Tattoos have been a part of human history for thousands of years and are still evolving.

Tattoos were originally made to commemorate specific rites of passage—rituals that mark changes in spiritual and social status. They are now so mainstream that we don’t often think of them as worthy of scholarly research. But Deborah Davidson, assistant professor and undergraduate program coordinator in York’s Department of Sociology, does. Her interest lies specifically in commemorative tattoos, and she’s creating a digital database of them.

One of Davidson’s main areas of research is dying, death, and bereavement. She found that people commonly memorialize their lost loved ones through tattoos. She also discovered that despite their popularity, there was no archive to display such tattoos, so she decided to create one herself.

For this undertaking, Davidson recruited a team of librarians, computer scientists, memory studies experts, a photographer, and U of T’s own Dave Mazierski, a specialist in biomedical communications. Mazierski has a series of tattoos the same as those found on a 2,500-year-old Bronze Age mummy from the Scythian tribe. He’s also been on the Canadian history show Museum Secrets.

Davidson’s personal interest in commemorative tattoos comes with a tragic personal story. She gave birth to two premature babies who died shortly after, and as was hospital policy, her babies were taken from her immediately. She was told to go home and forget about them. But that’s not the way bereavement works, she says. She did go home, but she refused to forget about her children. Five years ago, Davidson decided to get a tattoo of a butterfly in memory of her “butterfly babies”. The butterfly commonly serves as a symbol for those who’ve passed on, and is often placed on hospital doors to signal grief after a mother has lost a newborn.

Since its inception, the archive project has evolved to include depictions of living loved ones, life events, memories, and even pets. Anything goes for Davidson and the database project so long as the tattoo bearer considers it commemorative. The project has garnered much attention—and funding along with it. Davidson plans to put together a focus group of people with commemorative tattoos and use their input to shape a website.

The website that the team envisions will include various perspectives on commemorative tattoos. It’s important to them that the site employ privacy policies different from social networking sites, where users give up ownership of their images upon uploading.

The team also wants users to be able to include narratives as text, audio, or video. This way, the database is a social tool: it allows anyone to contribute to scholarship while making their own meaning from it. Comments on images won’t be allowed, and only the tattooed will be able to decide whether their tattoo is commemorative. Above all, the site is about the meaning that they give their own tattoo.

As a public sociologist, Davidson strives to connect and collaborate with the online community. She strongly believes that this database will be something people can get involved with. Relations will be fostered between academics and the public and the knowledge shared across disciplines.

If you’re interested in learning more about the ongoing project and how to contribute to it, you can contact Deborah Davidson and her team at [email protected]