Etching the Ache of Covid Into the Flesh of Survivors

It was Saturday morning at Southbay Tattoo and Physique Piercing in Carson, California, and proprietor Efrain Espinoza Diaz Jr. was prepping for his first tattoo of the day — a memorial portrait of a person that his widow needed on her forearm.

Diaz, often called “Rock,” has been a tattoo artist for 26 years however nonetheless will get just a little nervous when doing memorial tattoos, and this one was notably delicate. Diaz was inking a portrait of Philip Martin Martinez, a fellow tattoo artist and pal who was 45 when he died of covid-19 in August.

“I want to pay attention,” mentioned Diaz, 52. “It’s an image of my pal, my mentor.”

A stencil of Philip Martin Martinez sits on Efrain Espinoza Diaz Jr.’s desk. Anita Martinez selected the identical portrait of her husband that’s etched on his tomb.(Heidi de Marco / KHN)

Martinez, identified to his associates and purchasers as “Sparky,” was a tattoo artist of some renown in close by Wilmington, in Los Angeles’ South Bay area. A tattoo had introduced Sparky and Anita collectively; Sparky gave Anita her first tattoo — a portrait of her father — in 2012, and the expertise sparked a romance. Through the years of their relationship, he had lined her physique with intertwining roses and a portrait of her mom.

Now his widow, she was getting the identical {photograph} that was etched on Sparky’s tomb inked into her arm. And this could be her first tattoo that Sparky had not utilized.

“It feels just a little odd, however Rock has been actually good to us,” Anita Martinez mentioned. Rock and Sparky “grew up collectively.” They met within the Nineteen Nineties, at a time when there have been no Mexican-American-owned tattoo retailers of their neighborhood however Sparky was gaining a popularity. “It was artists like Phil that may encourage lots of us to take that step into the skilled tattoo trade,” Rock mentioned.

Diaz tattoos the arm of his pal’s widow, Anita Martinez, at Southbay Tattoo and Physique Piercing in Carson, California. Martinez misplaced her husband to covid and selected to memorialize him by tattooing his portrait on her forearm. (Heidi de Marco / KHN)

After Sparky received sick, Anita wasn’t allowed in her husband’s hospital room, an isolating expertise shared by a whole bunch of 1000’s of People who misplaced a beloved one to covid. They let her in solely on the very finish.

“I received cheated out of being with him in his final moments,” mentioned Martinez, 43. “After I received there, I felt he was already gone. We by no means received to say goodbye. We by no means received to hug.”

“I don’t even know if I’m ever going to heal,” she mentioned, as Diaz started sketching the outlines of the portrait beneath her elbow, “however at the very least I’ll get to see him each day.”

The tattooed portrait of Philip Martin Martinez on Anita’s arm. She selected to get it on her forearm so she might see it each day. (Heidi de Marco / KHN)

In response to a 2015 Harris Ballot, nearly 30% of People have at the very least one tattoo, a ten% enhance from 2011. No less than 80% of tattoos are for commemoration, mentioned Deborah Davidson, a professor of sociology at York College in Toronto who has been researching memorial tattoos since 2009.

“Memorial tattoos assist us communicate our grief, bandage our wounds and open dialogue about loss of life,” she mentioned. “They assist us combine loss into our lives to assist us heal.”

Covid, sadly, has supplied many alternatives for such memorials.

Juan Rodriguez, a tattoo artist who goes by “Monch,” preps his shopper’s arm for a memorial tattoo. (Heidi de Marco / KHN)

Juan Rodriguez, a tattoo artist who goes by “Monch,” has been seeing twice as many purchasers as earlier than the pandemic and is booked months upfront at his parlor in Pacoima, an L.A. neighborhood within the San Fernando Valley. Memorial tattoos, which might embrace names, portraits and particular art work, are frequent in his line of labor, however there’s been a rise in requests as a result of pandemic. “One shopper referred to as me on the way in which to his brother’s funeral,” Rodriguez mentioned.

Rodriguez thinks memorial tattoos assist individuals course of traumatic experiences. As he strikes his needle over the arms, legs and backs of his purchasers, and so they share tales of their family members, he feels he’s half artist, half therapist.

Wholesome grievers don’t resolve grief by detaching from the deceased however by creating a brand new relationship with them, mentioned Jennifer R. Levin, a therapist in Pasadena, California, who focuses on traumatic grief. “Tattoos is usually a means of sustaining that relationship,” she mentioned.

It’s frequent for her sufferers within the 20-to-50 age vary to get memorial tattoos, she mentioned. “It’s a robust means of acknowledging life, loss of life and legacy.”

Sazalea Martinez, a kinesiology scholar at Antelope Valley Faculty in Palmdale, California, holds a handwritten be aware from her grandmother with the phrase “I really like you.” (Heidi de Marco / KHN)

Martinez says she’s nonetheless mourning her grandparents’ deaths. “It’s exhausting to attach the 2,” she says. “I do know they handed away from covid, however to me it simply looks like ache.” (Heidi de Marco / KHN)

Sazalea Martinez, a kinesiology scholar at Antelope Valley Faculty in Palmdale, California, got here to Rodriguez in September to memorialize her grandparents. Her grandfather died of covid in February, her grandmother in April. She selected to have Rodriguez tattoo a picture of azaleas with “I really like you” written in her grandmother’s handwriting.

The azaleas, that are a part of her identify, signify her grandfather, she mentioned. Sazalea determined to not get a portrait of her grandmother as a result of the latter didn’t approve of tattoos. “The ‘I really like you’ is one thing easy and it’s comforting to me,” she mentioned. “It’s going to let me heal and I do know she would have understood that.”

Sazalea teared up because the needle moved throughout her forearm, tracing her grandmother’s handwriting. “It’s nonetheless tremendous contemporary,” she mentioned. “They principally raised me. They impacted who I’m as an individual, so to have them with me can be comforting.”

Efrain Espinoza Diaz Jr., often called “Rock,” says tattoos may be like remedy for individuals who have misplaced family members.(Heidi de Marco / KHN)

This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially unbiased service of the California Well being Care Basis.

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