Etched: Tattoos & Memory

As a child, I spent many hours watching the arms of my grandfather, studying the faded tattoos covering his skin. The sight of them was so familiar, yet I never quite understood why they were there or what they meant. I knew they made him different to all the other people who surrounded me as I grew up, none of whom had tattoos of their own. I also knew that there was something special in those now misshapen lines, and that I liked them.

Over the course of my adult life I’ve amassed quite a collection of tattoos of my own: animal, vegetable and mineral, abstract and literal, large and small, complex and simple, incredibly bold and whisper quiet. Some have been well considered, others spur of the moment. All are imbued with memory in their lines, shapes and colours. To look at some fills me with pain. Others invoke a tender feeling. Some make my heart soar. All make me contemplate myself, who I am, what is meaningful to me, what the results of my thoughtful and thoughtless actions have been, and who I want to be.

In my tattoos are the stories of my life. All depict some part of the natural world that I’ve experienced, either with my senses or in my imagination. To me, the natural world is perfect. It is often gentle yet sometimes brutal. It’s honest and forgiving, and it offers me everything I need. It challenges and rewards me at the same time. In nature, everything is always moving toward homeostasis.

My memories of spending time close to nature are the times when I’ve felt great joy and the most myself. Daydreaming, eating, hiding and seeking, walking, laughing, discovering, loving. I’m constantly trying to capture this in my travels through the city and into the bush, foraging, collecting and making. As my home is filled with pieces of nature (seaweed, feathers, leaves, twigs, shells and seed pods in various stages of life and death), so is my skin.

My tattoos help me to realise that I am all of the things that they are, and more. Maybe not all at once, but the potential is there. I’m only limited by my imagination and the strength of my desire. Sometime I forget this, but not for long. Not while I have these reminders stamped on me.

I don’t fully comprehend why anyone would not want to have images that are dear to them placed as permanent reminders on their skin. I feel more myself with my tattoos in a way I didn’t understand I would before I got them. Each time I get a new piece I discover another part of myself.

My tattoos connect me with my past and future and they help me to remember to stay in the present. They remind me that everything passes, and that I have the choice to hold on to only what I want to. They remind me that beauty is all around me in many forms, all the time, I just have to look in the right places to find it. They remind me that joy is mine for the taking, and for giving freely to those around me.

Truth be known, I know very little about my grandfather from the words that he has spoken to me. He’s a hard man and demonstrates very little affection toward me. I often wonder what’s inside his seemingly impenetrable shell, how his own life experiences have moulded him and which parts of me, as his granddaughter, are from him. I already know for certain we share the unstoppable desire to place the images of our journey onto our skin. I’m quite sure that we are both strongly affected by the visual.

As an adult, I also now understand why my grandfather marked his skin with the images of ships, pretty ladies and anchors. They are marks of his wandering and help him define himself. I’m sure some fill him with pain while others invoke a tender feeling, and some make his heart soar. I also know that every time he got a new tattoo, he was trying to remember or to forget.


Image by Stanislava Pinchuk