People are often rendered mute by grief and tattoos “allow access to expression without need of words” (Warnick & Toye, 2016, p.134). The act of choosing and getting a memorial tattoo can be therapeutic in that it is a connection to the person who died.
When someone dies, their absence is keenly felt by those who care about them. The scholarly understanding of grief has shifted to recognize that a relationship shifts, rather than ends, when a person dies. For the purposes of this project, we define a memorial tattoo as one that is obtained to honour a person who has died. This excludes other kinds of commemorative tattoos such as memorials to pets, those that honour someone living, or those marking a passage in life.
Memorial tattoos depict the relationship with the deceased on the outside, on the skin. In effect, they are inking the bond with the person who has died.
The overarching objective of this research is to investigate the experience and meaning of memorial tattoos through the photo documentation of such tattoos and the collection and analysis of the narratives that go along with them. Specifically, what meaning do memorial tattoos have for those grievers who wear them? How do the tattoos fit into the wearer’s understanding of grief? Do they help with the pain of grief? Do they help establish for the wearer a sense of community? What stories do people tell others about these visible reminders of their loss?
To achieve this, we will:
-- Interview and collect images and stories from people who have memorial tattoos;
-- Develop an interactive, open online repository of digital resources related to memorial tattoos;
-- Conduct scholarly analysis of the repository using the symbolic interactionist framework; and
-- Disseminate findings through conference papers, journal articles, and interactive exhibits.
Sixty people will be interviewed about their memorial tattoos. Interviews will take place in Southern Ontario and recruitment will occur in collaboration with Bereaved Families of Ontario and through using social media. Interviews will be audiotaped and transcribed. The questions will centre on the memorial tattoo, which will be photographed. Analysis of the interviews will use a symbolic interactionist frame as it views meaning as dynamic and socially formed.
The repository will create a community of practice (Baljko, 2016) to bridge community and academe by including tattoo artists, those seeking tattoos, and those working with grievers. Further, it will provide a research resource for social scientists interested in death, dying and bereavement.
This research will deepen our understanding of the social dimensions of meaning making within the grief experience. The results of this project will be communicated to social workers and others who work with the bereaved through social media and professional associations. Results will also be presented at conferences and in academic journals. Students will be included and mentored throughout. The project will be capped by an exhibition of photographs at the Critical Media Lab, which often hosts public exhibitions in its Downtown Kitchener location. This event will be of great appeal to a broad audience.
The project is led by an experienced researcher who has begun a new line of inquiry. She is joined by a multi-disciplinary team of experts who will work together to answer the research questions. Two members of The Tattoo Project at York University are team members; they bring important expertise as well as contacts in the wider community and access to their data collected previously. The interactive platform, once established for memorial tattoos, will be versatile and potentially expanded to include commemorative tattoos honouring pets, living people and events.
Warnick, A. & Toye, L. (2016). Memorial tattoos as connection. In D. Davidson (Ed.) The Tattoo Project: Commemorative Tattoos, Visual Culture, and the Digital Archive. (pp.134-135). Toronto, ON: Canadian Scholars Press.