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Memorializing by tattoo

This blog originally appeared on Evidence Exchange Network.

So first off......I am not a youth. I am a mother who lost her son to an accidental Oxycontin overdose mixed with psychiatic medications. Pete was only 25 years old and he died Dec 23 2001.

I am also a survivour of my own long journey through mental health and addictions and currently have 17 years in recovery. I also have journied through horrendous childhood trauma.

How did I find myself blogging about my extensive tattooing on your blog area?

Well, as a result of Pete’s death, I dedicate my time as a provincial systems level, lived experience and ‘family’ – advisor/ consultant & advocate- helping to frame policy, governance, programming and funding who additionally provides peer support and outreach at community level.  I am also an experienced speaker, trainer and facilitator and was the recipient of the CAMH Transforming Lives Award.

Melissa TG is involved in the EENet community and she saw my post regarding a research project on memorializing by tattoo that I was involved in that was featured in the Toronto Star and other media. Melissa wondered if I would be willing to blog about my tattoos and the reasons behind memorializing by tattoo and the issues of stigma surrounding this choice.

Excerpts from a news article, ‘Memorial tattoos’ help the bereaved remember lost loved ones, published in The Star.

“One woman’s tattoo was on her ankle — it helped her stand. Another had ink running down her shoulder — it was a reminder of who had her back. Some chose wrists or forearms, so everyone could see it.

These are the stories of people with “memorial tattoos” — reminders of lost loved ones etched beneath the skin. Deborah Davidson, a professor of sociology at York University, has compiled an online gallery of pictures and stories that offers a glimpse of the phenomenon.  “The grand narrative seems to be that this is a way to keep their loved ones embodied, in the permanence of their own bodies.”

The project is about memory, Davidson says: “An archive and the body are both repositories for memory.”

“These tattoos open dialogue about the deceased, and about people’s experiences of love and loss,” said Davidson. “Their loved ones are embodied permanently on them, so they’re permanently with them.”  She has been studying the intimate form of bereavement formally since 2009.

When her son, Pete, died of an accidental drug overdose at 25, after a battle with addiction and mental illness she began a “journey” of grief. The “sleeve” tattoos covering both her legs from knee to ankle represent that journey, she told Davidson. The memorial’s sheer size is intended to reflect the weight of her grief, and her 12-year journey toward healing.

A deeper psychology/creativity to my tattooing:

In addition to what was included above in the newspaper excerpts, I went back to my original work with this sociologist to share with you more depth into my tattoo expression.

To me legs represent both foundation and movement. The loss of my son and the journey of grief is the foundation of who I am today. It also represents that I NEVER get to walk away from this reality BUT I can still move forward.

It is our journey together that represents his struggle while here on earth and the journey to where Pete is now. I have included Pete’s portrait, clouds, tears, a variety of exotic/ spiritual flowers and a stairway to heaven.

The inclusion of birds with wings spread open to represent Pete was free from his cage.  I purposely included Pete as a dark angel filled with pain from his mental health & addictions and me tangled up in grief and bent with pain so as to face the reality.

But I also included Pete with his angel wings standing in a vortex of his own personal freedom and power now, reaching to planets and portals, me untangled from the grief tree/ vines and standing firm on the ground radiating love up to the stars to connect with my son through our radiating hearts in a reciprocal exchange of love.

I used bold bright colours mixed with a dark contrasting of thick black tribal lines to express the polarity of vibrancy and darkness falling in to the depth of darkness we both journeyed through and the work to break those boundaries/difficulties life can bring and grief does bring.

I then lightened the “extreme” with a lightening of the bold contrast as the tattoo moves up the stairway to heaven to the “lightness, fluffiness and fluidity that comes with being free of one’s physical form and with that spirit, dimensions and veils become interchangeable and easier to negotiate.

Throughout my life I have had to deal with painful situations/circumstances so I have developed a huge pain tolerance, but in saying that, I knew this process of prolonged tattooing (18 months) was definitely going to be a painful project.

There were all kinds of dynamics including the processes of taking on and tolerating the physical pain PLUS the amount of self care/ skill needed to both heal and express this.

I also think that my choice to re-frame the emotional, mental, spiritual & grief pain into a cohesive, creative and controlled journey of “story telling through visual expression” gave me some control back and was self empowering.

In addition choosing a permanent yet painful process such as extensive tattooing was maybe at some levels a means to convert the unseen emotional/mental grief “damage” into a tangible physical “feeling” of the pain in a way which I could control and express that is intimate and recognizable to me.

It is an intensely personal decision to journey and express through tattooing. Losing a loved one creates a wound that is imprinted on us and it  leaves scars on our hearts, souls and psyche.... we should be able to share that and them whether through verbal expression, written expression, art expression etc...

That is why I decided to work with this professor of sociology on her 'memorializing by tattoo' research project. It is an 'intimate form of bereavement' that has this fundamental depth of expression, creativity and connection. (I also know of one person who said it was "her rebellion against death"- so maybe there is a rebellion piece to it)

Stigma rears its ugly head:

There was some great coverage in the media BUT of course all the ‘we must label and stigmatize’ people come out with all of their sanctimonious judgement.

There is so many stigmas regarding mental health, addiction, bereavement and tattooing. So I have a quadruple whammy.

We all know the mental health & addiction stigma.

Bereavement comes with a whole other type of stigma. In general society does not understand loss, grief and the horrific dynamics we as bereaved people struggle with. So much of our isolation happens because people are afraid of our pain, judge the level of our wellness and coping by ridiculous standards and tend to think we are 'sick' if we are not bouncing back after 30 days.

Most avoid us like the plague after the initial compassion they showed at funeral and judge us as 'weird' and 'dysfunctional' if we have found some ways of coping that seem 'odd' to them (but is perfectly healthy for us).

The most obvious piece of stigma that comes with bereavement is if there is a completed suicide and/or accidental drug overdose-addiction issue.

Tattooing (which to me is art expression) holds significant 'instant labeling'. People are both fascinated (that is cool-I understand that curiosity)...BUT others are strongly repulsed by those of us with significant artwork on our bodies.  We are a sub-culture that is so misunderstood. Because we 'look and express' differently- people strongly judge us and 'throw us out with the garbage'. Even in this day and age, when I am out and dressed nicely BUT all my artwork is showing...people stare, point, glare and shake their heads in disdain.

As a lived experience/'family' advocate and public speaker, I chose to cover all of my artwork whenever I am doing my advocacy except with youth because they 'get me' and don't tend to judge. I know that if I go into a meeting or up to a speaker’s platform with my artwork showing that most will NOT get past the tattoos.

My verbal messages regarding both mine and my late son’s journeys with addiction and mental health will NOT be heard over the silent roar of "OMG...look at her tattoos". In many people’s eyes, if my tattoos are showing...then I 'look the part' of a mother who struggled with addiction and brought up a drug addicted son who died of overdose'

I know it is my fundamental right to be able to express freely without judgement and labeling but when choosing the battle of breaking down stigma for mental health, addiction, bereavement and trying to breed acceptance of 'personal expression through body art'....then I need to choose my battles.

I would like to see this research expand its parameters and look at the huge population of people that use tattooing to express both their struggles and victories 'fighting' mental health and addiction.

I have been horrifically wounded throughout my life journey and I tend to use art expression in its many forms. I have other huge pieces of body art that are all expressions of significant personal battles/victories with mental health, addiction and trauma. In a way they are my warrior armour and victory stamp of “I will not be a victim”

Upon deeper reflection, it is a way to convert the battle scars and re-frame them into a beautiful permanent expression of growth, healing and recovery.