behind-the-ink Memorial tattoos: wearing and sharing stories of grief Nancy B. Perlson
hen my father died by suicide in 1996, I was struck by how little support and patience there was in our culture for those grieving the death of a loved one. Early in the process, I found my voice and made it a personal mission to, in some small way, change the way we, as a culture, talk about death and the grieving process that surrounds it. As a licensed clinical social worker, I have helped hundreds of individuals, in groups and in private practice, move through the complicated journey of grief and loss. I am also a yoga teacher and developed Connecting Through Yoga, a yoga bereavement support program. Many of my clients and students were struck, as I had been, by the absence of support and the unwillingness of others to be able to hold the pain and truths of loss and acknowledge the need to find permanent homes for this experience within. An idea took hold of my imagination, and behind-the-ink was born. For several years, I have noticed a growing movement to memorialize loved ones indelibly and visibly in the form of body tattoos. The trend welcomes the difficult conversation about death and acknowledges the constant presence of deceased loved ones in our lives. Through my project behind-the-ink, I am asking mourners with memorial tattoos to share their stories so I can create a book. The book will be a tangible object that gives the modern language of our grief— tattoos—a place to be seen and be heard.
This project: • honors a new and modern language with which to share our experience with death and loss • provides a communal space for these stories of love, loss and resilience • creates a permanent tribute—in book form—to those we will never forget: mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, friends, teachers and our life’s inspirations. Memorial tattoos are a new language of loss communicated through ink, akin to mourning jewelry, which reached its heyday in the late Victorian era with the death in 1861 of Prince Albert and popularized by his grieving widow (and jewelry design devotee) Queen Victoria. The death of a loved one is not something one ever “gets over.” Instead, each loss etches a permanent mark on our lives. Each tattoo has a story to share, a life to be illuminated and a voice to be heard. Every time I have asked someone to please tell me the story behind his or her tattoo, he or she says, “Thank you for asking.” To learn more about behind-the-ink and how to participate and share your story, please visit behind-the-ink.com.
Photos: Ashley Wu