Memorial Tattoos

What are Memorial Tattoos and what are we doing here?

Death, dying, bereavement and grief are part of life. However, we live in a society where grief is misunderstood, stigmatized, and regularly construed as complicated. People are often rendered mute by grief. Tattoos “allow access to expression without need of words” (Warnick & Toye, 2016, p.134). If every tattoo tells a story, what can we learn from the narratives connected to memorial tattoos? This is the question fueling our interdisciplinary team (from sociology, social work, anthropology, arts and computer science). We define memorial tattoos as those that honour a person who has died.

The scholarly understanding of grief has shifted to recognize that a relationship shifts, rather than ends, when a person dies. Memorial tattoos serve as permanent embodied representations of life and loss.

Our research into memorial tattoos includes interviews and photographs of 35 participants with tattoos, including bereaved parents, siblings, adult children and friends. We have also interviewed tattoo artists and funeral directors. Interviews were audio recorded and transcribed. The constant comparative method was used to identify themes. The photographs capture people’s expressions of their relationship with the person who has died.

Themes include why people get memorial tattoos, how they decide on the image and placement as well as the stories that they tell others about these visible reminders of their loss. Some people only have one tattoo; others have many. Each story and tattoo is coloured with memories. Memorial tattoos depict the relationship with the deceased on the outside, on the skin. In effect, they are inking the bond with the person who has died.

As our understanding of grief has shifted to an understanding of continuing bonds with the deceased, it is important to recognize tattoos as a form of meaning making. Tattoos can be a way of challenging the stigma of grief and of making visible the connection to the person. As death touches everyone at some point, memorial tattoos represent a cultural practice that is likely to continue and grow.

Featured Memorial Tattoo Stories:

For more Incredible stories of memorial tattoos and their owners click here: