Etching the Pain of Covid Into the Flesh of Survivors

It was Saturday morning at Southbay Tattoo and Body 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 known as “Rock,” has been a tattoo artist for 26 years however nonetheless will get slightly 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 good friend who was 45 when he died of covid-19 in August.

“I would like to pay attention,” stated Diaz, 52. “It’s an image of my good friend, 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, recognized to his pals 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 coated 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 slightly odd, however Rock has been actually good to us,” Anita Martinez stated. Rock and Sparky “grew up collectively.” They met within the Nineties, at a time when there have been no Mexican-American-owned tattoo outlets of their neighborhood however Sparky was gaining a popularity. “It was artists like Phil that might encourage quite a lot of us to take that step into the skilled tattoo trade,” Rock stated.

Diaz tattoos the arm of his good friend’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 obtained sick, Anita wasn’t allowed in her husband’s hospital room, an isolating expertise shared by tons of of 1000’s of People who misplaced a liked one to covid. They let her in solely on the very finish.

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

“I don’t even know if I’m ever going to heal,” she stated, as Diaz started sketching the outlines of the portrait beneath her elbow, “however at the very least I’ll get to see him day by 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 day by day. (Heidi de Marco / KHN)

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

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

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

Juan Rodriguez, a tattoo artist who goes by “Monch,” preps his consumer’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 consumers 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 may embody names, portraits and particular art work, are widespread in his line of labor, however there’s been a rise in requests as a result of pandemic. “One consumer known as me on the best way to his brother’s funeral,” Rodriguez stated.

Rodriguez thinks memorial tattoos assist folks course of traumatic experiences. As he strikes his needle over the arms, legs and backs of his purchasers, they usually 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, stated Jennifer R. Levin, a therapist in Pasadena, California, who focuses on traumatic grief. “Tattoos could be a method of sustaining that relationship,” she stated.

It’s widespread for her sufferers within the 20-to-50 age vary to get memorial tattoos, she stated. “It’s a strong method of acknowledging life, loss of life and legacy.”

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

Martinez says she’s nonetheless mourning her grandparents’ deaths. “It’s laborious 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 School 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 like you” written in her grandmother’s handwriting.

The azaleas, that are a part of her title, characterize her grandfather, she stated. Sazalea determined to not get a portrait of her grandmother as a result of the latter didn’t approve of tattoos. “The ‘I like you’ is one thing easy and it’s comforting to me,” she stated. “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 recent,” she stated. “They principally raised me. They impacted who I’m as an individual, so to have them with me shall be comforting.”

Efrain Espinoza Diaz Jr., often known as “Rock,” says tattoos could 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 impartial service of the California Health Care Foundation.

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