Ellen Lives on in Kate's Ink

Last week I saw this tattoo walking down 7th Avenue. I handed a flier to Kate, to whom this tattoo belongs. She e-mailed me later that day to say she liked the blog and expressed a willingness to share her tattoos here. We met the next day to talk about her ink.

Her first and second tattoos were actually inked on the same day last June. First was this piece on her left wrist:


"So," I asked Kate, "who's Ellen?"

"That's my sister Ellen's actual signature," Kate replied, "I got this a couple of days before her funeral."

Hold on a second.

"What?" I was shocked.

And then she told me what happened.

A year ago today (June 16, 2007), Ellen Aquino died tragically in North Carolina, from injuries sustained in a car accident. She was killed by another motorist who fell asleep at the wheel, crossed the center divider, and hit her head-on.

Two days before the funeral, Kate and two other friends went into Physical Graffiti Tattoo Studio in Rochester, New York, and each had the tattoo inked. Kate got it on her left wrist, one of her friends got it on the ankle, and the other got it on her foot.

The piece replicated Ellen's signature, along with a heart, and is a poignant memorial to Kate's sister.

But she did not stop there. At the same time that the signature was inked, Kate had four lines from "First Day of My Life" by Bright Eyes inscribed above her outer right ankle:


I've embedded the video here so one can hear the song:



"It's typically a love song," Kate says, but the lyrics are particularly resonant:
Yours is the first face that I saw
I think I was blind before I met you...
as Ellen's face would have been the first one she saw in this world. Because, Kate explained, Ellen was her identical twin, born ten minutes before her.

If I was stunned when this young woman of twenty-six told me she had just buried her sister last year, I was even more shocked when she told me it was her twin. I can barely imagine the grief of losing a sibling, but an identical twin? It was unfathomable to me.

Yet here was a vibrant young woman, talking to me in Greeley Square, showing me these tattoos based in tragedy, yet I could sense the strength that they gave her.

Her third tattoo was the heart with wings (pictured at the top of the post). It was tattooed at Extreme Graphix Tattoo Ink in Rochester. People always told her that Ellen was her guardian angel, and this piece represents the manifestation of that ongoing relationship.

Kate had shown me three tattoos, but she had told me she had four. I was thinking it might be one that I couldn't photograph, as I didn't see any other visible ink. Then, another Tattoosday first, she unveiled her fourth tattoo:

I was certainly not expecting an inner-lip tattoo. Kate joked, "Yeah, it's pretty hard-core". Wow. "Did it hurt?" I asked. She shook her head, "Not at all". So what's the deal with the word "LIVE" tattooed inside her lower lip?

As if she hadn't made me think enough, she continued to give me chills. "I got this on my last birthday," and I knew immediately why it was significant. Kate and Ellen had celebrated twenty-five consecutive birthdays together. And this one was the first that she would spend without her twin, for the rest of her life. Again, I cannot begin to imagine the emotions she was experiencing on what is supposed to be a happy day.

This was done at Love Hate Tattoo, also in Rochester. "It's a reminder to myself that I'm still here," Kate explained.

Via a series of e-mails I gleaned some additional details.

First, Kate offered up a link to Ellen's online obituary here. I also came across this tribute at a camp for handicapped children where Ellen worked for many summers. Her short life showed an amazing commitment to kids with special needs and a selfless commitment to helping educate others.

I was curious to know what Kate's parents thought of her tattoos and she replied:

My parents like my tattoos, they think they're nice, but would never want any for themselves. The only thing they told me in the beginning, in the midst of their grief was "don't get anything on your face." My grandmother however (she's in her 70's) *loves* my tattoos, and cried the first time she read the one on my ankle. I actually took her to get her own memorial tattoo (her first & probably last tattoo) in October, and she's quite proud of it.
I must say that Kate was amazingly resilient a few days shy of such a tragic anniversary. I cannot even begin to imagine the difficulty she and her family have undergone over the past year.

I thank Kate for sharing her and Ellen's story here. Tattoos are transforming, therapeutic emblems that not only help one heal, but also help one live beyond the healing.

I hope that Kate continues to find strength in her ink, and I look forward to her checking back in with us here at Tattoosday. Our thoughts and prayers go out to her family. Please know that it is and will continue to be an honor to host Kate's tattoos (end Ellen's memory) here.

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