Beyond Death: Preserving the Tattoos of Those Who Pass On

Beyond Death: Preserving the Tattoos of Those Who Pass On

Ink is not forever...or is it? In this article we take a look at different organizations preserving tattoos for one reason or another.

For most of us our tattoos mean a great deal. They are depictions of our greatest loves, they are moments and memories encapsulated. It’s not just time and money we have devoted to the ink on our bodies...for some, the art they carry on their skin through this lifetime is indicative of their passion and their literally wearing your heart on your sleeve.

So, it’s an interesting thought: if we spend so much time, money, sweat, and soul on our tattoos, isn’t it a shame to let them die with us? Not only for ourselves and our loved ones, but for the creator of the work as well? 

It’s not an issue that plagues other visual artists, really. But with tattooists, obviously once a collector passes on, so too does the tattoo. Their portfolio is organic: living, breathing, and ultimately dying. Even Ganga, a well-known tattoo artist who has worked with Drake and Chris Brown, says he started looking for ways to make his art last. In a recent interview about his new hyperrealist Dali portrait on a giant swath of synthetic skin, he said, “I’ve been thinking through these last months what to do to keep a piece of my art for eternity because tattoos will always disappear with the person who has them once he dies so I decided to do this piece.” Imaginative, and ultimately a show stopping work of art, this approach may work for some tattooists, but what about the collectors?

Well, thankfully for some, there’s a service that will preserve your tattoo long after you’re gone. And though it’s not a new idea, it’s certainly still up for debate. A few years ago Vice covered the topic saying, “As fashion choices, tattoos are fairly permanent. But compared with other works of art, tattoos are ephemeral, doomed to decay as their hosts' skin wrinkles and, when they die, be burned or buried along with them. Tattoos can cost thousands of dollars and mark major life milestones, but unlike paintings, you'll never be able to bequeath them to your descendants. No one showcases old tattoos in their home.” Not true. Meet Charles Hamm, founder of the organization called the National Association for the Preservation of Skin Art.

He started the company in 2015. Before then, he had the idea to start preserving peoples tattoos, but needed to make sure that the special embalming process would work. Going to a plastic surgeon, Charles planned on removing some extra skin he could experiment with. The doctor drew circles around the removal area, Charles got tattooed within the confines of the circles, then had the skin removed and the tattoos preserved. Thankfully, the exploration was a success and he moved forward with his idea to the satisfaction of many happy customers.

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The process went viral when Chris Wenzel, an avid tattoo collector, passed on this last October. Succumbing to heart failure at 41 after battling ulcerative colitis for years, he left behind his wife Cheryl and their five sons. His last dying wish? To have his tattoos saved. Chris discovered the Cleveland-based organization Save My Ink Forever, and decided that this was the answer to his prayers. His tattoo collection is also the largest body of work that they have preserved. 

“The company, owned by Michael and Kyle Sherwood, works with funeral homes in the US, the UK, and Canada to preserve the tattoos of people who have died, as a memorial for their loved ones. The father and son [are] both embalmers and funeral directors.” 

Their website is full of praise and positive testimonials such as this sweet sentiment by one of their clients, Dawn, “My husband and I thought long and hard on this before his death. He would have LOVED how his art turned out after preservation and framing. He was a well known artist in our community and tattoos were a passion for him....They will forever be cherished by our family.”

To the Sherwood’s, the idea of putting a preserved tattoo on the mantelpiece is akin to putting an urn of ashes in the same spot, although the process is a bit more convoluted. Kyle Sherwood, a third generation mortician, explained a bit about how Save My Ink works, "Being embalmers we were at least familiar with the concept of preserving tissue..But with the embalming, that process isn't permanent, as much as we'd like it to be. So we started doing some research and blended a few techniques together. It was trial and error." Taking about three months to complete, the finished product comes with UV protective glass and your choice of frame.

Of course, in a situation like this, much like the famed Everence debacle, there is a lot of debate, opinions, and tense conversations that surround the topic and practice. With Everence, clients are able to merge the DNA of a loved one with the ink used for their tattoo. It’s all somewhat morbid but Everence, Save My Ink, and even the initial process of getting an actual tattoo, are all, in effect, aiming to do the exact same thing: we’re trying to physically keep our memories, our deepest loves, with us always in one way or another. And though each of these techniques for preservation may bring up some questions about ethics, the key with ethics is usually consent. None of these are a perfect fit for everyone, but it will be for those that wholeheartedly choose it.  

It’s also important to note that not only does this service help families cope with the loss of a loved one, it could actually be extremely important to tattoo culture and history. Not only creative powerhouses within the contemporary tattoo industry, but there are possibly people out there who still have tattoos that were done by such legends like Sailor Jerry, Mildred Hull, or Bert Grimm. What an incredible opportunity it would be to save examples of their work, literally, in the flesh.

The same could be said for Japanese tattooing. At The Medical Pathology Museum at Tokyo University, they have been bequeathed a large collection of  preserved tattooed skin with absolutely incredible examples of traditional Irezumi. This is in thanks to Dr. Masaichi Fukushi, born in 1878 and died 1956, who was the originator of collecting tattooed skins after the owners had passed on. “His research on the subject of human skin, from 1907, brought him into contact with many people that had tattoos. He therefore became interested in 1926 in the art of Japanese tattoos, led autopsies on corpses, removed the skin and did research on methods to preserve the skin. In the following years he collected an archive of about 2000 "hides" and 3000 photographs which were lost in 1945, during World War II.”

These preserved bodysuits could easily be held as an example that not only is tattooing an integral part of the folk art culture of Japan, but that the notion of illegality repressing any artistic expression as valid is absolutely ridiculous. Although legal issues plague Japanese tattoo artists, they continue to uphold this important cultural tradition. The skins that are part of this particular collection show a history of Japanese tattooing that is not often seen or readily supported. Almost as fascinating as the designs, techniques, and examples of Japanese iconography within these preserved pieces, is Dr. Fukushi’s devotion to the project. “Fukushi would remove the tattooed skin off of donated bodies and preserve them and keep them stretched in a glass case. He would also offer to pay for people that couldn’t afford to get their full body tattoos finished on the condition that they would allow him to skin their bodies upon their death and preserve the tattoos.”

Incredibly enough, the collection in Tokyo isn't the only one. Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland and the Medical University in Wroclaw has amassed a selection of stick and poke prison tattoos that visual artist Katarzyna Mirczak decided to photograph as part of a statement on multiple social issues. Her photographs of the skins, preserved with formaldehyde and kept in glass jars, also capture, beautifully, the symbolism and concepts of the artists who created these tattoos. Much like the Chicano aesthetic, there is an extensive iconographic universe that links to many heavy cultural connections for Polish prisoners. Although these images only hint at the psychological and social conditions of these people, the specimens, and Mirczak's project, help provide insight into this particular sector of tattooing history.

In the end, just like a tattoo itself, it’s up to the individual to decide whether or not they want their skin saved, and up to the family to decide whether or not to display it. 

Looking at the images of Save My Ink Forever’s finished work, the tattoos end up looking like vintage flash sheets rather than any horrific Ed Gein concoction.  I asked my dad if he would keep my tattooed skin and he said he much preferred a nice photograph...I also questioned some friends of mine what they thought and their reactions were similar. “Nice photograph yes, a slab of your Nana’s wrinkly tramp” For those with full bodysuits, “You’d be like a tiger skin rug”. They mentioned that not only would a photograph work just as well, but perhaps there could even be a digital or virtual way to save the piece. That option would certainly make the process, and tattoo, more it would save on wall space. Imagine preserving yourself, tattoos and all, with a holographic device?

But, for now, if you’re looking to help preserve the history and culture of tattooing, want to make a statement through a possible heirloom, or just simply would like to keep a part of your loved one with you for always, this may be the option you’ve been looking for.

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