CookiesThis site uses cookies to offer you a better browsing experience. Read our privacy policy to learn more
Beyond Death: Preserving the Tattoos of Those Who Pass On

Beyond Death: Preserving the Tattoos of Those Who Pass On

Lifestyle7 min Read

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? 

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.

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. 

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.

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.

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.”

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. 

Justine Morrow
Written byJustine Morrow

Social Producer, Journalist, Editor, and Curator for Tattoodo I am here to support you 🌻 IG: @lathe.of.heaven

Find tattoo artists and tattoo shops in top cities