5 Inspiring Tribute Tattoos

From words conjured in a dream to ashes mixed into ink, our columnist presents her annual feature on these forever memorials.

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For many of us, the story of our losses is etched on our skin. Memorial tattoos are an aspect of our grief that we can actually control; a tribute revealed through design, color and symbolism. The narrative might be told through the deceased’s handwriting or a visual depiction of their heartbeat. While alive, he or she may have collaborated on the design itself or even gotten a similar tattoo.

In the accounts below (as well as my 2015 and 2014 installments), ink tributes emerge as a way for mourners to permanently combine their own cells with the life and spirit of a loved one. They’re a daily acknowledgment of the history, memories and inside associations we share with the deceased. The tattoo itself — and the story we tell whenever someone asks about its significance — allows us to bring the narrative out of the past and into our present tense.

READ: 5 Ideas for Facing Deathiversaries

Name: Benjamin McCartney
cropped-1-mccartneytattooAge: 31
Current City: Salem, Oregon
Date of Loss: March 16, 2016
Tattoo Artist: Ryan Scranton of Salem, Oregon

Who does your tattoo memorialize?

My son, Jonah Allan McCartney.

How did he die?

In utero. My son was afflicted with Trisomy 13, a rare chromosomal syndrome that affected his heart, among other organs. He was stillborn.

Did you get the tattoo on a significant date?

Yes, I got it the week of Father’s Day 2016.

Tell us about the tattoo’s design:

This tattoo is a sound wave of Jonah’s heart beating the day before he was born. This three-second section contains an arrhythmia, entirely unique to him, and occurred after we heard him moving during the recording. It is the only sound we ever heard him make.

 

Name: Samantha Henneberry
2-henneberrytattooAge: 30
Current city: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Date of loss: August 7, 2014
Tattoo Artist: Greg Foster of Custom Tattoo in Milwaukee, Wisconson

Who does your tattoo memorialize?

My late husband, Jeff.

How did he die?

Jeff died from advanced metastatic melanoma.

Did you get the tattoo on a significant date?

I got it prior to our third wedding anniversary, just before a road trip to Mammoth Cave National Park.

Tell us about the tattoo’s design, meaning and why you chose it: 

We both loved bison: their temperament, appearance and majesty. After losing Jeff, I knew a bison tattoo would best capture his presence and spirit so I designed my own linocut carving and print. The bison’s spine replicates the Eastern Sierra ridgeline and below it, the Alabama Hills of California. We were crazy about this landscape — so much so that we got engaged there in 2012. I said my final goodbye to Jeff there in December 2014, but through this tattoo, he remains beside me, close to my heart.

READ: 6 Grief Books That Actually Help 

3-serafin-wellstattoo

Name: Michael Louis Serafin-Wells
Age: 45
Current city: New York, New York
Date of loss: March 18, 2011
Tattoo Artist: Michelle Tarantelli of Saved Tattoo in Brooklyn, New York

 Who does your tattoo memorialize?

The love of my life, my late-girlfriend, Summer.

How did she die?

Summer passed away from traumatic brain injuries following a tragic, accidental fall.

Did you get the tattoo on a significant date?

Yes, on her 36th birthday. 

Tell us about the tattoo’s design, meaning and why you chose it:

Summer often appears in my dreams, and in one of these, she and I were hand in hand, casually going about a day together. Although I didn’t have any tattoos, I had one in the dream that read “Our Oneness Can Never Be Erased.” The phrase was so extraordinary — not at all conversational — and seemed to be a message from Summer, assuring me that we will always be together. I began writing the phrase in Sharpie on my arm every morning until I eventually found the right artist. With her, I shared one of Summer’s treasured letters to me, and she painstakingly constructed the design in Summer’s own handwriting.

 

Name: Kelli Dunham
cropped-4-dunhamtattooAge: 48
Current city: Brooklyn, New York
Date of loss: Feb 13, 2007
Tattoo Artist: Kim Kress of Primitive Urge in Portland, Oregon (now closed) 

Who does your tattoo memorialize? My partner Heather MacAllister, whom I called ‘My Queen.’

How did she die?

Ovarian cancer.

Did you get the tattoo on a significant date?

I got it on Feb. 14, 2007, one day after losing Heather.

Tell us about the tattoo’s design, meaning and why you chose it:

When Heather was very ill with ovarian cancer, she designed a tattoo for my chest, above my heart, to symbolize our connection. She died the day of my Feb. 13th tattoo appointment, but her sisters accompanied me the next day to get it. When we received Heather’s ashes a few weeks later, a friend with tattooing equipment swirled some of the ashes into black paint and used the mixture to fill in the stars of my tattoo.

Years later I discovered that my tattoo shared many characteristics with those of a well-known Brooklyn street gang. Since I work with adolescents who are exposed to gang organizing, the tattoo has opened up many important conversations with the kids. It feels like an ongoing gift from Heather, one I know she would appreciate very much.

 

Name: Wendy Reed
cropped-5-reedtattooAge: 34
Current city: Grand Rapids, Michigan
Date of loss: May 19, 2013
Tattoo Artist:  Miranda Brouwer of Wealthy Street Tattoo in Grand Rapids, Michigan

Who does your tattoo memorialize?

My cousin, Anna Hock.

How did she die?

Anna was lost in a boating accident on the Main River in Germany just before her 22nd birthday.

Tell us about the tattoo’s design, meaning and why you chose it:

Anna had this same “A” tattooed on her ankle, and her tattoos enabled authorities to identify her body. In our small family, Anna was my only female cousin, and we shared many similarities in looks and personality. The birds are a Bob-Marley reminder that ‘every little thing is gonna be alright.’


TMR-Bio Image
Tré Miller Rodríguez is the author of “Splitting the Difference: A Heart-Shaped Memoir” and the popular Tumblr WhiteElephantInTheRoom.com. Her essays appear in The New York Times, Marie Claire and on MindBodyGreen.com, and she overshares at @tremillernyc

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