Memorial Tattoos as a Mourning Ritual
and Relational Connection
A Discussion with Psychoanalyst
Once associated with counterculture and antisocial tendencies, tattoos are now a mainstream part of Western culture. Nonetheless, they were pathologized and undertheorized in psychoanalytic writing until the past decade. In 2010, Alessandra Lemma explored unconscious fantasies that prompt body modifications, conceived primarily as defensive strategies. Maureen Murphy (2013) expanded this view, portraying tattoos as something created in the transitional space between inner and outer worlds, between the individual and tattoo artist. Tattoos have also been viewed in terms of somatechnics, or intertwined psyche, soma, and technology (Miller, 2020; Sullivan, 2009).
Whatever image is permanently inscribed on one’s skin obviously has immense intrapsychic, relational, and/or cultural meaning to that person. This is particularly true of the memorial tattoo, which is the most common type of tattoo. It serves to memorialize significant others, including pets or mentors, sometimes incorporating a loved person’s cremation ashes into the ink. Tattoos also memorialize lost or injured parts of ourselves, such as mastectomy tattoos, or a major turning point in life. Mary Scott will show examples of the memorial tattoos that she has created for her clients. Dr. Murphy will share examples of her own patients’ memorial tattoos to explore the symbolism and specific functions of this embodied art, including attempts to preserve the memory of loved ones, provide ongoing connection to them, reclaim control over the body, proclaim survivorship, seek empowerment, express solidarity, and so forth. Qualitative research validates that a tattoo fosters connection with the living and deceased, and suggests that the process of getting a tattoo provides help and structure during the grief process (Schiffrin, 2009). As such, tattoos may serve as adaptive means of coping with grief and facilitating the mourning process.
After attending the discussion in its entirety, participants will be able to:
Describe how memorial tattoos serve as means to cope with grief and foster mourning
Explain the relational function of memorial tattoos
Maureen Murphy, PhD is a Personal and Supervising Analyst, Faculty member and Co-Coordinator of the Distance Learning Program at the Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California (PINC). She is the current President of the Confederation of Independent Psychoanalytic Societies (CIPS). Dr. Murphy teaches courses on contemporary psychosomatic concepts particularly the impact of burgeoning biotechnology on core psychoanalytic concepts and on adult development and aging. She maintains a private practice in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy in San Francisco.
Mary Joy Scott is a San Francisco-based tattoo artist. She studied art in Italy and is part of the vibrant San Francisco art scene. Her work is based in traditional tattooing and is imbued with a deep love and respect for classical art themes. Mary tattoos worldwide and has exhibited her art in museums and galleries. While her artistic repertoire is vast, women’s faces, occult and mythological figures, mourning and funerary art, plants and animals are her favorite themes to tattoo. Mary’s tattooing style builds upon the traditions and innovations of the past. She was the last apprentice of legendary San Francisco tattoo artist, Ed Hardy.
References (partial list)
Lemma, A. (2010). Under the skin: A psychoanalytic study of body modification. New York: Routledge.
Miller, K. D. (2020). Working clinically with the skin’s surface: Tattoos, scars, and gendered embodiment. Studies in Gender and Sexuality, 21: 143-154.
Murphy, M. (2013). Tattoos as social networks. Fort Da, 19: 29-38.
Schiffrin, E. (2009). “This so clearly needs to be marked”: An exploration of memorial tattoos and their functions for the bereaved. Masters thesis, Smith College, Northampton, MA
Sullivan, N. (2009). The somatechnics of bodily inscription: Tattooing. Studies in Gender and Sexuality, 10: 129-141.
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