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Why the bereaved are getting memorial tattoos

Man getting a memorial tattoo in memory of a loved one

When Kelsie was 18 years old, just starting out at university, her boyfriend, Tim, suddenly died. One January morning, running late for work and rushing to make it on time, Tim suffered a cardiac arrest, caused by an undiagnosed heart condition called cardiomyopathy.

“I spent every waking moment trying to recall every conversation, every glance, every insignificant detail about my soulmate who had been so cruelly taken from me,” she remembers.

Kelsie, who is currently travelling the world, felt that a memorial tattoo would be the perfect tribute to Tim. Like a growing number of people, particularly young people, Kelsie felt that having a permanent reminder of the person she’d lost was an ideal way to honour his memory.

“I wanted to get a tattoo, I think, to have a physical connection still with him,” she says.

“I claimed a hoodie and a favourite shirt of his, but I wanted something to represent the fact that our love never spoiled. Something that marked me as his. I think if I was thinking rationally at the time, that’s how I would have put my feelings into words.”

The art of tattooing has ancient origins, but many modern Australians have also embraced body modification, with almost 15 per cent of the nation having at least one tattoo. For many people, getting inked is about far more than just a pretty design – tattoos have the potential to take on great emotional significance, or tell stories about their life.

Tattooing has been used for centuries to acknowledge the heartache of losing a loved one. Cultural anthropologist Margo DeMello suggests in her book, The Tattoo Project, that memorial tattoos are as old as the art of tattooing itself. She observes how Hawaiian tribes have for centuries tattooed their tongues in remembrance of community members. It’s an intensely painful procedure, which represents the emotional pain of grief and a permanent reminder of that important person.

Physical permanence is a huge part of what makes the memorial tattoo emotionally significant. Tattoos are there for life, save for painful laser removal treatments, and become a part of the person who has them. This reflects a feeling that many bereaved people share; that their loved one is and always will be a part of who they are.

Remembrance tattoos are also a chance to tell a story, to make the emotions and experiences in your heart outwardly visible. It’s a way of acknowledging who and what really matters to you.

Phil, a campaign fundraiser, has several tattoos, but the crown design on his forearm has particular significance. “It reminds me of playing chess with my grandad when I was young,” he says. “It constantly reminds me that no matter how big the challenge in front of me or how tough my competition, if I’m smart and patient there is always a way to succeed. It’s the best life lesson I was ever taught.”

Alexandra, a teacher, also has a memorial tattoo for a special grandparent. A stylised elephant tattoo on her leg is a symbolic tribute to her grandmother.

“I think it was just important to have something tangible related to her on my person at all times,” she explains. “Spending so much time with her when I was younger forged a massive part of my personality.

“She used to wear an elephant brooch and left it to me. It’s a subtle way to remind myself that I come from a line of strong women.”

Like Phil and Alexandra, Kelsie chose a symbolic tattoo, inked on her ring finger, to remember Tim.

“Tim’s mother officially banned me from getting his name tattooed on my body anywhere,” she explains. “In hindsight, this was a very good point, mainly because if someone asks me about my tattoo, I can make the choice of whether to honour them with the true story or not.

“I decided to get the infinity symbol. Not only did it represent the fact that Tim will forever be important to me, but it is also similar to a figure 8, which was Tim’s lucky number and birthday.

“I had read that it was once believed that the ring finger was chosen as such because it had a vein that ran directly to the heart. This is the finger that you wear an engagement or wedding ring on, and that seemed the perfect place to symbolise the fact that our love will always remain constant.

“Even though it’s on my finger it isn’t immediately obvious, and I like that. I believe tattoos should be a narrative. I love that I can catch a glimpse of my own and it can instantly recall a life with a man I was lucky enough to know.”

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