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Ashes to ashes to art

The custom of commemorating a lost loved one with some form of body art has been practised in many different cultures for centuries.

And, with one in three people – including numerous celebrities – in the UK now sporting at least one tattoo, and a high proportion of those having several, it’s no wonder that tattoos have a higher profile place in the line-up of memorialisation options nowadays.

For some however, a simple design of dedication is not enough. Some ‘ink-ophiles’ want their tattoo to be even more personal, with the ashes of their departed loved one included in the ink used. Others want to preserve the tattoos of the person they’ve lost even after death.

And both are now possible.

Ash tattoos (dubbed ‘morbid ink’ by one academic) are still considered underground, but they are becoming more popular, as requests for them increase. Many tattoo artists are reluctant to do them, citing ‘unknown’ risks but others say that any tattoo or piercing is putting a foreign substance into your body and therefore carries the same risk of infection.

The artists who do offer the service are advised to sift and filter the ashes to a very fine dust and to bake them to further sterilise them before mixing a tiny amount with the ink. The client can then have a real physical connection with the lost loved one, truly under their skin.

Nicola Hollands, whose sister Charlotte died after a long battle with leukaemia last year, had a huge tattoo of her sister's face across her back done in ink mixed with her ashes. She told the media: "Charlotte was such a huge part of my life and the tattoo means we will always be together.”

Some people feel an emotional link with a friend or relative’s existing tattoos and want to preserve them after death. Others want their own tattoos to live on after them, either for an emotional reason or simply because they are proud of the artwork itself.

People have been saving skin for centuries, although most examples are in museums or medical schools and not preserved in a way that allows for display. However, US organisation the National Association for Preservation of Skin Art (NASPA) has developed a special process that means tattoos can now be preserved after their wearer’s death in such a way that they can be displayed.

It has now launched a Save My Ink Forever scheme, which tattoo bearers can sign up for. It has also been targeting funeral directors, because, it says, they get asked about this all the time and, in the past, could only take a photo.

Thanks to this new process and a kit supplied by NASPA, an embalmer can actually excise the skin with the tattoo in a simple procedure.

Once removed, the tattooed skin is sent to NAPSA. It takes a couple of months to preserve it, but it is then sent back to the bereaved family framed in a sealed box with UV protection. NASPA says the process also brightens faded tattoos.
Funeral directors can offer the service to their clients pre-need and at-need and the organisation recommends they charge $1,995 (£1,370) for removing and preserving one tattoo, with $350 for each additional one, with the funeral director receiving about 40% of that.

NASPA has also prepared for the future when generations pass on and people who have no emotional attachment to the inked design come into possession of it. It will accept tattoos for storage and possible display.

As tattoos become ever more popular with each succeeding generation, and the designs ever more complex, spectacular and expensive, these approaches are likely to become more popular in this country as well as the US. Because of the time factor involved in preserving the skin effectively, a US-based tattoo preservation scheme is not a feasible option for UK funeral directors to offer but it is probably only a matter of time before a similar service reaches this side of the Atlantic.

Photo: Shutterstock

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