The Death Letter Project
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Megan Oliver | Tattooist

Aniccā vata saṇkhārā upadāvaya dhammino: Impermanent truly are all compounded things, arising and passing away by nature.

“Each day I am less the peach, more the skull”, I wrote in my diary as a teenager. Decay is the only constant. And how brief the span of time that the face we wear is that sweet but decaying peach - compared to the aeons our skull might last in an ossuary or catacomb. Of the two, then, the skull must surely be our true face. But this is too outlandish a notion, it jars the way we conceive reality as we flit like butterflies across the span of our years.

As a tattooer I encounter peoples’ reactions to what they perceive as the “permanency” of the tattoo. Some ask if I am not unnerved by the precision involved in making such a permanent mark. Some become themselves disquieted by its permanence. To me it seems apparent that the tattoo is actually one of the most ephemeral of media. A carefully preserved painting could be admired by generations: unless your hide is nicely cured, that’s not going to be the destiny of your tattoo.

And yet the perception of the individual wearer is that their tattoo is quite permanent!

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This tallies with the state of delusion in which we comfortably abide – about what is death, sure, but even more about what is life. Reality depends on the point of view of the observer.  Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians were 5th dimensional beings who saw a human as a long centipede-like creature with a baby’s legs at one end and old person’s legs at the other.

The Eames’ “Powers of Ten” demonstrates that the large amounts of nothingness that make up the universe are paralleled by the large amounts of nothingness that make up a human being. Vast areas of empty space surge between our atoms.

We appear to be solid, separate entities, but the longer I sit with it the more I begin to suspect that what we are is closer to a deeply interconnected series of processes in constant flux. This I is something like a dust devil, a loosely cohesive pillar of particles that whirls for a time while the conditions are right and then inevitably, at some point, ceases to whirl. On a microcosmic level we arise and pass away over and over, winking in and out of existence many thousands of times per moment.

Megan Oliver in her previous studio at Inner Vision Tattoo & Piercing, Sydney.

That which we term Death may be only a more consummate interlude in a flow that has continued throughout our existence. What ultimately occurs at the end of the process of decay that we term Life? Perhaps viewing death as different from life is like trying to see the down slope of a wave as separate from its crest.

“I am of the nature to decay, I have not gone beyond decay. I am of the nature to be diseased, I have not gone beyond disease. I am of the nature to die, I have not gone beyond death. All that is mine, dear and delightful, will change and vanish.” – Daily Recollections

These are observable, universal facts and completely natural processes.

And yet - despite repeatedly observing these facts and contemplating these truths - the ego is a stubborn and persistent entity and the delusion runs deep. We believe, or would like to believe, that we are solid, permanent and somehow immortal.

Yes, yes, all right, conditioned things are transitory, but when it’s MY dog that gets run over or MY bestie who is killed instantly in a car crash, MY mate who dies alone in a police station cell or MY good old pal who is diagnosed with terminal cancer then the bottom drops out of my world nonetheless.

Perhaps the clue is in the “MY”: Death happens all the time but we are not necessarily perturbed by it. It is the attachment, the “MY”, that causes the suffering, not the death.


Editor's note: Originally born in New Zealand, Megan Oliver has been practicing the art of tattooing since the early 1990s, beginning her apprenticeship in London, before settling in Sydney. She tattoos at Little Tokyo in Surry Hills. Further reading... 

The Death Letter Project welcomes your comments and feedback. Please feel free to leave a comment on our Facebook page or alternatively submit a message below.

  • Megan Oliver - Tattooist, beautiful piece.. transported me across time and inside a fluid bodies xxxxx - Stella Topaz (Facebook)
     
  • Love the images too and what a great ending sentence! Perfect. - Helen Dunne (Facebook)
     
  • Fantastic images and interesting thoughts. - Rosada Hayes (Facebook)
     
  • A very good one. She’s someone I’d like to meet. - Peter Banki (Facebook)
     
  • Wonderful - Shane Bailey (Facebook)
     
  • What a great photo. - michael-gray-griffith (Instagram)