Tattoos are often perceived as being merely things one puts on their body in an effort to be unique or rebel against the conventional. Unfortunately, those who prescribe to this doctrine miss the underlying meaning of the tattoo itself and to the individual. Tattoos have the power to connect- - connect to another person or connect to time.
A friend of mine recently got a tattoo; actually she finally completed the tattoo. 0riginally, she had a single clover on her wrist. She got it while she was abroad with a friend of hers and in some ways felt it was incomplete. When she returned home, she added more to the tattoo, including two additional symbols in a band across her wrist. The explanation of the tattoo is simple. The clover represents her time she spent in Ireland; the medical symbol represents the health affliction she has had to live with and will continue to live with; and the turtle represents the farm her family used to live on. When she told me about the tattoo, I thought, “Oh, that’s really nice. At least you got one that means something rather than something random just for the sake of getting a tattoo.” But after reading, Figiel I began to think about my friend’s tattoo and it’s connection with history and time.
Figiel’s Those Who Do Not Grieve places a strong emphasis on history, the mark it leaves on individuals and how their lives are subsequently affected by their history. When we think about history, we often connote it with the past. The present and the future, however, also make up history. My friend’s tattoo is made up of three objects that represent the past, the present, and the future- - my friend’s history. Similarly, in the story, the tattoo is symbolic of history of the three generations of women. Each generation, however, has a different relationship with the tattoo and thus the tattoo affects their lives differently. Figiel uses the technique of repetition to convey this theme. Throughout the text, there are certain words that are repeated three times. For example, Apa spends time describing how a Pacific Islander works in a different country and how the overalls their job forces them to wear are “stained with sweat, stained with blood, stained with a history of submission” (207). These repetitions are symbolic of the tattooing process, which is a painful process, but at a certain point the pain becomes a numbness and meditative like a prayer. The tattoo artist states, “Every action associated with the tattoo was a prayer. Is a prayer” (248). Here, we see the elements of history in terms of the change in verb tense from past to present. More importantly is the emphasis on prayer.
Further along in his perception of tattooing, he states that the tattoo is, “A prayer that is prayed not for the one undergoing the tattoo itself, but a prayer that is prayed for the whole ‘aiga, the whole family, the village, the district, the country” (248). The tattoo connects the individual with their community and the process is almost like a sacrificial offering or prayer for the community. Through this connection, the individual is connected to their history and possesses the ability to grow and learn from history, just as Malu does at the end of the book. She perpetuates the family history by having a child outside of wedlock and outside of the culture, but changes her history by decided she will not let the grief that has intoxicated the women in her family affect her life.
Figiel describes the tattoo as a mark of history and a mark of truth. The previous generations of women are so consumed with the grief associated with the tattoo that they are unable to move forward. Their history in a sense is constructed of the past and present, with no hope of the future. Malu, however, completes the cycle. She represents the future. Malu has changed the meaning of the tattoo and as a result, changed her history and her truth.