Lynnette Carey spent most of her first trip to New York City working in the ICU.
In April, Carey traveled from Texas for a five-month stint working at the Brooklyn VA Medical Center during the peak of the pandemic. "It was unreal," she told Insider. "Patients would pass, and as soon as we could get that patient into the morgue or the truck, we would get another one."
In August, she decided to commemorate her experience with an indelible reminder: a tattoo of a nurse supporting a suffering Statue of Liberty, covering the outside of her left calf. The image, by artist Olga Gouralnik, is adapted from an illustration that appeared on an April cover of the New York Daily News with the headline "Torch Bearers."
When Carey saw the way New York was suffering in March, she felt that she had to assist however she could. The tattoo, she said, was a way to remember the experience "in a positive way, where I can look back and be proud of what I did to help."
As the world has shakily emerged from lockdowns, COVID-19-related imagery has become a growing niche in the tattoo world.
Stoic nurses like Carey, masks, toilet paper, 17th-century plague doctors, Corona beers, and even the spiky virus particle itself have all become symbols of the pandemic, representing everything from the sacrifices of frontline workers to the strangeness of this moment itself.
While it might seem counterintuitive to get a permanent marker of a global health crisis on your body, there's a deep connection between tattooing, personal storytelling, and trauma.
After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans tattoo artists reported a surge in requests for tattoos related to the storm, from images of the city skyline to banners listing the names of victims.
The semicolon tattoo has become a symbol of solidarity and perseverance against depression and suicidal thoughts. Mastectomy tattoos are used by patients to cover scars from the procedure, and to feel empowered by turning the experience into a piece of art. For sexual assault survivors, tattoos can be a declaration of agency over their bodies.
Everett Painter, an assistant professor of counseling, school psychology, and special education at Edinboro University, has studied the relationship between trauma and tattoo acquisition.
Tattoos, Painter told Insider, "can give people some kind of control over what they've been through It brings people some comfort in a way, just to be reminded 'I've dealt with this, I've overcome it, and it doesn't control me anymore.' It doesn't define who I am.'"
Tattoo artist and owner Bobby Petraglia wearing protective face mask tattoos a client at Skin Deep Tattoo as the city continues Phase 4 of re-opening following restrictions imposed to slow the spread of coronavirus on August 20, 2020 in Uniondale, New York. Mike Pont/Getty
He's also found that the physical element of a tattoo can also be a source of comfort. "I've talked to people who have tattoos on their arms or wrists, for example, and as they talk about it they'll be touching it, or rubbing their wrist. It becomes this physical thing, in terms of being a part of their body and bringing them comfort."
Deborah Davidson, an associate professor of sociology at Toronto's York University and author of The Tattoo Project, has focused her research specifically on commemorative tattoos, and the many reasons people choose to get them.
"Tattoos help people make, remake, and share meaning," Davidson said. "They serve as a way to integrate trauma into one's life in a way that demonstrates choice for the bearer." According to Davidson's research, between 50 and 80 percent of tattoos, depending on the age group, are commemorative.
Bubba Nicholson, who lives in Hamilton, Ontario and works in the cannabis industry, has a coronavirus-themed tattoo on the inside of his right arm. It depicts a plague doctor mask above prayer hands holding sanitizer, with the words "What doesn't kill us makes us stranger" in between.
Nicholson said it was a way to both playfully mark the weirdness of this moment and to remember the lessons he hopes to carry from it.
The beaked plague doctor mask was inspired by his reading about the bubonic plague during lockdown, and the prayer hands are meant to help him remember to be grateful and generous, global pandemic or not. Nicholson said that he and his partner, who lost her job during lockdown, have started giving food to unhoused people in their community.
"I'm always gonna remember this period of time, where I've seen so much disintegrate around me, and from a personal, mental standpoint, found myself so much stronger," he told Insider.
Marcus Broome, a tattoo artist and owner of the Deptford studio Kids Love Ink in London, created several COVID-related flash designs that have been doing well with customers.
"I thought it would be a good idea to do traditional pieces but involving something that's affecting all of us," he told Insider. The designs are a classic take on tattoo motifs: a woman with a flower in her hair and a surgical mask on her face; a dagger piercing a coronavirus particle.
In the first several weeks after the studio reopened in July, 15 customers got these flash images.
"Not to trivialize it, but I think the majority of them are approaching this with a bit of humor, and that's how we get through trying times," he said. He's given the virus-vanquishing dagger to an ambulance crew as well as to his girlfriend, who worked for the London Ambulance Service and fell ill with the coronavirus. "I think with [the healthcare workers], it was kind of like, f it we're the COVID-slayers."
The classic images Broome referenced in his designs bold black lines, a limited color palette echo the art form's historic connection to earth-shattering events. Their visual style, American Traditional, became popular among World War II soldiers in the 1940s.Tattoos could be a way to commemorate places fallen comrades and places they'd traveled, or or maintain traditions and superstitions.
Amid the 1,634 photos under the #covidtattoo hashtag on Instagram are many pieces featuring a masked nurse's face, often poised over a rose, or surrounded by flowers.
This design descends from another tattoo tradition that originated during World War I: "The Rose of No Man's Land," the title of a song released in 1918, as a tribute to the nurses on the front lines of the war (and the Spanish Flu).
Sheet music cover image of 'The Rose of No Man's Land' by Jack Caddigan and James A Brennan Sheridan Libraries/Levy/Gado/Getty
The lyrics portrayed the nurses as nourishing roses, who would retrieve wounded soldiers from the treacherous "no man's land" between enemy trenches. One version of the sheet music cover art featured a nurse's head inside a rose, and as the song became more widespread during and after World War II, it inspired a popular tattoo motif.
You can see traces of this historic image on the arm of Janine Llamzon, a director of nursing and system operations in the emergency department at a tristate area hospital, also ravaged by the pandemic this spring.
As soon as Magic Cobra Tattoo Society, a parlor in Brooklyn, re-opened, Llamzon made an appointment. With the studio owner and artist Todd "Woodz" Woodward, she developed an image of a masked nurse surrounded by a halo of light, with a hibiscus flower in her hair, referencing her Filipino and Polynesian descent.
Getting tattoos while traveling are Llamzon's version of "refrigerator magnets," and reminders of various moments in her life. "The COVID experience showcased the power of the nurse," Llamzon said. "There were a lot of moments with the sickest patients, it was the nurse who was there 24/7, caring for them.
A lot of the patients didn't have families, so we were the family. There's a lot of pain and suffering, but also at the same time, it's devotion and passion towards what we do, so we tried to put that in visual form."
For Llamzon, the physical act of getting the tattoo was also a healing moment and exercise in mindfulness. "I don't want to sound like I enjoyed the pain, but it just allowed me to be quiet and still with my artist," she said.
For others, even if the tattoo's design isn't related to COVID-19, the act of getting one can provide much-needed relief, a means of commemorating an extraordinary period of time. Woodz happily reported that the shop has been "slammed" since reopening.
"It's a therapeutic session for a lot of people," he said. "You know, when you leave a tattoo shop, you're literally a new person."
Lauren Vespoli is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor who focuses on culture and history. You can find her on Twitter @L_Vespoli.
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