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Etching the pain of COVID into the flesh of survivors

Heidi de Marco, Kaiser Health News on

Published in News & Features

It was Saturday morning at Southbay Tattoo and Body Piercing in Carson, California, and owner Efrain Espinoza Diaz Jr. was prepping for his first tattoo of the day — a memorial portrait of a man that his widow wanted on her forearm.

Diaz, known as “Rock,” has been a tattoo artist for 26 years but still gets a little nervous when doing memorial tattoos, and this one was particularly sensitive. Diaz was inking a portrait of Philip Martin Martinez, a fellow tattoo artist and friend who was 45 when he died of COVID-19 in August.

“I need to concentrate,” said Diaz, 52. “It’s a picture of my friend, my mentor.”

Martinez, known to his friends and clients as “Sparky,” was a tattoo artist of some renown in nearby Wilmington, in Los Angeles’ South Bay region. A tattoo had brought Sparky and Anita together; Sparky gave Anita her first tattoo — a portrait of her father — in 2012, and the experience sparked a romance. Over the years of their relationship, he had covered her body with intertwining roses and a portrait of her mother.

Now his widow, she was getting the same photograph that was etched on Sparky’s tomb inked into her arm. And this would be her first tattoo that Sparky had not applied.

“It feels a little odd, but Rock has been really good to us,” Anita Martinez said. Rock and Sparky “grew up together.” They met in the 1990s, at a time when there were no Mexican American-owned tattoo shops in their neighborhood but Sparky was gaining a reputation. “It was artists like Phil that would inspire a lot of us to take that step into the professional tattoo industry,” Rock said.


After Sparky got sick, Anita wasn’t allowed in her husband’s hospital room, an isolating experience shared by hundreds of thousands of Americans who lost a loved one to COVID-19. They let her in only at the very end.

“I got cheated out of being with him in his last moments,” said Martinez, 43. “When I got there, I felt he was already gone. We never got to say goodbye. We never got to hug.”

“I don’t even know if I’m ever going to heal,” she said, as Diaz began sketching the outlines of the portrait below her elbow, “but at least I’ll get to see him every day.”

According to a 2015 Harris Poll, almost 30% of Americans have at least one tattoo, a 10% increase from 2011. At least 80% of tattoos are for commemoration, said Deborah Davidson, a professor of sociology at York University in Toronto who has been researching memorial tattoos since 2009.


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