People keep tattoos of dead relatives and turn them into art

Tattoo art taken from human skin depicting skeletal figures and sea creatures.

Photo courtesy of Save My Ink Forever

After a fatal boat accident in 2019, Jonathan Gill was told he would not be able to see his twin brother’s body until he was cremated unless he could identify it by his tattoos. The undertakers told him that the body was too soaked and in no condition to be shown for awakening.

When Gill contacted Thomas Boyland, director of Thomas F. Boyland’s funeral home in Queens, New York, it was Boyland who told him about a commercial business that gave family members an alternative way to perpetuate the memory of deceased relatives: by collecting tattoos. skin from their dead bodies and keep it forever.

Gil’s brother had several tattoos, and Boyland was able to collect two of them and send them to a lab in Ohio. There, they will be preserved by Save My Ink Forever, a post-mortem tattoo service that turns reconstituted body ink into collectibles. After the work was completed, the funeral director personally delivered the tattoos to Gil and his mother.

“Everything came back quickly, but in a strange way it was reassuring,” Gill told Motherboard. “It simply came to our notice then. We had a part of him back that we remembered from him. ”

Our own process, developed by Save My Ink Forever, permanently changes the chemical structure of the skin in a way that preserves the ink and prevents the skin from decomposing. The company operates private funeral homes in 21 U.S. states and has expanded to Canada and the United Kingdom to obtain permission from the family, following direct contact with close relatives in accordance with state-specific funeral laws.

“People who want this done are essentially their funeral,” Kyle Sherwood, a tattoo conservation specialist and chief operating officer of Save My Ink Forever, told Motherboard. “It means more to them than church service.”

Tattoos in a frame, taken from human skin, hang over the memorial temple of Jonathan Gill's twin brother.

Framed tattoos, taken from human skin, hang over a memorial to Jonathan Gill’s brother. Photos courtesy of Jonathan Gill / Save My Ink Forever

Customers describe the area where the tattoo is located and what it looks like. A licensed grave then cuts the tissue around the tattoo and sends it to Save My Ink Forever’s lab in Ohio, where Sherwood goes to work, a process that takes about three months. Sherwood will correct and improve the work, doing everything possible to return the tattoo to its original condition.

Sherwood says stories like Gil’s make this work meaningful.

“Thanks to the families when they get the piece, and they say, ‘Oh my God, you know, I feel like they’re here, I’ve seen this tattoo every day, and now I have a part of this person with me,'” Sherwood explained. “Look, people take ashes and turn them into diamonds. In the Victorian era, they cut their hair and made hair necklaces. That’s no different. ”

However, some legal experts say the practice is in a particularly murky area of ​​law.

Funeral Law Expert Tanya Marsh is Deputy Dean of Wake Forest University Law School and author of The Law on Human Remains, the first treatise on the subject in more than 50 years. Based on Marsh’s interpretation of funeral laws, she believes that Save My Ink Forever puts funeral directors in a position to be held accountable under state and criminal law for cutting tissues from dead bodies.

“I’m sure it makes a lot of sense for people to take advantage of their services, and I’m in favor of the law being flexible enough for people to take advantage of such things,” Marsh told Motherboard. “However, I do not think that the law is flexible enough at the moment to make this a legal practice.

There are no federal or state laws that explicitly allow the funeral director to cut a piece of a person’s skin and mail it to a company to keep it. However, more than half of the states have criminal laws – commonly known as “abuse of corpse laws” – with criminal penalties for treating human remains in what the court considers “disrespectful.”

According to Marsh, the criminal abuse of corpse laws will have to be imposed by a district attorney, but a complaint will most likely come from a family member if he has to complain to the state regulator. A private claim for emotional harm caused by the abuse of human remains may also be filed by family members if they consider the removal of the tattoo to be a mutilation of human remains, which Marsh indicates is available in all 50 states.

The company’s legal adviser, Don Ferfolia, claims that the waiver form that families fill out releases the funeral director and Save My Ink from liability forever. Ferfolia says there are simply families and funeral directors that the company will not work with if they work in a country with “abuse of corpse laws,” which could lead to criminal charges brought on behalf of funeral directors if something goes wrong. . The company also emphasizes the importance of complying with relatives’ rights laws.

“We only work with family members who have the right to dispose,” Ferfolia told Motherboard. “If there is a family with disposition rights that is upset, we will never restore the tattoo for preservation. Let’s say there is a whole group of children with rights to dispose. If there is one person in this group who we would consider an equal who disputes this, we will not restore this tattoo. “

Ferfolia said the company complies with the law and will indemnify the funeral director in their network if the company is found liable in a legal situation. Sherwood expects that demand for the service it offers will increase as tattoos become more popular. A Statistista survey from 2021 found that 26% of Americans have at least one tattoo. And as the only trading business of its kind in the world, Save My Ink Forever has control over this niche market.

Sherwood claims that the post-mortem preservation of tattoos gives a second life to tattoo artists’ legacy.

“Some of these artists, they are the contemporary Picasso and Rembrandt, who just don’t get the credit they deserve because it’s ink and leather instead of ink and parchment,” Sherwood said. “I was working on a piece of Sailor Jerry, and when you think about how he shaped the tattoo community, I mean, it’s kind of an artifact, to have that piece. Because we failed to create a legacy for tattoo artists, because their work died next to us – no pun – but it died with this man. “

Sherwood is optimistic about a future in which art galleries and museums will view the posthumous preservation of tattoos on human canvas as historical and cultural artifacts. He points out that pathologist Masaichi Fukushi is a pioneer in the process of preserving tattoos in Japan, preserving the tattooed skin of donated bodies even now. shows saved tattoos at the Museum of Medical Pathology at the University of Tokyo.

Sherwood says he also collaborates with tattoo artists to dig up their work as NFT.

Sherwood, meanwhile, says his company will work with any funeral home with a family interested in Save My Ink Forever services. But they still will not agree to keep each tattoo for reasons such as where the tattoo is located or what they depict.

“We have standards,” he said. “We operate a super narrow ship because of the skepticism of some people. We make sure that everything is done in a dignified manner. We don’t want this to be a side show. We don’t want to give people more excuses for not liking what we do. ”

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