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
  • American Afterlife Book Cover
    “American Afterlife” by Kate Sweeny illuminates the mourning practices of Americans, which range from odd to tragic, and sometimes even funny.
    Cover courtesy The University of Georgia Press

  • Tattoo artist and work-in-progress memorial tattoo
  • American Afterlife Book Cover

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.

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