Memorial tattoos – that is, tattoos dedicated to the passed on – are a delicate and sensitive thing. For many, they are far more than a tattoo, even far more than a dedication; the process of choosing, getting, and healing a memorial tattoo is a ritual – personal, private, and of great significance. Their history goes back as far as tattooing itself; several ancient cultures had a version of the memorial tattoo, from a single dot or dash to represent the deceased to complex and highly detailed designs. Modern innovations have given us almost unlimited options, making the decision of what to get even more difficult than it already would have been.
When choosing a memorial tattoo, there are several things you want to keep in mind. Aside from the normal tattoo considerations such as placement, size, and detail, you’ll also want to ask yourself what you want this piece to represent. Obviously, it is in memory of a loved one, but what kind of memory? Are you wanting to symbolise them as a person? Do you want to immortalise an inside joke or special moment between you? Is there a specific object or activity connected to your memory of them? Do you want the piece to have meaning only to you, or do you want everyone who sees it to know who it’s dedicated to?
Once you’ve decided what you want your tattoo to represent, you’ll want to think about the design itself. The go-to for many is a basic name, date of birth, date of death piece – straightforward, simple, and to the point. But many others want something a bit more artistic, a bit more symbolic. Consider who they were as people, what their passions were, what they stood for, and what your relationship entailed. Think about what they would want you to get – would they appreciate a beautiful, elaborate expression of your love, or would they prefer something funny and lighthearted? How did they see themselves? Were they a musician, deeply religious, obsessed with Star Wars, extremely political? Choosing a piece that speaks of who they were, how you connected, or a particularly meaningful memory you have of them assures a memorial you will be proud to wear.
This is, of course, just advice – ultimately, you are the one who needs to be satisfied with your tattoo. But like funerals and wakes, memorial tattoos are, in the end, not just a ritual of passing, but a celebration of life.
With Easter once again upon us, religious symbolism can be seen everywhere. From crosses to eggs, even the most innocuous of Easter images have religious origins. So too do many forms and styles of tattooing; while it is a common myth that tattoos go against standard religious beliefs, the truth is much more…colourful.
As we’ve discussed in previous posts, the earliest known tattoos were often religious in nature – images of worshipped animals, symbols representing gods, and designs intended to ward off evil spirits are incredibly common in numerous cultural histories. But what about more recent times? Any of us that grew up in Christian environments have likely had Leviticus 19:28, the verse in which “cutting or marking the flesh” is strictly forbidden, quoted to us more than once. It is this verse that has led to the belief that tattoos are not permitted in many religions. Biblical scholars, however, argue that it is not tattooing itself that is forbidden, but a specific kind of ritual in which tattoos are employed. In fact, many Christian groups throughout history, such as the Knights of St. John and the Montanists, used tattoos to show their allegiance, and more recent groups, including Croats and Coptic Christians, tattoo themselves as a form of protection and declaration of faith.
In Hinduism, tattoos are not only permitted, but often encouraged. Markings on the forehead are thought to enhance spiritual health and open chakras. Women tattoo their faces with dots around the eyes and mouth to ward off evil, and men will tattoo Aum on their hands and arms to improve their karma. Several Hindu deities are portrayed with tattoos and other similar markings.
Neopaganism, an umbrella term for various forms of witchcraft, new-age spiritualism, and traditional belief systems, has no single policy on tattooing, but it’s safe to say that it is not generally frowned upon. In fact, many pagans utilize tattoos to memorialize their spiritual journeys or declare allegiance, often adorning themselves with their chosen gods and goddesses, pagan symbols, and sacred geometry. Others use tattoos as part of their private rituals, getting fertility symbols, images of talisman and amulets, or scenes from favourite myths. Gerald Gardner, a well-known figure in paganism and Wicca, had several tattoos depicting what he considered magical symbols, including a dagger, snakes, dragons, and anchors.
These are just a handful of spiritual paths that allow and encourage tattoos – there are many more, including traditional Japanese, Egyptian, and African religions, many Buddhist sects, and more progressive sects of Islam. On this Easter weekend, perhaps we can all take a few moments to appreciate the interconnectedness of symbolism and body modification throughout the world, and its history.
This simple, one word question captures the most prevalent attitude towards all sorts of body modification, but none so much as suspensions and hook-pulls. For those outside of the modification world, it’s difficult to imagine just what would tempt anyone to allow large hooks to be pierced through one’s skin so that they may hang, tug, and pull. Pictures of suspensions and pulls are most often met with gasps and cringes, and YouTube videos of these events garner far more negative comments than positive.
Like most forms of modification, however, suspensions and pulls do not originate with masochists or weirdos, but with ancient tribal rituals. As far back as five thousand years ago, and in many unrelated parts of the world, people have been engaging in these practices. Some, like the rituals of ancient India, were meant as an expression of debt and honour to the gods. Certain Hindu devotees would (and still do) use skewers rather than hooks – a symbolic nod to the spear that Shiva’s wife gave to the war god to kill demons – and attach ropes to them so that they could either be suspended, or pulled. Native American tribes, such as the Mandan, had similar suspension rituals involving hooks, skewers, ropes, and weights, both to prove their strength and endurance, and to celebrate the creation of the Earth. Their suspensions came at the end of a four day ritual of fasting, prayer, dancing, and tests of will. Participants would hang until they fainted, and elders would then release them. Upon waking, the initiate was said to have been approved by the spirits.
Modern versions of these rituals have been practiced since the 60s, when Fakir Musafar and other early members of the “modern primitive” movement began exploring ancient customs and body modification related rituals. For the modern primitives, suspension was about rites of passage, and bringing back traditions that had since been lost or replaced, such as the Mandan rituals. For others, it was about pushing one’s body to its limits, and exploring feelings and sensations that would otherwise remain locked away in our subconscious, much like the ancient Hindus.
We are, of course, separated from these rituals by both culture and time, but the reasons have not changed much. Participants in modern suspensions and pulls speak of the meditative and healing qualities of the act, and describe a strong sense of euphoria and peace both during and after the event. While no gods are being appeased in these modern suspensions, the feeling of oneness with the universe and rising above our day-to-day concerns remains. And, much like the ancient practitioners, initiates walk away with the knowledge that they can endure and overcome any challenges or pain they may face in life.