Updated: Mar 1, 2020
Art after death. Preserving body ink for the bereaved and the unknown collections of painted human skin.
Body ink has moved from being something considered the pursuit of sailors and prisoners to a mainstream activity in western society. Recent statistics show that those who have tattoos in the western world range from 35% of the population in Greece up to 48% in Italy. Spain (42%) and the UK (40%) have very similar rates and the average rates stand at around 38% or 4 in 10 adults.
Tattoos become indelibly associated with the the people who carry them. The permanent nature of the artwork can mean that people develop emotional attachment to the ink work of their loved ones and it seems that a father son partnership in Ohio, Cleveland have found a way to enable the bereaved to preserve the tattoos of their loved ones for ever.
Save my Ink Forever was, like so many business ideas, developed over a drinking session. Morticians Michael Sherwood and his son Kyle were often approached with "death related issues" due to their line of business. A friend had recently lost their father and explained that he wanted to preserve his fathers tattoos. At first it was a source of some laughs but Mike and Kyle started to consider the proposal in a serious way. The process that they eventually developed is not straight forward and can take up to four months to complete.
The first step is for the surgical removal of the tattoos within 72 hours of death. This can be done before or after embalming. The skin is then treated and the resultant parchment is then mounted to be framed and placed on the wall.
There are limits to the Sherwood's services. They do not do facial or genital tattoos and their procedure is used to create framed wall art and not lampshades or book covers or other such bizarre requests.
One of the most impressive commissions was the preservation of several tattoos of a Canadian tattoo artist for his family. Chris Wenzel's body was almost entirely covered in tattoos so Kyle Sherwood flew to Saskatoon to handle the removal of the skin himself. Normally instructions and a kit are issued to the funeral home but in this case the job required special expertise. The artistry has been hailed and the pieces are regularly displayed in galleries and tattoo shows.
Collections beyond those of private families do exist. Most are kept by universities and have been a source of research for anthropological study, although rarely are such collections on display due to the macabre nature of the field. The Wellcome Collection is a renowned source of typical sailors' tattoos and the pieces are subject to fascinating historical detective work, as attested to in this blog post regarding the "posterity" of a pair of tattoo eyes.
Arguably the best tattoo collection is held in the Museum of Medical Pathology in the University of Tokyo. Started by Doctor Masaichi Fukushi, it contains over 3,000 photographs with extensive notes and over 100 tattooed skins. Dr. Fukushi acquired his collection by working in a charity hospital and offering people money "to finish their tattoos on the condition he could harvest the tattoo when they died". There are skins mounted like animal hides, full "pelts" wrapped on mannequins and even a collection of wet specimens kept submerged in chemical tanks. Those who wish to delve deeper in to this strange backwater of human activity can do so here