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Tattoos are increasingly a popular way to acknowledge trauma or pay tribute to the dead, a place, or a life-changing event. For survivors of Hurricane Katrina and other disasters, tattoos are becoming a form of storytelling and a tool of coping and healing, according to a UT cultural geographer.

“Tom” and his family barely survived flooding from Hurricane Katrina so he marked his trauma in the Ninth Ward with a tattoo that mimics the rescue X graffiti symbol inscribed on many houses by first responders. Photograph by Glenn Gentry and Derek Alderman, October 2006.

August 29 marks the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall, which brought destruction and loss of life in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast. In the days and weeks following the disaster, residents began inking their experience and connection to the city onto their bodies.

“Given that the recovery from Katrina has been socially and geographically uneven depending on race, ethnicity, income, and neighborhood, the legacy of Katrina ten years later may mean that these tattoos mark stories, memories, and trauma that are still rather fresh and emotionally charged for many,” said Derek Alderman, professor and head of the UT Department of Geography. “By having the tattoo and constantly telling and retelling the stories and experiences that led to that tattoo, they probably relive and remember those times on a day-to-day basis.”

Alderman, a cultural and historical geographer, partnered with former student Glen Gentry, who traveled to New Orleans a year after the storm to interview residents about their Katrina-related tattoos. The interviews eventually became a book chapter titled “Trauma Written in Flesh: Tattoos as Memorials and Stories.”

fleur-de-lis tattoo
When “Brock” evacuated New Orleans, he did not know if he would return. The crawfish and fleur-de-lis tattoo was his way of expressing place attachment and remembering the city and what it meant to him. Photograph by Glenn Gentry and Derek Alderman, October 2006.

“People were reduced to these images of victims on TV and the city was reduced to statistics about loss of life and flooding,” said Alderman, who undertook the project while a professor at East Carolina University. “Our work was a way of humanizing people and trying to unpack and tell some of their stories. We interpreted these tattoos as forms of memory making and storytelling.”

A decade later the tattoos, although living memorials of Katrina, can also be a coping mechanism, Alderman said.

“How do we come to terms with traumatic and tragic events?” he asked. “It’s not always about internalizing all this. It can be about expressing it in a personal and public way. The tattoos can serve as a memory trigger device to the person who wears them of their life story and what that person has been through.”

Alderman and Gentry’s book chapter on the tattoo memorials is available online.



Lola Alapo (865-974-3993,