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Etching the Pain of Covid Into the Flesh of Survivors

It was Saturday morning at Southbay Tattoo and Body Piercing in Carson, California, and owner Efrain Espinoza Diaz Jr. was prepping for his first tattoo of the day — a memorial portrait of a man that his widow wanted on her forearm.

2015 Harris Poll, almost 30% of Americans have at least one tattoo, a 10% increase from 2011. At least 80% of tattoos are for commemoration, said Deborah Davidson, a professor of sociology at York University in Toronto who has been researching memorial tattoos since 2009.

“Memorial tattoos help us speak our grief, bandage our wounds and open dialogue about death,” she said. “They help us integrate loss into our lives to help us heal.”

Covid, sadly, has provided many opportunities for such memorials.

Juan Rodriguez, a tattoo artist who goes by “Monch,” preps his client’s arm for a memorial tattoo. (Heidi de Marco / KHN)

Juan Rodriguez, a tattoo artist who goes by “Monch,” has been seeing twice as many clients as before the pandemic and is booked months in advance at his parlor in Pacoima, an L.A. neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley. Memorial tattoos, which can include names, portraits and special artwork, are common in his line of work, but there’s been an increase in requests due to the pandemic. “One client called me on the way to his brother’s funeral,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez thinks memorial tattoos help people process traumatic experiences. As he moves his needle over the arms, legs and backs of his clients, and they share stories of their loved ones, he feels he is part artist, part therapist.

Healthy grievers do not resolve grief by detaching from the deceased but by creating a new relationship with them, said Jennifer R. Levin, a therapist in Pasadena, California, who specializes in traumatic grief. “Tattoos can be a way of sustaining that relationship,” she said.

It’s common for her patients in the 20-to-50 age range to get memorial tattoos, she said. “It’s a powerful way of acknowledging life, death and legacy.”

Sazalea Martinez, a kinesiology student at Antelope Valley College in Palmdale, California, holds a handwritten note from her grandmother with the phrase “I love you.” (Heidi de Marco / KHN)
Martinez says she’s still mourning her grandparents’ deaths. “It’s hard to connect the two,” she says. “I know they passed away from covid, but to me it just feels like pain.” (Heidi de Marco / KHN)

Sazalea Martinez, a kinesiology student at Antelope Valley College in Palmdale, California, came to Rodriguez in September to memorialize her grandparents. Her grandfather died of covid in February, her grandmother in April. She chose to have Rodriguez tattoo an image of azaleas with “I love you” written in her grandmother’s handwriting.

The azaleas, which are part of her name, represent her grandfather, she said. Sazalea decided not to get a portrait of her grandmother because the latter didn’t approve of tattoos. “The ‘I love you’ is something simple and it’s comforting to me,” she said. “It’s going to let me heal and I know she would have understood that.”

Sazalea teared up as the needle moved across her forearm, tracing her grandmother’s handwriting. “It’s still super fresh,” she said. “They basically raised me. They impacted who I am as a person, so to have them with me will be comforting.”

Efrain Espinoza Diaz Jr., known as “Rock,” says tattoos can be like therapy for people who have lost loved ones.(Heidi de Marco / KHN)

This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.

[email protected], @Heidi_deMarco

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