Tattoos and Grief: A Mechanism to Cope with Pain


Along the ribs of tattoo artist Spencer Chase is an angel coloured in black, green, and red ink above a tombstone that reads ‘In Memory of Pieter’. The tattoo artist from TCB Tattoo Parlour in Toronto chose a Fred Marquand design to honour the loss of a close friend who passed at the young age of 26.

“His family was super religious and hated his tattoos. But when he passed I ended up tattooing his whole family. I even tattooed his father, who used to preach against tattoos. He ended up getting this big tall ship with roses and chains and an eagle. I couldn’t believe it. It really meant a lot to me to be able to do that for them,” said Chase.

Grief is the natural response triggered by loss, and for some, the bereavement process is made easier with a body marking of the deceased known as memorial tattoos.

Memorial tattoos are a type of commemorative tattoo says Deborah Davidson, an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at York University. However, commemorative tattoos differ in that they “Honour living family members, pets, events that have great meaning in our lives, historical background, or things that we’ve accomplished,” said Davidson.

Davidson spearheaded The Tattoo Project, a text and online database that offers critical insights on the body and visual culture. Her website allows people to share their tattoos and their stories in an online environment unlike other social media.

“It’s controlled and archived in such a way that people’s stories cannot be used by others or perverted in any way. Not only can people read about others’ tattoos, researchers can go to the site and analyze the tattoos in a number of ways depending on their discipline,” said Davidson.

Through conducting multiple interviews for her tattoo research which began in 2009, Davidson discovered a number of commonalities amongst memorial tattoos. One of them being is that the people who get them feel their loved one is always with them.

Deborah Davidson is an Associate Professor and Underraduate Program Direcot at York University. (Photo courtesy Deborah Davidson)

This was especially true for Chase who acknowledged that getting tattoos helped him cope with his grief noting, “At first I found it bittersweet, that all I had left of my friend was an image on my body. At the same time though whenever I see it, I am reminded of him and memories we shared.”

Similarly, Nikita Zenkin, an appliance specialist in Toronto has plans to get a memorial tattoo in memory of his mother who passed when he was nine years old.

“It was a long time ago but I just remember that she was always there for me. She was caring, she was passionate about her career, and I always felt love from her,” said Zenkin. Zenkin intends to get a design that’s an integration of a heart and an angel.

Tattoo artist Shardiné Smith-Allison of Chosen Ink Studios in Scarborough finds that most of her clients know what kind of memorial tattoo they want before they see her.

“They usually already have a design that represents something of that person. If I were to help them come up with one, it wouldn’t be significant and that’s usually what I tell them. There’s been a few people that have asked me to help them but if it doesn’t represent something to you then it has no meaning to it,” she said.

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For Davidson, one of the most moving memorial tattoos she’s seen was during her time volunteering at Bereaved Families of Ontario, which also sparked her interest to study memorial tattoos.

“A woman who I didn’t think would have a tattoo, had a tattoo in memory of her daughter who died by suicide and the story is very moving. That tattoo of that particular woman opened my eyes to a new idea of why people got tattoos,” said Davidson.

Some people take memorial tattoos a step further by incorporating the ashes of their loved ones into the ink used for their tattoo.

“Ashes from cremation are sifted and sometimes re-baked to add another level of sterilization, but they have to be very fine. The cremains of the ashes are taken and mixed in quite minute degrees with tattoo ink, and then they’re used to do memorial tattoos,” said Davidson. Davidson first heard of ash tattooing ten years ago and has noticed that it has grown in popularity since then.

The loss of a loved one can be extremely difficult, but memorial tattoos are a reminder and a testament to the people and memories we hold close.

Of his clients, Chase says, “I think for a lot of people it really helps. I’ve had people cry on more than one occasion. But they are always very thankful and seem a bit more at peace.”

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