Making grief visible: When tattoos help cope with the loss of a loved one

CBC/Radio-Canada gathered stories of mourning Manitobans in the first weeks of the pandemic, before public health measures were instated, to understand the meaning behind their body art and the growing acceptance of memorial tattoos.

Increasing acceptance of memorial tattoos has more people getting body art to honour loved ones who have died

Memorial tattoos make some people feel like their loved one is always part of them; for others, they're a celebration of life. (Radja Mahamba/Radio-Canada)

Life has been a roller-coaster of ups and downs for Arlene Last-Kolb since her 24-year-old son passed away, and not a day goes by without thoughts of Jessie. 

For the last few years, though, Jessie has been permanently "with her," after she decided to get a tattoo in his honour.

"When you lose your child, you lose your feelings, so the tattoo reminded me that I can feel," she says.

The pain of grief, a process almost everybody goes through, is sometimes unspeakable and we all have our own way of dealing with it. For some, getting a tattoo representing a family member, a friend or even a pet is a crucial part of that process.

CBC/Radio-Canada gathered stories of mourning Manitobans like Last-Kolb in the first weeks of the pandemic, before public health measures were instated, to understand the meaning behind their body art and the growing acceptance of memorial tattoos.

Mourning a child

On a warm evening in July 2014, Last-Kolb's life turned upside down when Jessie died of a fentanyl overdose.

Her son's death is an ordeal that follows her everywhere: in her everyday life, such as when she paints for fun; in her activism, as she fights for more effective support for people suffering from addiction; even when she's simply doing a puzzle at home with her husband, John, and a reporter meets her for the first time. 

You'll find very few pictures of Jessie in Last-Kolb's home. It's still too painful for the family to look at them. (Radja Mahamba/Radio-Canada)

"Jessie was a good boy, funny and extremely smart," Last-Kolb says.

"That's just the way Jessie was. He saw a young boy on the Osborne Bridge who was going to be getting jacked [robbed]. He stopped his truck and went out to help him," she said.

Grieving will always be part of Last-Kolb's life. One way to overcome this obstacle has been getting a memorial tattoo, she says.

A tattoo in his memory covers Last-Kolb's forearm. Jeremy Blaze, the artist who drew it, knew her son very well and had tattooed him in the past. 

"The tattoo represents who he was, a little bit about the tattoos he had on himself," Last-Kolb says.

Last-Kolb's tattoo of her son's first name includes a rose, a black ribbon, angel wings and a cross, all symbols that fascinated Jessie. The tattoo is done in black ink, like the ones he had. (Radja Mahamba/Radio-Canada)

Tattoos were important in Jessie's life, she says. The night he died, he was going to get a new one. 

The memorial tattoos make her feel closer to her son.

Arlene Last-Kolb and her husband, John, say they don't want the memory of 24 years of Jessie's life to come down to one night. She hopes her tattoo serves as a reminder to others that the pain never ends for her family. (Radja Mahamba/Radio-Canada)

Each tattoo a unique experience for artist

From the drawing board to everyday life with a tattoo, memorial body art is an experience like no other for people who are mourning. 

Each tattooing session is also unique for the artists, who often feel like therapists to their clients.

Over the years, Mark Mitchell played an important role in many Winnipeggers' grief at his Conspicuous Ink studio in the St. Boniface neighbourhood. 

Mark Mitchell puts a lot of time and effort into Carmen Davidson's memorial tattoo. (Radja Mahamba/Radio-Canada)

"It's always pretty emotional," says Mitchell, who owns Conspicuous Ink. "I've sat here and cried with my clients before."

Clients' requests for memorial tattoos are very diverse, he says. Some want an important date related to their loved one, while others ask for a drawing that represents a specific memory. 

But one request seems more frequent than others. 

"I think I do more for pets than I do for people actually, to be honest with you."

Today, Mitchell welcomes Carmen Davidson into his studio. She lost her dad, Allan, after his battle with cancer. She's not too nervous — she already has nine tattoos. Yet she knows this one will feel different.

Davidson asked Mitchell to draw a piece that would represent Pink Floyd's classic Wish You Were Here — a very important song for her dad.

After a first session that lasted a few hours, Davidson will have to return for a second appointment because of the complexity of her tattoo. (Radja Mahamba/Radio-Canada)

"My tattoos tell the story of my life," Davidson says. "This one is just to remember how much my dad loved music."

Mitchell hopes his clients leave his studio with a positive feeling.

"Let's try and think of some things that, when you look at this, it brings back all the joy," he often tells them.

Mark Mitchell tries to make every tattooing session as positive and uplifting as possible. (Radja Mahamba/Radio-Canada)

Tattoos to fight stigma

Memorials tattoos are a passion for University of Waterloo social work Prof. Susan Cadell. 

She and her colleagues studied the impact of the art form and the reasons behind the artwork. They interviewed about 40 Canadians who chose tattoos as a part of their grieving process. 

Initially, Susan Cadell's research group expected about 10 to 15 people would volunteer to share their story for the study. The actual level of interest was way above their expectations, with about 60 people from all over Canada showing interest. (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)

"I noticed that a lot of people were saying, 'I never imagined having a tattoo, but it felt right getting one to commemorate this person,'" she says.

While memorial tattoos have been around for ages, they are increasingly accepted in society, Cadell says. More and more workplaces accept tattooing in general, leading people to display them more.

For some, it is a gateway to tell their story. The subjects in her studies told her that this made it easier for them to relieve the pain.

"With our understanding of grief, we now know that death doesn't put an end to a relationship, but it changes it. For some, their tattoo is part of that new relationship."

Cadell's research found memorial body art breaks taboos. If themes such as mourning, overdoses or suicide were stigmatized in the past, the growing tolerance for tattooing has now lowered these barriers, she says.

She was "surprised at how people used their tattoos to engage sensitive conversations. That's what's great with it: it fights against stigmatization and pushes people to commemorate differently."

For Arlene Last-Kolb, memorial tattoos are an ongoing experience. (Radja Mahamba/Radio-Canada)

Sometimes, one isn't enough

For some, a single commemorative tattoo is not enough. 

A few days after showing us her first tattoo, Last-Kolb made a decision that will mark her forever: she wants a second tattoo in memory of Jessie.

This time, she plans a black ink tattoo on her hand. Every time she will look at it, she will see a rose, her son's favourite flower.

Last-Kolb says one day, as she was walking and wondering about her life, she noticed a healthy rose on the ground in the middle of winter. She saw it as a sign of her son, Jessie. (Radja Mahamba/Radio-Canada)

As she walks into Winnipeg's Blaze Ink Tattoo studio, she finally feels that this is a decision she won't regret. 

Paul Stafford, the artist who accompanies her in this process, immediately wins her trust. Not only do they realize he knows friends of Jessie, he also takes a very reassuring tone while talking to her.

"It's the kind of tattoo that I want to take a little more of my time with," he says. "It is one of the most important tattoos you can make for people."

Paul Stafford says before the pandemic, he saw many people every week asking for a memorial tattoo. (Radja Mahamba/Radio-Canada)

After an hour-long session, as she sees the final result, Last-Kolb is filled with emotion. It's even better than she expected.

"Feeling very close. I miss that. So this new tattoo really helps me."

For Last-Kolb, life goes on despite a pain that will always come to haunt her. 

Through various organizations in Winnipeg, she continues to fight for families like hers, who fear for a loved one suffering from addictions or who have lost one. Among other activities, she regularly lobbies governments to facilitate access to drug addiction treatments, such as naloxone, an antidote that reverses the effect of overdoses.

And wherever she goes, she can find the strength to keep going by glancing at her tattoos.

"It's sometimes easier to talk about a tattoo than to talk about my son. It's hard," Last-Kolb says. (Radja Mahamba/Radio-Canada)


Patrick Foucault is a reporter and producer with Radio-Canada.