I got my first tattoo when I turned 18. I did all of my research about locations, artists, how much it might hurt and how to properly take care of them. I was prepared. Each time I got a tattoo I was prepared. I now have four, each with their own meanings and place in my heart.

My latest tattoo, and by far my biggest one and the one I love the most, is for my grandmother. I have known for a long time that I wish to fill my left leg with tattoos representing my family members. I didn’t expect to begin this project so soon, joining those who find the painful process of getting a commemorative tattoo as a way to heal from emotional pain.

The art of tattooing has been around for years, they can be found on buried individuals dating back to 2100 and 550 BC. The initial use of tattooing a person was for prisoners and slaves. This has since changed tremendously, from being a symbol of gangs, bikers and prisoners, to now being a symbol of whatever people want them to be.

Getting a tattoo today is also much different than how it was thousands of years ago. Today we have the luxury of having tattoo machines, which makes the process much faster and cleaner than it used to be.

I waited and watched as my artist made the stencil for my new tattoo and gathered all the colours we had discussed using. She let me pick a movie to watch since we would be there for a few hours.

I was prepared for the long session, the uncomfortability, the pain, the blood and the exhaustion. What I wasn’t prepared for was what getting the tattoo did for me.

Some tend to take away more than the pain of receiving the tattoo and the emotions behind it, but also a way to remember the events by remembering that our loved ones are always with us.

When Therese Frederick showed me her tattoo, I knew that not only was it meant for the people she’s lost but also for her.

“It made me more grounded,” said Frederick. “Like this happened, it’s part of my life and now I have something that represents that it happened and it’s now a part of me but I can overcome it. And it’s kind of a reminder that stuff happens and you can move on and grow from it.”

Tatoo2Therese Fredrick’s commemorative tattoo for her grandma, grandpa and her aunt and uncle. It also represents herself and the strength she has to carry on. Photo Courtesy of Therese Fredrick.

My grandmother had a brief battle with cancer during the summer and I wasn’t anywhere near prepared to spend the rest of my life without the person who was like a second mother, who took care of me on weekends, made me grilled cheese sandwiches with soup, who took me to get my hair dyed for the first time and who loved me unconditionally.

The whirling sound of the machine calmed me, for I knew that when tomorrow would come, I would be complete and whole as if this tattoo had been missing my whole life.

What was new this time was that the tattoo was actually filling a hole in my life.

Tattoos today all have various meanings to everyone, but the artist is always aware of what the canvas wants out of the tattoo they are getting. It’s becoming more and more common for people to use tattooing as a way to heal from emotional and physical pain.

There are some who have been hit with depression and other mental illnesses, where the result might have been self-harm. Those who have old scars have found that getting a tattoo has helped the healing process.

As I lay there, my breathing condensed, my muscles tightened and my eyes closed, I listened to the TV and the machine as my artist leaned in.

Three hours later and my leg was killing me. I was tired and I knew my artist was too. But I stood up from the chair and looked at myself in the full-length mirror hanging on the wall. 

I stared at the lines, the details, the colours, and the intricacy. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I no longer felt any of the pain vibrating up and down my leg, all I felt was relief and happiness.

This need to commemorate and heal through tattooing isn’t a new concept; this practice has been around for thousands of years, since the Polynesians, to represent spiritual wellness and strength.

Today, my tattoo brings me closer to her now because she is always by my side. I’ll never forget her love and her protection.

“Looking at my tattoo now I just feel peace and a sense of protection from him and it makes me happy to know he’s ‘around.’ I feel like I can’t lose him as I will always have a piece of him to hold onto.” – Shauna Tunney

Tatoo3Shauna Tunney’s commemorative tattoo for her father who always wrote these words in cards to the girls. Photo Courtesy of Shauna Tunney

Many say that the pain that comes with the tattoo needle releases endorphins, so after a long session of sitting in the chair, you will not only be happy that it’s over but you will be happy with the emotional outcome.

While the needles poked little holes in my body, I could feel the blood, pain and sadness slowly ooze out of me and replace it with the love my grandmother had for me and with the strength to carry on.

Letting go of a loved one is hard enough already, but sometimes living without that person close to you is even harder. I knew from the moment she left this earth that I was missing something. There was a huge hole in my heart that nothing could fix, no amount of ice cream, chocolate or romantic comedy movies would help.

What did help was the pain. While I watched the movie and did my best not to move or flinch, I embraced the pain, for this time it was relatively in my control. I could tell her to stop if it hurt too much, which it never did, and I could tell her to stop if I got really emotional, which I didn’t until after it was done.

Many get tattoos because it speaks with their identity or their way of life. Some get tattoos to seal memories and some get tattoos to seal a person into their lives even if they are no longer around.

“I couldn’t just sit here and only keep you in my heart.” – Cassie Jamieson

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