Last Writes: Tattoos – the new Memento Mori?

The below article is one I wrote for the wonderful tattoo magazine Things & Ink. Look out for the next issue, The Modification Issue, which will feature my article on Tattooed Maori shrunken heads.

“Last year I held an evening seminar in the Pathology Museum I work in entitled “Tattoos: The New Memento Mori?” Anatomical specimens, potted in Perspex or glass, stayed in nonchalant suspended animation on the shelves while being peered at by curious attendees who reverently crossed the parquet floor with glasses of wine. Apart from the speakers, the other draw for the event was the three preserved tattoos on display.  Normally up on the second floor which is not accessible to the public, the plastic-protected skins were brought down to the lecture space to be examined by visitors for the first time.

‘Mother’ Copyright Scott Grummet/Barts Pathology Museum

When I first saw these specimens in our Forensic collection at Barts Pathology Museum it immediately transported me back to my days as a mortuary technician and made me think about the connection between death and tattoos. Tattoos are, of course, frequently found on the dead and they are often used as a means of identification. They can remind us of death and of the dead, and increasingly now they can contain the dead. I was interested to see the links, if any, between these instances.

Identifying Tattoos – I trained as a Mortuary Technician (or Anatomical Pathology Technician) in a Coronial or City Council Mortuary. This meant that rather than the relatively clean, gowned, bodies of a hospital I would carry out post-mortems on the deceased from the streets or from a solitary existence at home. This brought with it many decomposition-related problems, the most important of which was identification. Life isn’t like CSI. When a deceased person enters the mortuary with no identification, local authorities look to the cheapest/quickest way to find out who they are. Usually there will be a family member or neighbour who can come and view them, but what if their facial features are difficult to distinguish due to post-mortem changes or injury? Or what if their next-of-kin simply doesn’t want to view the cadaver? To legally enable the Coroner to order an autopsy on the deceased there needs to be an identification to ascertain their medical history, so physical attributes can be relied upon in the first instance.

Frequently I would take photographs of tattoos to show the relatives or friends in a more comforting environment such as the office, over a cuppa. This would afford us a quick ID so we could begin the autopsy as soon as possible. Then, with a name, we could go further and perhaps compare dental records and other physical attributes like surgical scars that may not be visible ordinarily.

This mode of identification becomes even more frequent during Mass Fatality Incidents as I discovered when I was deployed to the mortuary set-up in response to the 7/7 terror attacks in London. There we identified many victims by their tattoos and piercings in the first instance. Later on DNA comparisons were carried out, but this is only possible once you have an initial name to compare with familial DNA. Tattoos really are the first port of call in any sudden death, which I think is something most of us don’t consider when choosing a design.

Memento Mori tattoos – Working in a mortuary environment can affect people in different ways and for me it made me very conscious of my own mortality in a positive way. Being made aware that life is such a fragile and fleeting thing makes me strive more to ensure I’m getting as much out of it as I can. And I’m not the only one! A ‘memento mori’ is a traditional piece of art which is exactly that – it literally translates as ‘remember you must die’ and is a motif of the inevitability of death which is usually found in Christian art. It is similar to a ‘vanitas’ which is a still life representation of how tenuous earthly life is, and will usually contain various symbols of the passage of time: decaying flowers, skulls, hour glasses, musical instruments (because a musical note cannot be sustained) and other similar objects. I even have one of these tattoos: on my ankle a representation of the Death card in a Tarot deck which shows roses growing from a skull (indicating the life cycle).

BillsMortalityDr Sarah Chaney, a medical historian, has a very specific tattoo (above) from the ‘Bills of Mortality’ of 1665 (a set of statistics begun after the plague in the 1500s) Not only is it a great tattoo with the typical skulls, bones, wings and hourglass in any memento mori, but it’s apt for a doctor of medical history and clearly shows the origins of this type of image.  Sarah says she had it done the week before she turned 30 years old, “I’d always felt 30 was going to be an ominous milestone, but in the event it turned out being the opposite of what I’d anticipated in my early to mid-20s. In fact, lots of things in my life seemed to be coming together” In essence it became a celebration of life rather than a reminder of death. In fact she goes on to say that she’d struggled a lot through her 20s so in a way the memento-mori became an emblem of survival. She continues “The proximity of death can often serve as a reminder that life is worth living”

The tattoos below (1 – Daniel Campos at ‘Stigmatattoo’ in Chile, and 2 – Daniel Endrullis at ‘Ownskool Tattoos’ in Germany) are great examples of images with the necessary components to act as a Memento Mori – a simple reminder that life is short and we should enjoy it while it lasts.

MMT11However, the below (by Ricky Pedersen in Sweden) has a much sadder story: The tattoo was done on a friend of his who had lost his sister in a car crash. She had gone to pick up her boyfriend at the airport and they were both severely injured, but while the boyfriend survived she did not.

MMT7Memorial Tattoos – Although the above tattoo says the words ‘Memento Mori’ and has some of the same features as a typical example (such as the wings) it is also a memorial tattoo which is something slightly different because it is in memory of someone else’s death. These two concepts can co-exist in one tattoo, as usually losing someone will inevitably remind us of our own mortality. Sometimes a memorial tattoo will be the face of a deceased person, the date of their death or simply a symbol. A good example of a tattoo heavy with meaning in this way is that of Sandra Vita Ann Minchin, one of the speakers at my previously mentioned tattoo seminar. After losing her father to cancer then receiving a diagnosis of cancer herself, Sandra (a performance and installation artist) was left asking herself “What have I left behind?” She decided to explore her own legacy using the medium of tattoo and opted to have the painting Vase of Flowers by Jan Davidsz De Heem inked onto her back. The project is called “Ars Longa, Vita Brevis” or “Art is long, Life is short” and the main artist is Nancy Klein from Galway Bay Tattoo in Galway, Ireland. The painting is very much a vanitas work in itself and to Sandra represents the transience of life. She says “It freezes a moment in time, leaving us to wonder what will follow. Caterpillars on the leaf tips hint at the rot that is about to set in. The suggestion is that the perfect still life is about to tip over into death and decay.” However it is also a reminder of the death of her father. It will take around 120 hours to complete, and various stages of the work will be accessible to an audience as performance art events. However, the real climax is that after Sandra’s death the tattooed skin will be removed and sold to the highest bidder to display as a piece of art and will inevitably be a reminder of Sandra’s death to the purchaser.

MMT12Memorial/Cremation Tattoos – Tattoos and the dead have had links to each other since long before the frequently cited verse in the Bible, “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you” This passage from Leviticus (9:28) has been cited by many modern day Christians as a clear indication that tattooing is not allowed within the religion. However, this verse doesn’t refer to tattoos at all – it refers to a specific Middle Eastern mourning tradition of cutting the flesh after the death of someone close and rubbing ash into the open wounds. The introduction of the dark substance left permanent marks and was a precursor of the memorial tattoo. While this tradition didn’t stipulate the ashes of the deceased were used, and in fact it was the ashes of the funeral pyres, it is not difficult to see where the idea of introducing the ashes of a loved one into tattoo ink came from. Like many things, we find this one isn’t a new idea either. The Victorians, before us, are well-known for their exquisite and complex hair brooches and still we can keep cremated remains or hair in lockets around our neck or compress them into jewels. But these things can be misplaced or stolen and a tattoo can’t – it seems to me a logical step in the evolution of mourning.

The main concern for readers will be whether or not this procedure is safe and the answer is “it’s as safe as getting any tattoo”. Any introduction of matter into the skin, including tattoo ink, can cause a reaction as it’s a foreign substance. The advice would be to ensure you go to a reputable tattoo artist to have this done, but that would be the advice anyway. Providing the ashes are fine enough to be suspended in the ink, there shouldn’t be any problem. Crematoria burn cadavers at around 800-1000°C so any infection is destroyed, and as long as the method used is a ‘slow burn’ or ‘complete burn’ then the resulting cremains will be very fine (not so in the case of a ‘quick burn’ which leaves fragments, so if you’re thinking of having this procedure done then do check with the crematorium.) However one thing many people don’t know (and don’t want to think about) is that some crematoria burn several bodies in the same part of the machinery at the same time, so there IS a chance someone else’s ashes will be mixed with your loved one’s. Check you are going to a reputable Funeral Director to ensure this doesn’t happen!

MMT10The actress Hanna Walters (above), star of ‘Whitechapel’ recently featured in a local Gloucestershire newspaper when she had her mother’s ashes tattooed onto her foot (her first and only tattoo). It was done by Mark Richmond of Gods of Ink in Gloucester  and Hannah had no safety concerns, mainly because Mark had actually tattooed his partner Lisa with the ashes of their deceased son – Hannah therefore knew she was in safe, experienced hands. She told me she chose to have a butterfly because it is “…synonymous with the soul. And my mum passed during the month of August when there seems to be more butterflies than any other time of the year.” It was a more preferable option for her than Life Gems because of its permanence and the butterfly is such a positive, beautiful symbol.

It’s clear then that rather than being morbid or depressing Memento Mori and Memorial /Cremation tattoos are, in essence, a celebration of life (whether your own or someone else’s).”


  1. really interested… I’m consediring to do my thesis on tattoed skin conservation for my art conservation graduation. Please if you have any more sources or info on this subject let me know. Thank you!

    1. Then you should definitely talk to Dr Gemma Angel who just did her PhD on the collection of around 3000 tattooed skins held at the Science Museum. If you Google her you’ll find her contact details x

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