Centre for Death & Society

A Labour of Death & and Labour Against Death: Memorial Tattoos in Later Modernity

 

Principal Investigator: John Troyer

Unfunded

Dates: 2009 - present

 

Project rationale and aims

Publications

Troyer, J., 2009. A labor of death and a labor against death: Memorial tattoos in late modernity. In: Envisaging Death: Visual Culture and Dying Symposium, 2009-06-26, University of Birmingham.

In 1891, Samuel F. O’Reilly of New York, NY patented the first “…electromotor tattooing-machine,” a modern and innovative device that permanently inserted ink into the human skin. O’Reilly’s invention revolutionized tattooing and forever altered the underlying concept behind a human tattoo, i.e., the writing of history on the body. Tattooing of the body most certainly predates the O’Reilly machine (by several centuries) but one kind of human experience remains constant in this history: the memorial tattoo.

Memorial tattooing is, as Marita Sturken discusses the memorialization of the dead, a technology of memory. Yet the tattoo is more than just a representation of the dead. It is a historiographical practice in which the living person seeks to make death intelligible by permanently altering his or her body. In this way, memorial tattooing not only establishes a new language of intelligibility between the living and the dead, it produces a historical text carried on the historian’s body. A memorial tattoo is an image but it is also (and most importantly) a narrative.

I view memorial tattooing as a significant historiographical practice within death studies. Indeed, electro-mechanically produced tattoos should be viewed next to nineteenth-century postmortem technologies, such as embalming, death photography, and the industrialization of death. I argue that it is important to ask how a critical language that discusses memorial tattooing can function without reverting to images of tattoos? How can memorial tattooing be defined, articulated, and theorized without relying on visual images? In a sense, and to paraphrase Michel de Certeau, memorial tattoos require this kind of language because their representational practices disguise (but do not hide) the actions that organize them.

Tattoo artists have a popular saying within their profession: Love lasts forever but a tattoo lasts six months longer.

And so too, I will add, does death.

Project outputs and impacts

Troyer, J., 2009. A labor of death and a labor against death: Memorial tattoos in late modernity. In: Envisaging Death: Visual Culture and Dying Symposium, 2009-06-26, University of Birmingham.

Find out more about this project

Name: Dr John Troyer
Title: Senior Lecturer
Department: Dept of Social and Policy Sciences
Location: 3 East 3.24
E-mail: j.troyer@bath.ac.uk
Phone: work+44 (0) 1225 383585