In June of 2017, my cousin and I traveled to Sicily, marking the first time since World War II a member of our family had set foot on the island. The trip was meant to be a return to our roots. Our grandfather’s father and uncle left the small town of Augusta, on Sicily’s east coast, at the start of the twentieth century. They left behind family and a claim to ancestral nobility for the promise land: Brooklyn. Though they left Sicily, they carved their own small slice of home in a neighborhood where Italian was everyone’s first language.
Though he naturalized, our great-grandfather remained steadfastly Sicilian, naming his first-born son — my grandfather — Gaetano. My great-grandfather urged his son to return to Sicily and reclaim the last vestiges of nobility on the small island but my grandfather was an American, and created a life for himself in Brooklyn, going as far as to anglicize his name to Thomas.
So it was a strategic choice when my cousin had Gaetano tattooed across the top of her foot a few months before our passports were stamped in Catania. Gaetano was not the man she knew. Thomas, or Tom, was. But nostalgia and loss can make us romanticize something that never was, and it imposes on us not just memories of a person or thing, but what that represented. For my cousin, Gaetano was as much homage to our grandpa Tom as it was to the small island his family once called home.
Memorializing a person or moment in one’s life with a tattoo is not uncommon and, often, prompts questions around their significance. Some hold meaning obvious only to the person wearing it while others are more blatant, like a name or date. While living only 25 miles west, I had the coordinates of my hometown tattooed on my wrist. I felt I was always on the defensive about my home, which was often stereotyped as low-brow. Not too low-brow for Cole Porter, however, who crooned “but I think I’d better hurry back to Oyster Bay.” It’s a sense of longing I deeply understood when walking into the tattoo shop one day after work, and whenever I leave home for too long.
Tattoos like these are a mausoleum to loss, grief, and love. For many, tattoos of remembrance give them the space to process their feelings over time, when the actual event happened in an instant. Alicia Kennedy, a New York based writer, has an oyster tattooed on the top of her wrist. Someone whose read her story “Pride of Patchogue” may assume the oyster represents her hometown, which is nestled in the Great South Bay. Others who know Kennedy’s work may be confused because she’s most well-known as a vegan food and culture writer. But her oyster is one born of grief and a departure from veganism.
Shortly after her brother died suddenly in October 2016, she found herself at an oyster bar, tempted by the briny and smooth bivalves that always disgusted her brother. She was angry he was taken from her and argued that if God could take someone from her then she could “inhale some of his creatures in exchange.” Kennedy explained the array of assumptions people make about this tattoo and the Roman numeral for 18 that accompanies it. Some are searching for a complex meaning, while others assume she got the 18 for her 18th birthday, welcoming adulthood with an act of rebellion. But the 18 is another tribute to her brother. He was born and died on the 18th day of the month, a simple reminder that numbers can play tricks on us.
In searching the ways in which people memorialize love and loss through tattoos, I came across a not uncommon but definitely unconventional practice: mixing ashes from cremation with tattoo ink. I surveyed a group of artists on Facebook, who agreed the practice is “not as common as one would think.” One artist noted that ashes can make the ink “chunky” and, because they are not sterile, it may increase the risk of infection.
Another noted many artists are opposed to it, though acknowledged there is a storied religious significance to the practice. But that didn’t stop other commenters, not artists, from sharing their ideas. One was planning ahead, thinking they would have their hamster cremated and add its ashes to ink for a paw print design. Most of the artists polled held the same opinion: that a tattoo in remembrance of someone or something is already a heartfelt sentiment without needing to incorporate a literal part of them into your body.
While ashes are a controversial way of making someone eternally part of you, using their handwriting is a much less complicated way of doing so. Meg Warrington’s grandmother was, as she describes it, her soulmate. “She always used to call me Sunshine and when she passed away I found the last card she had written to me and it made me smile the way she always had.” Warrington, who lives in Stoke-on-Trent in the UK, brought the card to a tattoo artist who was able to replicate her grandmother’s handwriting and tattooed “sunshine” on her upper arm. “When I look at it now, I remember there’s not all bad in the world and there’s actually… a little bit of sunshine in every day.”
All tattoos are deeply personal — even the ones we get on impulse — because they are born out of our memories and interests and feelings. However, tattoos that commemorate a person, a place (or a hamster) give you a lifetime to process and adapt to your feelings. They’re often our most cryptic tattoos — the ones that draw the most attention — because even a name, like Gaetano, does not have an obvious significance to anyone but the person adorning it.
Related: A Scar of My Own: How Tattoos Can Empower in the Face of Chronic Illness