Oh I wish I had a tattoo! Even though my parents died before I even thought of having one, they would have been scandalised! If I had got one it’d have been by ex de Medici. She practised in Canberra. Now a celebrated artist with work in major collections, her work with tattoos still inspires her approach, say with the language of flower painting juxtaposed against emblems of power and death. See her 2019 watercolour exhibition, The Wreckers here.

My parents’ views held me back. And yet that tattoo would have celebrated them. I came from them, and they were so shockingly impermanent that it took me decades to come to terms with their absence from my life.

Tattoos are a unique love project for people who have suffered traumatic loss. I heard and saw this in the ‘Death Matters’ workshops which Grant Broadbent and I’ve run.  A tattoo is a continuing bond with the person who died. If I’d had a tattoo I could have stroked it when I was feeling sad. It would have been an unambiguous gesture, a step to recovery. An internalised, external sign.

I met Chris Latimer and Danielle Pullin at the 2019 Story Conference in Melbourne. Danielle and I heard Chris present on her work with a Transport Accident Commission’s Road Trauma Support Services program. She stood up front and relayed her experience of traumatic loss. Chris has spoken to thousands of people in government agencies, community groups, prisons and schools about how her daughters lost their lives through separate car accidents involving others’ culpable driving. Like me, people in her audiences shiver. How can one person suffer so much? And then be so warm and open towards all of us?

Chris, Danielle and I sat on the lawn for lunch. I noticed Chris’ tattoos. I saw that Danielle has one also. Text. I’m a sucker for tattoos in text! When I asked them to tell me about their tattoos I knew there were big stories behind them. I thought they might hesitate. Not a bit of it, as my mother would say. We hardly had time to eat our lunches, and had to make a date to follow up in my studio another day.

Tatoo - that in black ink

Death, a love project – the role of tattoos in traumatic loss

Annie: I don’t have any tattoo and I’m sure that’s to do with how my parents thought about them. What about you?

Chris: My mum and dad were very against them. In those days they were for people from the navy, the ones who ran away to sea. They were vagabonds, rough men. It’s different now. Yeah getting a tattoo went against the values I grew up with.

Danielle: ‘I hope that’s not permanent,’ my mum said when she saw mine. She was devastated. She came from an upper class family and an era where you did not put marks on your body. “Well, no, it’s not permanent, it’s only going to last about 40 years!” I said.

‘I was thinking about how it wasn’t permanent because it’ll go with me. She was dying then, and I think she faded back into sleep. We never spoke about it again.’

Danielle – everything is impermanent, nothing lasts forever

Annie: So you were thinking of your own death in those times, with her dying … Can you say a bit about the line you chose – it’s Shakespeare isn’t it?

Danielle: That in black ink my love may still shine bright. It’s from Shakespeare’s sonnet no. 69.

‘I’d wanted this tattoo since I was 15. So when I did it in my late thirties I felt my independence. I felt excitement. New identity.

‘I’d had a child. I was sleep deprived and isolated. You have to re-invent yourself when you’ve entered into all that and don’t know who you are any more! I booked a trip to Sydney by myself for seven days. The first thing I did was find a leading female tattooist – well known for her cursive – and I cut my hair, and skipped the conference I was booked for!’

Annie: What did you say about cursive?

Danielle: It’s fine line work … when you put words on your body you want the text to be perfectly clear and to stay that way.

Annie: Chris calls herself the grandma with the dragonfly tattoo, what about you?

Danielle: I don’t know … I have to think about that.

Chris: The rebel …

Danielle: I am so not a rebel! The significance of those words are: firstly that I’ve always loved writing and literature. Then the line also conveys the Buddhist idea of anicca – everything is impermanent, nothing lasts forever.

‘I can remember clearly at 15 being at the beach. I’d memorised that poem. At that time I was obsessed with death …

Chris: … like all the other 15 year-olds …

Danielle: And I thought: as soon as I’m old enough I’ll have those words as a tattoo. It was a statement that spoke directly to my question: How on earth to find solace from fear of death?

Annie: That’s such a big story, what you had on your mind as a young woman, and how it led to getting the tattoo done. Chris can I ask what you noticed when you knew you were going to get your tattoos?

Chris, the grandma with the dragonfly tattoo

Chris: With my first tattoo, my daughter Nicky had already designed it and had it drawn on her wrist at one time to see how it’d look. It has the central motif of a star from the Swedish heavy metal band H.I.M. and her design around the outside. After her crash I was going through her things with my niece and we found it.

‘We went together. She also had Nicky’s design done. The same design on the other foot to me.

‘I felt great anticipation that I was going to have something of Nicky forever. The design was something she’d put thought into.  I was 52. After that I thought I’d never ever have another tattoo. It was so painful.

‘But there was another one.

‘Six years after her crash, my daughter Nicole died from complications of the brain injury that she received. My sister had come down from Queensland. We were planning the funeral. It was a tragic, chaotic time.

‘I was called to the door by a neighbour coming round. I hardly had the energy to stand there talking, but suddenly, unexpectedly I saw a dragonfly. When I saw that dragonfly at my window I felt inspired again. We’d never seen a dragonfly at our place, and I knew that it was … I felt conviction. The dragonfly is a symbol of change. I related it back to Nicky and the changes she had in her life and how she adapted to those changes with courage and laughter. My life was going to change again forever.

‘My sister also had the dragonfly tattoo  done. We went together. That’s where the tattooist christened me ‘the grandma with the dragonfly tattoo’.

‘Later, a year after this terrible loss, I was in Cambodia with ten other women. I wasn’t in a great place in myself. We went to the Killing Fields. There in that terrible place where these horrific things had happened, where the Killing Fields stretched out for miles, there were thousands of butterflies. I strongly associate butterflies with my other daughters who’d died in the other accident, Melissa and Wendy. I knew I had to find a place that did tattoos and we only had three days before coming home.

‘One of the girls found a tattooist, up, up, up above a bar totally in the open. She turned out to be an Australian. And she did a beautiful job.

‘What I noticed was that I felt a sense of urgency to get that tattoo done. It was about the connection to the country of Cambodia and the collective suffering of the people. It meant so much more that I was able to have it done there.

Tattoos a love project - butterflies

Motherhood, life from a place of heart and survival

Annie: Can you talk about the tattoos as part of your imaginative life you two?

Chris:  I love them. It gives me a sense of difference. No one has these marks. My stories are unique. No one has the same story. Though my sister and my niece have the same tattoos they have different stories as the aunt and cousin. The artistry tells the story on my body.

Danielle: I identify with that – mine makes me feel different. When I had it done I felt I’d become part of the secret club of people who have tattoos. I’ve got an idea that I’ll have more done. I picture flowers threading through it. Mum’s favourite flowers. Poppies, she loved poppies. Violets for my grandmother. The colours of flowers weaving through the black text.

Annie: I’m very touched by your story. One day you’ll be celebrating your mum and your grandmother colourfully, in such a feminine way. Chris, can you talk about the connection that the tattoos create for you?

Chris: People do ask me about them. And there will be a reference to my daughters. I do talk about my daughters a lot. They’ll ask “What’s the meaning of this one?” I wear mid sleeves, I’ve always worn them. The images are on my forearms. I need to be able to see them.

Danielle: I’m surprised how few people ask me about mine … even some of my closest friends. You’re one of the first people to ask me Annie. I see people discreetly try to read it …

Chris: Like I did! …

Danielle: And I just want to say come on, you can ask about it!

‘For me it’s a lot to do with motherhood – in relation to my own mother, and to my daughter, and me as a mother. Mum was so important to me. She really did turn me into someone who loves writing and literature.’

Annie: Chris if you were with someone who’d experienced traumatic loss what might you say to them about getting a tattoo?

‘I’d encourage it. It’s not for everyone of course, but I’d say ‘Do it!’ because I love them. They’re a statement of … they’re almost like battle scars. Even though they’re pretty pictures they’re not. They’re battle scars. Not that you need to have something visible and tangible to remember someone you’ve lost. The big guys I work with in prison know. They’ll say, “You’re a warrior, you’re a fighter.”

‘The purpose that grew for me from the death of the girls is something that’s led me into all sorts of different experiences. My girls all died in road accidents that could have been avoided. My purpose is to let people know that.

‘The tattoos are very very personal and heartfelt. It’s almost like there’s a need for a bit of pain also when you’re making your way through such difficult times. There’s value in a tattoo. You have to pay good money for one. It’s an investment. It’s going to be there forever. You want it to be the best it can be.’

Annie: Danielle I meet quite a few people at events that I run who are or have been obsessed with death. It’s troubled them deeply. What would you say to them about your experience of getting your tattoo?

‘Well I don’t know if a tattoo would cure an existential crisis! But it’s a gesture that says you’re not alone. Maybe no one understands, but you’re not alone. My fear of death really took a toll on me. I had to move through it.

‘These words represent the only way I’ve found to be at peace with the fact that we’re all hurtling towards the inevitable. You have to live now. This moment will pass, and you have to accept that in its good and its bad sense. This will change. There’s the timelessness of that. Time can become such an enemy … you have to accept that it’s going to get you.

Chris: When you’re young death is such an unknown …

Danielle: And we don’t talk about it in our culture. Annie does, but we don’t talk about it. No wonder young people feel alone with that.

Chris: I’m not afraid of death now and I think that’s because I’ve had so much death around me. Mum, Dad, my girls, now my brother. It doesn’t frighten me. It’s given me life in a sense, or an appreciation of life. My life comes from a place of heart and also a place of survival. I have three choices – I can continue with purpose, end it sooner, or live in the wreckage. I do what I do – and it’s hard work – it’s the choice I make.

Wrapping up

Annie: So there’s just one thing I want to say … Danielle, I hope that you do those flowers around the words. I can see just see it …

Chris: Oh yes Danielle do! What you described is so beautiful. I can see it too. Do it, it’s all your journey.

Annie: Even if you just do some work on the design for the moment … that could be so enjoyable … looking at all the books in which people have represented flowers. It could take ages.

Danielle: It could! And, wow it’s three o’clock already, I must get going to pick up my daughter.

Annie: Oh Chris and Danielle, thanks so much, it’s been such a rich conversation. And do you want to take some basil from the garden?