Memorial Tattoos: Getting Inked and Letting Go

A tattoo artist helps their clients express themselves–permanently–in a way that most can’t. Memorial tattoos can bring comfort and closure to those who are left behind.

Tattoo artist and work-in-progress memorial tattoo

“There’s nothing more symbolic than to permanently etch your skin, in memoriam, to someone else.” – Sarah Peacock

Photo by Fotolia/LukaTDB

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American Afterlife (The University of Georgia Press, 2014) reveals this world through a collective portrait of Americans—past and present—who find themselves personally involved with death. Interviewing a blend of obituary writers, memorial photographers, funeral directors, and more, author Kate Sweeney unveils the secret world of mourning from the eyes of those closest to death. This excerpt, from chapter 2 “Gone but Not Forgotten,” features an interview with Sarah Peacock, a tattoo artist, who speaks candidly with Sweeney about the art of memorial tattoos.

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The churchyard scene in the photograph is sepia and sprawling. Its blocky crosses and headstones, hemmed in by grasses grown long, look like they belong to a land somewhere between old New England and Tales from the Crypt. Some of the stones bear names, others don’t, and there’s still plenty of empty space where more monuments will appear later. This is no actual graveyard I’m looking at, but a tattoo, a work in progress that will eventually cover the entire broad back of Randy, a local biker. More names will appear on the stones each year as his buddies ride off to that motorcycle rally in the sky. The tattooed graveyard scene is a traditional way for bikers to honor their dead. The creator of this tableau, Sarah Peacock, is not specifically a biker tattoo artist, although she lives in the same coastal town as me—Wilmington, North Carolina—where a good number of motorcycle dudes and ladies also make their home. She does tattoos for college professors too, and real estate agents and restaurant workers. A fair number of these clients are motivated by the loss of a child, a grandparent, or a sibling.

“Well, there’s nothing more permanent than a tattoo,” says Sarah when I ask her why death makes people want to ink themselves. “There’s nothing more symbolic than to permanently etch your skin, in memoriam, to someone else.” She is leaning over the right bicep of Eric, a middle-aged guy with a handlebar mustache. With long-taper number-twelve stainless steel needles, Sarah uses quick strokes to insert ink into the epidermis. Her wild red hair is corralled into its usual two braids, each looped upon itself, and her skin is mapped out so completely in tattoos that it appears a grayish blur when she moves to speak or change out ink. Her clear blue eyes are lined with creases; right now they are flat and intent on her work.

When she finishes and Eric leaves, his shoulder will be newly emblazoned with three cubist horses charging toward the foreground and one doe-eyed pony. These stand for Eric’s family. The pony is his baby daughter, born one month ago. He chose horses because they’re strong and beautiful and also for superstitious reasons: Tattooing the names or real portraits of the living is bad luck.

There is something in Sarah Peacock’s Yorkshire accent and low no-bullshit voice, even before you consider the proud way she carries herself or her own impressive cloak of tattoos—the first one inked, to her parents’ horror, in 1987, in Peterborough, England, a place and time when girls definitely did not get tattoos. “I met a woman with a tattoo, the first woman in my seventeen years,” she says, “and soon as I saw that tattoo, I was like, ‘It is on.’” She snuck out of the house to visit the only tattoo parlor she knew of, where she got a small tribal-style butterfly on her left shoulder blade. It’s a tiny, faded creature now, dwarfed and crowded over by dozens of other designs, so many she has lost track. This doesn’t bother her. Her own multitudinous tattoo experiences blend together in her memory, and the finished product on her skin seems almost beside the point. Instead, she exists entirely in the moment between the ink she has just laid down and the ink she’s about to apply, always with a clear-eyed, placid anticipation of what’s next. Before she even tells me it’s her job to remain a calm and focused guiding light to clients in distress, I believe her.

Her voice has a way of sounding quiet and commanding even though everything she says to me today is spoken in a half-shout over the electric needles—her own and that of an employee a few feet away in the next room. I’ve come here to ask Sarah about the memorial tattoos she has created over her fourteen-year career. Before Sarah was a widely respected, award-winning tattoo artist, she was a painter, and she still is. She specializes in realistic portraiture in her tattoo work, inking sepia or brilliantly colored images of people’s idols, pets, or grandparents into their backs or arms or chests. A lot of people who want memorial tattoos want portraits. End result: Sarah Peacock does a lot of memorial portraits for people. They probably account for 10 percent of her business.

When Sarah creates tattoos to memorialize the dead, it usually goes like this: Earlier this year, she inked a man whose wife had died of a fluke illness at the age of thirty-eight. Sarah worked from a photo the man had. “And he said that getting the tattoo was his last stage of letting go. So when I finished that portrait, he cried.”

Or it goes like this: In the spring she did a pair of tattoos for the father and brother of a man in his early twenties who attempted to hang himself, failed, and then died in the hospital a few days later. “And when the father came in to book the appointment, he was nearly in tears,” she tells me. “So I was expecting it to be a really emotional experience, but actually, when he got the tattoo, he was able to talk about it. And it was interesting, psychologically, because I think the booking of the appointment was his letting go. So actually getting that piece was a celebration.”

This idea of letting go of someone by having that person permanently set into your own skin seems counterintuitive. After all, that image is there every day, forevermore. But rather than a sign of obsession, Sarah finds that a tattoo of the deceased usually demonstrates the opposite.

“You know, I think that for a person to be able to look at an image day after day after day shows that they have gotten to the point that they’ve let go of that control. Normally for a while, there’s some avoidance there; they can’t face it. But if they can look every day at that portraiture, they have gotten to the point where they’re no longer avoiding it.”

A few years ago, Sarah started taking yoga, and she has absorbed the practice’s ideas of freeing oneself from physical and material attachments. I already referred to her as “award-winning,” but my information on that is limited to the following: Sarah Peacock won Tattoo Artist of the Year at the North Carolina State Tattoo Convention in 2002. She won “Best Sleeve” at a convention in Virginia in 2004. She’s always showing up in tattoo mags like the charmingly named Prick, and she has appeared on a Discovery Channel documentary called The Human Canvas. Every detail I learn, however, I don’t learn from her. “I’ve thrown all those out,” she says vaguely when I ask about her accolades.

Similarly, she almost never talks about the work itself, the inked designs she spends hours on. She talks instead about what led the person to come in and get the tattoo, and what sort of mood distinguished the experience. After every story, I have to ask her to go back and describe the end product. That’s the way it is now. I ask her to describe the tattoos the father and brother got, and she shuts off her needle for a moment.

“Oh . . .” into the sudden, ear-ringing quiet. “A portrait of the son at two different ages. The brother wanted to remember his brother when he was younger, and not so...” She pauses. “Well, his brother went out of his mind,” she says, with a shake of the head, “but the father wanted the portrait at the age that he was when he tried to commit suicide.”

Even if most of her memorial tattoo clients come to her when they’re no longer gripped by the first sharp shock of grief, I can’t imagine that this work wouldn’t be emotionally trying.

“No,” she says quickly. “It’s just a part of the larger job: You have to keep calm,” she says. “My role is to have that person be as comfortable as possible, and I’m not avoiding the issue of why they’re getting tattooed.”

But she’s not just some mother figure with a septum piercing, either. Unlike the barkeep or the beautician, Sarah Peacock is not peddling numbing inebriation or a new look; she’s inflicting physical agony. “The tiny kisses of kittens,” she calls the needle’s stabbing action, grinning for a moment. It’s not just the permanence of the finished product, but the discomfort inherent in the process that draws people in mourning to translate an emotional throbbing into a physical one and emerge intact on the other side with a beautiful scar.

People whom she shepherds through this difficult stage view her as sort of a modern shaman. After several intense hours of partner- ship with them, she doesn’t see them again. It reminds me of this: You know that friend who hangs out with you in your bad days following the divorce, whom you feel weird calling later once things are better? And whom you don’t call? Not because you no longer like the friend, but because in your mind, he’s now inextricably linked to the darkness. While she receives, and counts on, a ton of repeat business, the people Sarah sees just for memorial portraiture are people she expects to lose immediately and forever. This is true of the father and son who got the portraits. “I know I’ll never see those guys again. Hopefully I won’t see them again.” It’s not that she didn’t like them; just the opposite. She wishes them well.

This also means that she’ll never again see the piece of art she worked so hard to create. It’s strange. The tattoos that grant the honored dead a sort of new existence also mean the sure passing of her work from her own world forever. She calls this “a good lesson to have learned as an artist” and compares it to spring cleaning. “If you empty your surroundings, you empty yourself in order to create more,” she says. “Nothing’s permanent.”

She has said no to hundreds of prospective clients because the tattoos were not her style or up to her taste standards. But Sarah Peacock never refuses a tattoo to honor the dead. “No, I don’t mess with memorial stuff. That’s very personal to them.” If you ask her to, she will tattoo a simple cross and an “rip” symbol and be done with it. She’ll ink a pair of initials, or pretty much anything else you like.

Other designs are to be avoided, however. There are superstitions about life and death in the world of ink. She tries to caution people against getting tattoos of the objects of romantic interest. She does this because of the mutability of human affection—“I mean, you’re pretty much branding yourself,” she says. But she also believes that tattoos of living sweethearts are bad luck. She’s talked people out of getting the names of girlfriends, and even husbands and wives. “I’m like, ‘don’t do it, dude,’” she says, and Eric, the guy under her needle at this moment, chuckles.

“I think it’s bad juju to get a name,” he says.

“It is!”

What about sons and daughters? Nieces?

Those are fine, says Sarah.

But Eric doesn’t agree. He says that the same tattoo that connects you permanently with the soul of the departed can sever you in this life. He puts enough credence in the superstition to avoid any but oblique references to the living in any of his tattoos; hence today’s horses on his shoulder. He has no intention of letting go of his newborn daughter just yet.

Tattooing culture in this country can be traced back to that of European sailors, whose capricious world was bedecked in superstition. It makes sense; humanity’s storied view of the sea has always been that of an alluring place of unpredictable peril. Superstitions brace that world with clear-cut rules, the sense of order humans crave. On levels macro and micro, we are always looking to ascertain cause and effect. We string lines of meaning across space where none is inherent so that we can rest our heads there without fear. From territories geographic and emotional that we cannot control or predict, we make provinces for rules we cannot test, because any illusion of predictability makes us feel safe. The realm of human relationships is like the ocean. It is governed by the mercurial feelings and decisions of people who are not us—our enigmatic husbands and girlfriends—and by earthly chance we cannot control. My grandmother was a firm believer that you should hold your breath when you pass a cemetery. That pregnant women should not attend funerals. That sweeping under the bed of a sick person will cause him to die, and leaving a hat on a bed courts the Dark Angel, too. I could not argue with her on these points, and frankly, some part of me was always too chicken. One cannot decisively prove that it is not bad luck to tattoo your skin with the direct image and name of a living person; you can only point to all the bad things that have befallen those who have. Death is about as biddable as the ocean or the whims of other people.

Sarah Peacock has inked the sepia image of a four-year-old child onto a bereaved mother’s back. She has inked the word “cholo” in Old English script into the chests of members of Latino gangs. She has tattooed dark teardrops inches from the eyes of young men. Tears are common prison tattoos, traditionally meaning that the bearer has killed someone. That meaning has expanded to signify mourning as well. She has tattooed the images of pet Chihuahuas and husbands, of crosses simple and ornate, of banners emblazoned with names on torsos and forearms, and of gravestones with dates.

The graveyard scene across the back of biker Randy reminds me of the family quilts that colonial women used to make. The design on the quilt was of a fenced graveyard, surrounded by coffins with family names stitched on each. The quilters moved the coffins into the quilt’s center once the person died. Except quilts, unlike tattoos, can last for generations. They hang in houses and folk museums. Sarah Peacock’s canvas is living and breathing; it has a finite lifespan. And it’s this vitality and subsequent mortality that makes them remarkable, these death tattoos that Sarah hopes never to see again, portraits of the beloved dead, the pain of whose death the living hoped to extinguish somehow by prolonging their likenesses, flat, breathless, and still, on their own skin. Until they’re gone, too.

Reprinted with Permission from American Afterlife: Encounters in the Customs of Mourning by Kate Sweeney and published by The University of Georgia Press, 2014.