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Why we feel the need to get inked when a loved one passes.

It was Friday and I was preparing to go out with my two best friends. We reunited for a weekend after almost a year of separation and we had a lot of ground to cover: Any more roommate drama? How’s your new girlfriend? Did you see the pictures of so-and-so’s wedding? I brushed on a layer of mascara as we discussed a former classmate’s new tattoo (final verdict: tacky) and said, “I know what tattoos I’d get if you guys died.”

They stared at me as if I suggested we drink each other’s blood. “Morbid much, Han?” Megan asked. “What are you talking about?” Becky scoffed. I looked at their wide eyes in the mirror and backpedaled. “Not like I want you guys to die, of course. I just know how I’d memorialize you if you did.” They accepted my explanation (that’s what best friends are for) and asked what their memorial tattoos would be. I answered: a dainty anchor for Megan and an Ohio State University logo for Becky (only a fellow Michigan alumni will understand the sacrifice there).

Truthfully, I’ve thought about the memorial tattoos I’d get for all the important people in my life. To me, it’s a thoughtful gesture, an acknowledgement of their permanence in my life. And I’m not the only one who thinks so?—?many people immortalize their loved ones with ink. I wanted to understand my friends’ skepticism, so I looked into the less-than-stellar history of tattooing.

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The rise of tattooing

As an art form, tattooing had inauspicious beginnings. The Greek and Roman empires used ink as a form of control, a means of coercing and stigmatizing others. More recently, the Nazis branded incoming concentration camp prisoners with serial numbers in an attempt to reduce them to numbers.

Over time, people began to associate tattoos with criminals or slaves. Even after tattooing became a voluntary activity, people who obtained tattoos remained stigmatized. Most tattoo seekers were members of marginalized communities, like motorcycle gangs, sailors and circus performers, and anyone outside of these communities who chose to ink themselves found themselves subjected to similar societal judgment.

A ‘Tattooed Lady’ circus performer and U.S. Navy sailors examining a tattoo. l The Plaza Gallery / U.S. Navy National Archives

According to a 2015 Harris Poll, the stigma surrounding ink hasn’t disappeared entirely: 26% of Americans believe people with tattoos are less respectable than those without. As tattoos become more prevalent, however, these associations are slowly shifting. Today, three out of every ten Americans has at least one tattoo. Younger generations are leading the charge toward ink acceptance and 47% of millennials are tattooed.

Tattooing didn’t enter the mainstream until the 1970s and 80s. During this period (known as the “Tattoo Renaissance”) tattooing was accepted as an art form with a community of professionally trained artists performing customized design work. Tattoo’s emergence into mainstream circles coincided with the self-improvement boom of the 1960s and 70s. The “Me Generation” embraced self-expression and tattooing provided them a unique platform to express their personalities. As tattooing became more socially accepted and personally significant, memorial tattoos became increasingly popular.

An artist’s perspective on memorial tattoos

It was around this time that Nick Colella got his first tattoo. Back then, Nick was a 15-year-old kid who loved punk rock and wanted to be the neighborhood tough guy. Today, Nick owns Great Lakes Tattoo in Chicago and is a veteran tattoo artist with 22 years of work under his belt.

Nick tells me that when it comes to memorial ink, there’s very little consistency. He’s tattooed simple designs (a loved one’s name) and complex designs (a full leg piece depicting different portions of a person’s life). When his grandfather died, Nick paid tribute by tattooing the word “Gramps” on his own hand.

Memorial tattoos are more emotional than they used to be and Nick blames reality shows like “Inked” and “LA Ink.” “[The shows] needed some kind of drama, a deeper meaning to get people to watch,” he explains.

“So they would have these heavy-duty memorial pieces because that shit is heavy. They would have these real heavy stories of people’s loss and survival so that it was something [for the viewers] to identify with.”

An example of a complex memorial tattoo design. l Tattoobite

Before these shows, most customers came in for memorial tattoos with a casual idea in mind. But once heart-wrenching stories became a fixture on TV, customers wanted to replicate that experience with their own memorial pieces.

“They want you involved in everything: talking about their story, planning what the tattoo should be, everything,” Nick says. “While it’s very heavy and deep to get tattooed, a lot of people need a story to get tattooed now, whereas before you didn’t.”

I’m guilty of this. I have nothing against tattoos; I think about getting one every so often, but always conclude that I need something to happen to justify permanently injecting ink into my skin. It’s almost as if I’m waiting for tragedy to strike to give me the push that I need.

Maybe there’s a reason for my apprehension. I’ve talked to friends with visible tattoos and they all offer the same complaint: people always ask what my tattoo means.

For me, getting inked is deeply personal. I worry that the constant expectation to justify the reasoning behind a tattoo?—?especially a memorial tattoo?—?could be painful, uncomfortable or simply unwanted. So it makes sense to me that people think carefully about the design of their tattoo and have a response prepared for when people ask questions.

A bee and a well-placed quote

I spoke to my co-worker, Natali, about her memorial tattoo. She told me that before she got her tattoo, she already had a story of significance in mind. Natali’s tattoo is in honor of her brother, Nick, who passed away after a lifelong battle with leukemia. “I knew I wanted to get something to remember and symbolize him for a long time,” she tells me. “I wanted something a little more personal and vague [than her sister’s more complex memorial piece], so I wouldn’t have to explain…why I have a man’s name tattooed on me.”

During one visit to Nick’s grave, Natali noticed a bee perched on her bottle of beer. After that, she noticed bees every time she thought about or was reminded of Nick. “So I got a tattoo of a bee to remind myself that he’s always around,” she explains.

Natali waited for 15 years after her brother’s death to get her tattoo and during that time she considered the questions it would inevitably raise. But for Sydney?—?another friend who spoke with me about her tattoo?—?her piece was a knee-jerk response to a friend’s unexpected passing. “It was very much a reaction to her death because it was something I could do, an actual physical activity I could do to have my friend back for a little bit.”

Sydney got her memorial tattoo in honor of her friend, Anna. It’s located on her forearm and it reads, “Make no little plans.” The tattoo was initially Anna’s idea?—?it’s a quote by Daniel Burnham, the architect behind the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Anna passed away a few days after telling Sydney her plans for a new tattoo; when she died, Sydney paid tribute by tattooing Anna’s idea on her body.

Sydney worked in a bar and she tells me she was not prepared for customers regularly commenting on her tattoo. She doesn’t like to tell them the real story. “Everyone has been in that situation where someone tells you something tragic and you don’t know what to say to them,” Sydney tells me. “So I try not to drop it on too many people.”

Instead, when they ask, she talks about Daniel Burnham’s connection to Chicago and his character in Erik Larson’s popular book, “Devil in the White City.”

Memorial tattoos and mourning

I talked to a number of people and all them say their tattoo didn’t provide them with closure. Natali explains, “It’s not like now that I have a symbol to remind of this person that I am ‘over’ their death.” Still, tattoos do provide some solace: Natali’s tattoo reminds her of her brother and Sydney’s inspires her to live life to the fullest.

I’m tempted to keep waiting for the universe to give me a sign before I get inked, but Nick convinces me otherwise. He says, “The bottom line is, you get a tattoo because you want to get the damn tattoo.”

So I guess I’ll see you in a tattoo parlor soon.