6 Cliché-Free Memorial Tattoos

Our columnist rounds up tribute tattoos without a single “R.I.P” in sight

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Like grief, tattoos are both personal and permanent. Unlike grief, tattoos are often on public display.

Altering our bodies in memoriam of someone can be a way of confronting our grief and outwardly expressing the magnitude of our loss. For those of us with ink-lination, memorial tattoos let us carry the memory of our loved ones everywhere — and, in many cases, share their stories when someone asks about the meaning behind them.

My own tattoos — a tramp stamp and one on the inner wrist — celebrate friendships with the living. But when I encounter meaningful tributes like the ones below, I contemplate adding ink for my late husband or brother.  I’m not referring to tattoos with crosses, a date stamp or anything involving the phrase “In Memory Of.” I’m talking about a new generation of grief tats: Sound waves of a mother’s last voicemail to her son or replication of a father’s handwritten note on a daughter’s arm.

Here are some tribute tattoos that have compelled me to stop someone on the street (or stalk them on the Internet), along with the stories behind them.

Name: Maddie Pinnock
Age: 19
City: Beaverton, Ore.
Date of Loss: Oct. 10, 2013
Tattoo Artist: Travis at Tron City Tattoo & Piercing, Portland, Ore.

Maddie’s tattoo ink contains the ashes of her cat, Basil.

Who does your tattoo memorialize?
My kitten, Basil, who I raised and bottle-fed from three days old.

How did you lose him?
He died of Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP), which is neither preventable nor curable.

Did you get the tattoo on a significant date?
I got the tattoo one month after his death.

Tell us about the tattoo’s design:
In Basil’s final days, I decided to get a tattoo with his ashes in it. A friend of mine had gotten paw prints with her cat’s ashes and I thought that was really meaningful. I didn’t want to get Basil’s portrait—still can’t look at pictures of him without crying—so I went with basil leaves in the style of a botanical print. I’m not a religious person but I have to think there’s some sort of life after death. By including Basil’s ashes in my tattoo, he’ll always be with me.

Name: Melissa Kotacka
Age: 32
City: Durham, N.C.
Date of Loss: Aug. 3, 2011
Tattoo Artist: Rabbit at O’Tool Design Custom Tattoo, Davenport, Iowa

Melissa chose her brother’s “chicken scratch” signature.

Who does your tattoo memorialize?
Christopher, the younger of my two older brothers.

How did you lose him?
Sudden cardiac death due to a mitral valve prolapse.

Did you get the tattoo on a significant date?
While the date itself wasn’t significant, the timing was: It was during my first trip back to Iowa, where our family is from, after Christopher’s death.

Tell us about the tattoo’s design:
Christopher had very distinctive handwriting, so I chose his signature. I placed it on my left foot because it’s a subtle-yet-public placement and because in all our family pictures over the years, we somehow always stood in the same order: Christopher on my left and my other brother Michael on my right. The signature is duplicated from Christopher’s marriage license and it’s not only the clearest example of his chicken scratch, but he and his wife were madly, ridiculously in love…I like to think Christopher will help me find that for myself.

Name: Alexander Hong
Age: 38
City: New York
Date of Loss: Oct. 7, 2002
Tattoo Artist: Mehai at Fineline Tattoo, New York City

Sound waves represent the last voicemail Alexander’s mother left him.

Who does your tattoo memorialize?
My mother, Gaesoon Hong.

How did you lose her?
Breast cancer.

Did you get the tattoo on a significant date?
The intended date was Oct. 7, 2007, the fifth anniversary of my mom’s passing, but my original design was too intricate. I got it a few months later after doing a redesign.

Tell us about the tattoo’s design: 
It’s a visual representation of my mom’s voice, simply saying “Hi” in a telephone conversation that my brother recorded. People constantly ask about this large tattoo on my arm, yet every time I say “my mom passed more than 10 years ago,” I have to grasp the reality of that answer. My brain wishes things were different but I do have peace, which I actively seek through the Lord every day.

Name: Eden Miller
Age: 41
Current city: New York City
Date of Losses: Lost father on Feb. 24, 2010, and mother on Nov. 14, 2012.
Tattoo Artist: Josh Lord of East Side Ink in New York and Graceland Brooklyn in Brooklyn, N.Y., respectively


A dog on skates and circus bear honor Eden’s parents.

Who do your tattoos memorialize?
Mother and Dad.

How did you lose them?
My father collapsed suddenly at my grandmother’s funeral and died from acute pancreatitis five weeks later. Less than two years after his death, my mother fell in the driveway and died after being rejected from hospital rehab for insurance reasons. Neither died quickly nor peacefully.

Did you get the tattoos on a significant date?
I got each one as soon as the shop was able to fit me in. Josh and I have a longstanding friendship, so both shops actually rearranged his schedule to accommodate me.

Tell us about the tattoos’ design:
The images for both tattoos came to me easily and quickly. My mother was a huge William Wegman fan, so the dog tattoo is a variation of one of his photos. The poster on which my bear tattoo is based was in Dad’s den for my entire childhood. Bears were my father’s totem for 40 years: he had circus posters of bears in tuxedos, and old 19th-century prints of bears on bicycles and balls. He was a big, furry man, and I think he identified [with them].

Name: Kelsey Geurts
Age: 21
City: Fort Meade, Md.
Date of Loss: Jan. 13, 2013
Tattoo Artist: Dave at The Body Shop, Appleton, Wis.

Kelsey chose a wedding day note from her father.

Who does your tattoo memorialize?
My dad.

How did you lose him? 
He took his own life after fighting depression for 10 years. 

Did you get the tattoo on a significant date?
Yes, on the one year anniversary of his passing.

Tell us about the tattoo’s design:
“Anytime, Anywhere, Call me” was what my dad wrote in my guest book on my wedding day. The tattoo is of his handwriting, exactly how he wrote it, in blue (his favorite color.) It’s a reminder, especially when I’m struggling, that he was here for me, no matter what. And that’s been really important for my healing.

Tré Miller Rodríguez is the author of “Splitting the Difference: A Heart-Shaped Memoir” and the popular Tumblr, WhiteElephantInTheRoom.com. She is an award-winning copywriter whose essays have appeared in The New York Times, Manhattan Magazine and on the Huffington Post.

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