After Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna died in a helicopter accident in January 2020, the basketball legend’s sister Sharia Washington paid tribute to her late brother and niece with a new tattoo.
The ink featured their jersey numbers circled by a snake in the shape of an infinity symbol ― a reference to Bryant’s nickname, the Black Mamba. His widow, Vanessa, later had loving messages from her husband and daughter tattooed on her wrist and neck.
Memorial tattoos have also helped others to honor lost family members and process traumatic experiences. A month after her heartbreaking pregnancy loss, Chrissy Teigen revealed a new tattoo with her son’s name Jack. Billie Lourd opted for space-themed ink to match her late mother, Carrie Fisher. Robin Williams’ daughter Zelda has a hummingbird for her late father.
While getting a tattoo may feel extreme to some, memorial ink can play a powerful role in the grieving process for many bereaved people.
“Memorial tattoos help keep someone we lost close to us. Literally, they become part of us,” said Dan Reidenberg, a mental health expert and executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education.
Reidenberg noted that tattoos in visible places on the body can prompt others to ask about their meaning, which gives mourners the chance to talk about their lost loved ones and share their legacy.
“Like other types of memorials, memorial tattoos honor, recognize and pay tribute to someone very special to us in a way that is always accessible,” he added, noting that a tattoo is always there when the bereaved person is feeling sad, lonely or lost. “People can look at, touch and relive a deep connection with someone who has passed through a memorial tattoo.”
Getting a special tattoo can be therapeutic: In addition to helping people remember and maintain a bond with someone who has passed away, well-done ink can offer a sense of pride and power.
“When we lose someone, we feel a loss and a loss of control,” Reidenberg noted. “Getting a tattoo is something we can do rather than just live in our grief that feels out of control.”
It’s also a way to ensure a loved one won’t be forgotten, said Arianna Galligher, a licensed social worker and associate director of the STAR Trauma Recovery Center at Ohio State Wexner Medical Center.
“For many, memorial tattoos are a visual way of crystallizing the essence of what a person meant to them,” she explained. ”Having a visual reminder that a person carries with them all the time can bring comfort. It’s a way of keeping the person close even though they’re gone.”
“For some, the physical sensation that comes with having a tattoo placed also acts as a conduit for accessing and processing complex emotions inherent in the grieving process,” she added.
There are many reasons behind the choices of size, shape, color and placement of a memorial tattoo. Some people may select initials, nicknames or numbers to reflect a specific date, while others opt for images or quotes.
“Just like the experience of grief is different for everyone, the expression of grief varies too,” Galligher said. “Some people prefer the intimacy of a private or subtle image that is just for them and is unlikely to draw outside attention or questions. Others may choose larger or more obvious tributes, in part, because they want to elicit conversation and generate a reason to share with others about the person they lost and what that relationship meant to them.”
Whatever a person selects, it tends to reflect something special about the connection they had with the deceased that they want to live on forever. Galligher has personal experience with this process.
“When my mother passed away suddenly and unexpectedly in 2019, one of the first decisions that my stepfather made was to get a tattoo in her memory,” Galligher said.
After discussions with other family members about what to get and where to put it, he went for his first ink at the age of 61. Now his forearms are covered with tattooed images of photos taken by his late wife during their travels together, along with words of advice she tried to live by, like “All will be well” and “Be kind.” There’s also a nod to her nickname, “Smiley.”
“The process was meaningful and helpful for him as he worked ― and continues to work ― to conceptualize a life without his partner and best friend by his side,” Galligher noted. “He’s said, ‘I couldn’t imagine not carrying your mom around with me to show people how we would like them all to live. The photos are mostly for me, and fun to show off and surprise those who are closed-minded.’ I know without a doubt that my mom would have liked that part too.”