At age three, Kyle Sherwood was given eight weeks to live. Headed home from the hospital, he and his parents stopped at a roadside diner; it was the first time the toddler had expressed hunger in days. There, Kyle was visited by a roaming spirit. Appearing in the guise of a gentle old man, the spirit sat Kyle on his lap and fed him strawberries before dematerializing in a vacant lot. Neither Kyle nor his parents were able to rationalize the encounter, but they remembered the man’s last words: “He’s going to be just fine.”
It would seem Kyle was destined to deal with death. The now 32-year-old mortician literally inherited the profession that would eventually lead him to embalm his best friend. He knotted his comrade’s tie perfectly before closing the casket, “a last favor” Kyle called it.
A third-generation undertaker, Sherwood, along with his father Michael, reimagined his mortician tools to match the times. After watching countless tattoos burned and buried, they came up with Save My Ink Forever, a company specializing in tattoo preservation.
I spoke with Kyle about the emerging memorial model, how it’s helping tattoo artists further permanentize their work, and why Save My Ink Forever refuses to turn your leg tattoo into a lampshade.
How’s business been?
Crazy. We’ve been filming a documentary called Designer Skin. The film crew basically went all around the world interviewing top tattoo artists and eventually added us in there being we’re the future of tattoo preservation. We also potentially have a reality show in the works.
How’s the pandemic affected things?
The pandemic obviously didn’t stop people from dying, quite the opposite, but it changed how we're able to handle those deaths and serve families. We’re essentially in the service industry, I like to call myself a “morbid party planner,” so we’re not used to saying no. We’ve had to limit the number of people in attendance, visitations are different, and so forth.
As far as tattoo preservation goes, we’re super limited in what we're able to accomplish. For instance, embalmers are less eager to assist with surgical incisions because they’re understandably concerned about the Coronavirus.
Let's rewind a little bit. Explain what you guys do…
Save My Ink Forever started in 2016 and is the only company in the world specializing in post-mortem tattoo preservation. When someone passes away, their family member(s) or the funeral home contact us. From there, we send the next of kin our authorization form.
The only company in the world? How does the work you do differ from, say, the work of Dr. Fukushi Masaichi, the Japanese pathologist who preserved bodysuits?
We’re the only company that does it commercially. Dr. Fukushi Masaichi preserved tattoos, but he wasn’t shipping them back to families. To clarify, we are not the originators or inventors of this practice, we’re just the first ones to introduce it to western civilization.
Got it. So, what does the Save My Ink Forever authorization form entail?
It grants us permission to excise skin for the purpose of preservation. There's an anatomical guide, so if someone wants a right tattoo sleeve preserved, they circle the right arm on the anatomical guide and leave a brief description to ensure no mix-ups.
Once the tattoo is surgically excised at the funeral home, it’s placed in a preservative kit we provide. Then, our archival frame-worker reaches out to the family to discuss preferences, style, color, etc. The whole process takes roughly three to four months. The larger pieces, like full-body suits, take closer to five to six months.
Does the owner of the tattoo(s) have to give their consent prior to death, or can the next of kin decide to preserve the tattoos postmortem?
Consent isn’t required. Let's say someone walks in and pre-plans a full traditional funeral for themselves: open casket, burial, etc. Once the person passes, the next of kin has the right to say, “I just want to have them cremated.” Let's say, however, a parent with three children passes away. All of them need to sign-off on the tattoo preservation for it to take place.
Have you guys run into any problems?
Mostly just trolls. There are those who disagree with the idea or just don't understand. People have even compared us to serial killers like Ed Gein. But, honestly, I don't care. Nothing we do is performed with malicious intent. We’re just trying to create memorials for grieving families.
Canada isn't a problem now, but when we initially shipped tattoo artist Chris Wenzel’s bodysuit to a convention for a grand unveiling, we almost couldn’t get it there; he was held-up in customs for 17 days. Canada didn’t yet have a preservation category, and they eventually had to rewrite their policy because of us.
What is the largest tattoo you’ve excised?
Chris Wenzel’s excision was probably 80 percent of a full bodysuit, and the only reason we didn't do the full bodysuit is because his wife didn't want to include the unfinished tattoos.
What does something like that cost?
Our pricing starts at $1,599 for a 5x5 inch tattoo and below. That includes everything: the excision, all the shipping, preservation, and archival framing. It roughly goes up $100 per square inch. There’s also a discount for multiple tattoos.
What are some of the more bizarre requests you’ve received?
We’ve had people request their skin be made into a book cover or a lampshade, and we're just like, “No. We're absolutely not doing that.” We don't want to give people who already hate the idea legitimate reasons to feel that way, which is why we won’t excise tattoos from the face or genitals either.
We were also approached by a doctor, or maybe it was a professor, from the UK who wanted a piece of shark skin preserved. Apparently, there was a full tiger shark preserved in a tank of formaldehyde that some hedge fund billionaire paid, like, $12 million for. But I can tell you from my embalming background, preservatives don’t work that way; the formaldehyde will only penetrate so far. So, the shark basically started rotting from the inside out, and when they realized there was a problem, they tried to taxidermy the shark. That didn’t work either. So instead, a few of them just kept pieces of the shark’s skin and one of them wanted us to preserve it.
We also had to turn down a woman asking if we could preserve her husband's heart. I mean, technically we could, but are we going to? No. We’re the worst people to reach out to for things like that because we have the most reasons to stay away.
How many tattoos are you guys preserving annually?
We're doing about 100 to 120 a year, and that number continues rising. Not to mention, we're getting bigger, better pieces.
But tattoos are interesting because they don't have to be great works of art to have meaning. A good example is this father who passed away. The tattoo quality wasn't great, but it was a tattoo of two hearts with his daughters’ names. We were able to cut the tattoo in such a way that each daughter got her part of the heart. It brought me back to middle school; it ended up being kind of like one of those best friend necklaces.
You’re obviously not easily disturbed…
I was running around a funeral home as a child. Let’s put it this way: When I get someone who passed away peacefully in their sleep at 100 years old, that’s a good day at work.
You have a few tattoos yourself. Will you use the service when the time comes?
Yes. My wife and dad jokingly argue over who gets to keep my leg tattoo. As you know, I’m a third-generation embalmer, so what's tattooed on my leg is an embalming instrument called a trocar. All three generations of us have used the same trocar, so I have three of them tattooed on my leg with all three sets of initials: mine, my dad’s, and my granddad's.
This business model seems geared towards the younger generation. Tell me about the oldest tattoo-preservation client you’ve had…
We did business with a 97-year-old man who had an original Sailor Jerry tattoo, and his daughter really understood the value of that Americana.
What’s the ultimate purpose of Save My Ink Forever?
Tattoo artists don’t get the credit they deserve. Some of these men and women are the Picasso's and Michelangelo's of their generation. Aside from creating memorials, we’re trying to maintain the legacy of each tattoo artist. Up until now, their work had to die with the client. Hopefully, someday, people won’t have to just look at pictures of tattoos past, they’ll be able to go to a museum and see actual pieces.