Symbols of hope, remembering a loved one, an adopted son, overcoming trauma: people with tattoos tell Patrick Freyne the story behind their body art
Recently Kim Harte and her sister Tarah got identical tattoos of spoons on their left upper arms. The meaning of these tattoos would not be obvious to strangers. Last February their father, after a period of illness with cancer, was given only days to live, and Kim and Tarah were permit…….
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Recently Kim Harte and her sister Tarah got identical tattoos of spoons on their left upper arms. The meaning of these tattoos would not be obvious to strangers. Last February their father, after a period of illness with cancer, was given only days to live, and Kim and Tarah were permitted to spend time with him in the hospital (visits had previously been restricted due to Covid).
“The priority was just to keep him comfortable at that stage,” says Kim. “He was unconscious a lot of the time. Even though he was taken off all the machines and he wasn’t eating or drinking, they’d still bring little pots of jelly or yoghurt and leave it on the table tray. And we went in on the Wednesday and he was just lying in the bed looking really peaceful just sort of cradling this spoon… We were shattered and it was all so sombre and grim and sad, but we just saw him with this spoon and we started laughing… There was something about the way he was holding it and the expression on his face. He just looked so like peaceful and comforted.”
Sisters Kim and Tarah Harte. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
He died on Good Friday. Kim kept the spoon. They couldn’t have a proper funeral, couldn’t sit around a pub reminiscing about him with his friends, so they decided, “let’s get tattoos” .
They sent a picture to talented tattoo artist Dev Fay so she could work up a sketch for a “hand poke” tattoo (done by hand rather than with a tattoo gun). Kim had had a tattoo before. She describes it as “a piece-of-shit dragon tattoo” and laughs. “I was delighted with myself at the time, but it didn’t take very long before I was like ‘oh my god. That’s really lame’. It’s not even well done.”
Every time that I see the tattoo, it makes me smile and it’s weirdly comforting
This tattoo feels very different. Few people have asked her about it but she recently explained it to a colleague. “She started crying. I thought, ‘oh God, I should have warned her that it’s actually a really sad story’.”
Was getting the tattoo cathartic?
“The process itself wasn’t but there’s a week when you’re applying salve onto it. Weirdly, for me that was very emotional. I suppose I was looking for healing in an emotional sense and as [the tattoo] was healing there were a few days when I’d be putting salve on it and I was kind …….