birth and death dates, or in the case of cancer victims, possibly diagnosis dates.          

We not only remember our human companions, but our beloved “fur babies” too. As long term members of our families, pets occupy a special place in our hearts similar to that of our children in that they love us unconditionally and need our protection. We mourn the loss of our pets and seek to commemorate their mark on our lives. It comes as no surprise, given that we receive framed paw prints from veterinary clinics upon the death of our pets—and can even pay to have pets’ ashes scattered in a peaceful place, as in the case at the pet cemetery at Mount Rainier National Park—that we would get tattoos of paw prints with death dates.           

Memorial tattoos are a fantastic way to honor the people, and animals, you love. By creating artistic permanence out of mortal impermanence, we are able to comfort ourselves and honor the experiences and contributions of those who matter most.

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