Grief affects people in unique and sometimes unexpected ways, and everyone has different ways of coping with bereavement. The practice of permanently marking our bodies to memorialise a loved one is not a new invention, and has been used for centuries to acknowledge the heartache of losing a loved one. Margo DeMello in The Tattoo Project suggests that memorial tattoos are as old as the art of tattooing itself, citing Hawaiian tribes who for centuries have tattooed their tongues in remembrance of community members. An intensely painful procedure, the practice represents a physical manifestation of the pain of grief and a permanent reminder of that important person.
Physicality is a huge part of what makes the memorial tattoo emotionally significant. First and foremost, it is permanent and cannot be removed, save for painful and expensive procedures. When the death of a loved one makes life feel uncertain and transitory, many bereaved people find comfort in stability and permanence – reflecting our love for someone lasting forever. The idea that a tattoo will mark our bodies for the rest of our own lives is also a symbol of defiance against decay and death.
But more than this, memorial tattoos are a chance to tell a story about what is happening in our hearts – to make what is inside us outwardly visible.