Tattoos have always been inextricably linked to the concept of mortality. I wanted to delve further into how and why…
Most people I know that decide to acquire a tattoo, have a reason why. They choose an image or piece of text that represents a concept – a concept that will transcend the passage of time in that person’s life. Quite often its meaning speaks for the departure of a loved one, or our own acknowledgement of life’s briefness.
Sometimes, the reactions from others about why we get tattooed, actually support the fact that as humans we are in denial about our own impermanence. But you’ll have that on your body forever? What will it look like when you are older? Really, the word “forever” need not exist in our own vocabularies. Comments like these are blind to the painful truth that a) our bodies aren’t forever, and b) they can disappear suddenly at any time. We believe we are invincible, and that is why we fear anything permanent. This is one of the major reasons why I get tattooed myself – my body is a completely transitory canvas and the world is full of much scarier things than the concept that I might live long enough to see memorable artwork on my wrinkly skin. If at the age of 80 I am still here to breathe the air around me, they will be deep breaths of happiness and reflection, never those of regret for how I might look on the outside.
We don’t like to talk about dying. No doubt many people won’t have read this blog post follow its introduction, on the basis that it could arouse ‘morbid’ thoughts. We brush it under the carpet and we do everything we can to pretend that after departure, our souls live on. We believe in the afterlife, we worship higher beings, we keep belongings of loved ones – we collect memories, trinkets, pictures, words, hope, things and tattoos. The fourth tattoo I ever had was a tulip on my right arm. Following my grandma’s funeral, pink tulips followed me around – I saw them everywhere in the subsequent weeks, and so made the decision to tattoo that symbol on my body forever, accompanied by a quote from a song that made me envisage where she might be now.
Those flowers didn’t literally follow me around. We all have different opinions about afterlife but I inherently know that my grandma did not send me flowers from the grave. Her last breath was her last breath and biologically, scientifically, physically and mentally she will never live on past the last moment of her existence. But I still pretend that she does. Having a memorial tattoo for her was a huge part of the healing process. In the grieving period we all hit a wall where we feel we can’t continue. What ensues is an exploratory period of strife to make sure that person lives on – that’s why we get those tattoos. And that’s what we will always do, as human beings. As our own transience confounds us we endeavour to explain it, and that’s a beautiful thing. The rituals we create give us warmth and strength. Tattoos are a huge part of that.
One of the most traditional tattoo symbols is that of the skull – one of most recognised motifs in the world. It’s the one thing every single human and animal on the entire planet shares and as a tattoo, it can act as a reminder of what’s beneath. Skull tattoos, especially on women, can be called tasteless by others. I think reactions of dislike towards this timeless symbol can stem from people’s deep-rooted fear of the truth… that skull, is all we are. We’re skin and bones, and one day, that skull will be all that’s left.
As I write this blog post, I realise it takes such a radical format in comparison to what I would normally write – but why should we not dedicate significant space to thinking about our own ephemerality here on earth? What could be more important? Maybe reading this will spark you to make a tattoo (or life) decision you were unsure about. What have you got to lose?
After the demise of loved ones, we might hang a few pictures in our homes and keep a box of belongings in our attics. We try to forget that they’re gone and make efforts to move on. A part of us feels we’ll see them again one day, and the other part doesn’t think about what could be the unfortunate truth. We’re very practical beings – out of sight, out of mind. With something not shoved right before our face, our brains cease to think about it. It’s survival. The world doesn’t stop just because someone dies and we have to continue taking steps forward. I’ve written this entire blog post without actually using the word ‘death’. We always find a euphemism for it. I began writing this piece with the feeling that, by inking the symbols of loved ones on our bodies, we’re dismissing the inevitable. We’re packing up boxes, we’re sweetening the bitter truth. But actually, that’s not the case. Maybe you’ve got a quote, skull, name, date, flower, portrait – whatever you wear, by exhibiting it, you’re keeping the truth closer than ever, actually. You’re not hiding it in the attic, you’re looking it in the face every day. I think that makes tattooed folk quite strong.