Getting a tattoo in the middle of her back stung more than Sonya Goins had expected.
“To disconnect from the pain, I closed my eyes and went to my happy place,” said Goins, 53, of Plymouth.
Last month, Goins spent 2½ hours in that happy place, calling up memories of her best friend, Diane Wick — camping trips, their ongoing search for the best Bloody Mary in the Twin Cities, a visit to Vegas that was more about sampling buffets than doubling down.
“On paper, we were opposite,” Goins said. “She was from a farm, and I grew up in urban areas; she was Republican, and I’m a Democrat; she’s white, and I’m black.”
Still, they developed a deep and lasting friendship. “We met while we were both getting divorced. For almost 20 years, we raised our kids together like family.”
Then, Wick died in a motorcycle crash in 2014.
“Diane was cremated, so there’s no place for me to go,” Goins said. “I wanted her with me wherever I am.”
That’s why, two years later, Goins got a tattoo to honor her friend. It features an eagle holding a banner with the motorcyclist’s motto “Live to Ride, Ride to Live.” Underneath the tattoo reads, “R.I.P. Diane.”
While an estimated 50 million Americans are inked, a growing number of them are getting so-called memorial or RIP tattoos. Using initials, dates, quotes, song lyrics or images identified with a loved one, such tattoos are the modern-day equivalent of wearing black — they are a mark of grief.
“Memorial tattoos serve many functions. One is public acknowledgment of loss,” said Theresa Winge, a professor at Michigan State University who studied memorial tattoos for her book “Body Style.”
“In my research, many people found the tattoo beneficial in the process of moving forward while still holding onto the one they lost,” she said. “Many expressed guilt for continuing to live after the loss. The memorial tattoo keeps their loved ones with them and frees them from that feeling.”
At Dinkytown Tattoo in Minneapolis, owner Dan Peace employs seven artists, including one who specializes in realistic portraits, which are often used in tributes. Peace himself often inks friends who choose identical memorial tattoos.
“When someone in a close group of friends passes, they all come in and get the same tattoo at the same time,” he said. “It’s something special between them and it holds them together. They seem to feel better when they leave.”
Savoring the symbolism
Michelle Jarvie became a grief expert the hard way.
She had been married just 13 months when her husband, James Davis, was killed in a traffic accident. She was 23.
“I was angry and sad and felt so hollow, but in time I found that it was healing for me to use my experience to reach out to other people,” she said.
Jarvie went on to facilitate grief groups, write for blogs that offer guidance to the bereaved and wrote a self-help guide, “Then and Now: Changed Perspectives of a Young Widow.”
During their short marriage, Jarvie’s husband had her name tattooed on his arm and she had his initials inked on her upper thigh. On the third anniversary of his death, she added to the tattoo, encircling the “JLD” with two pink roses, like the ones she carried at their wedding.
“One is in bloom for the life we had together. The other is just beginning to blossom, to show myself there was hope,” she said. “It honored the past and inspired me in the present.”
Now 31, Jarvie is remarried and the mother of a young daughter. Still, she continues to be comforted by that symbolism, which is as much a part of her tattoo as the ink.
Many of the people she’s counseled have found value in choosing an outer expression of their inner pain.
“These are tangible reminders,” she said of memorial tattoos. “They allow people to talk about their bonds and their losses. We move forward, but we don’t want to forget.”
Consideration and timing
But not every tattoo provides solace to its wearer.
“Memorial tattoos are the No. 1 kind that I remove; I take off more of them than [tattoos of] wedding rings,” said Nick Settich, a technician at Renewal Laser Clinic in south Minneapolis. “Grief drives people to do irrational things.”
Many of the tributes that Settich erases were chosen by young adults when they were barely old enough to get inked legally.
“When a 19-year-old’s grandfather dies, it’s the most traumatic experience of their life,” he said. “ By the time they’re 27, they’ve lost three more. They don’t want to be reminded of the grief.”
Settich advises against inking angel wings, tombstones and prominently displayed death dates, images he’s often asked to remove.
“They should think about what they loved about that person and how to represent them with images that have personal meaning,” he said. “Someone who had a grandmother who taught them to knit might get a tattoo of a ball of yarn.”
Settich and others also say that timing is important when considering a memorial that will continue to provide comfort.
“Right after a significant loss, people are in a state of shock and intense emotion,” said licensed psychologist Molly Ruggles, clinical supervisor at the Center for Grief, Loss and Transition in St. Paul. “That’s not a good time to make permanent decisions.”
She added, “It’s hard to sit with feelings of loss and loneliness, so it’s natural to want to take action to cope. People should give themselves time to let things settle.”
Goins spent more than two years contemplating her memorial tattoo. And although her grief is no longer fresh, she is not over her loss.
“The last time I talked to her, I said, ‘I love you, girl,’ and I’m so glad we had that conversation. I have a lot of friends, but I’ll never have a friend like Diane,” Goins said. “She is in my heart, and now she’s on my back.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.