Their Loved Ones Died. Preserved Tattoos Offer a Way to Keep Them Close.


Jonathan Gil knew he would never forget the details of the day his 24-year-old twin brother died in a boating accident on Lake Hopatcong in northern New Jersey — the frantic phone call from a friend, the dire search by rescuers and the dread of breaking the grim news to his mother.

But Mr. Gil worried that as the months and years wore on, the memories he held of Jason beyond that tragic day would begin to fade. His family’s solution: Preserve a part of his brother.

Now, anytime he seeks a quick reminder of his twin, Mr. Gil glances past a collage of photos to a shelf next to his desk that acts as an altar, where the tattoo of a black and white skull and three roses, lifted and preserved on skin from Jason’s left shoulder, sits protected in a frame.

“We have his ashes, but with that you don’t see a physical part of him,” said Mr. Gil, 27. “But with the tattoo, you can. It’s nice to have a little piece of him, like you’re holding him close in one way or another and keeping him around.”

The preserved tattoo is the work of the company Save My Ink Forever, started in 2016 in Northfield, Ohio, by Kyle Sherwood, a third-generation mortician, and his father, Mike.

While limited attempts to preserve tattoos stretch back for decades, few other companies globally are doing the same work as Mr. Sherwood, who started his business at the nexus of two growing trends: More Americans are getting inked, and the idea of turning loved ones’ remains into keepsakes is surging in popularity. Some mourners are having cremated remains made into jewelry or infused into glass-blown sculptures — all in the name of keeping a loved one close.

More mourners are also asking funeral homes about this service, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. Walker Posey, a funeral home director and spokesman for the association, said more than half of his roughly 400 clients inquire each year about the keepsakes. That is a sharp increase from five years ago, when clients seldom made such requests. Funeral laws in 49 states — the exception is Washington — allow the tattoo preservation practice.

And a record three in 10 Americans have at least one tattoo, according to a 2019 Ispos poll, with the popularity of permanent ink continuing to grow among young people.

The idea of keeping a beloved relative’s tattooed skin and hanging it on a wall may be hard for some to imagine. But families who have worked with the Sherwoods say it brings comfort and emphasized that a person’s tattoos often carry great meaning.

Margie Gatehouse, of Salt Lake City, said that as her husband was dying of cirrhosis this past spring, her daughters approached her with the idea of preserving his tattoo. She was stunned at the suggestion.

“I thought it was morbid and thought that it wasn’t even possible,” Ms. Gatehouse, 52, said. “How could you cut something off someone?”

Her daughters, Courtney and Nichole, explained to their mother that their father was on board and that they had found Save My Ink Forever. They asked her to imagine how special it would be to have the black-and-white skull tattoo that has a ribbon with their names on it framed and preserved for years to come. She reluctantly agreed.

Now, Ms. Gatehouse says she couldn’t be more grateful that she listened to her daughters as the frame, which hangs in her living room, continues to connect her to her husband.

“I’m glad that I didn’t miss the opportunity,” she said.

Historians trace the rise of tattoo preservation to the mid-to-late 19th century. Fukushi Masaichi, a Japanese physician, is credited as one of the pioneers in the field, said Karly Etz, a postdoctoral associate at the Rochester Institute of Technology who studies tattoo art history.

While the concept of saving loved ones’ tattoos had been around in fits and starts, Mr. Sherwood sought a way to perfect the preservation process while treating the tattoo as a work of art, ironing out the details for two years.

When Save My Ink Forever receives a request to preserve a tattoo, the company sends a package of materials to the funeral home for the tattoo to be excised. Morticians are directed through an instructional video to remove only the necessary amount of skin needed to preserve the tattoo. The process is “really hard to screw up,” Mr. Sherwood said. If something does go awry, he said, his team can usually fix it.

The mortician places the tattoo into a preservative. It then is shipped to Ohio for the team of about five people to clean, trim excess skin and fix any blemishes.

Sometimes, the skin is damaged. Or in the case of the waterlogged skin of Mr. Gil’s twin, extra care is required to bring the tattoo back to its original glory.

“It’s sort of like cleaning a dirty window,” Mr. Sherwood said, emphasizing that his team does not alter the tattoo in any way. He declined to divulge further details of the process, which takes about three to four months per tattoo.

Finally, the tattoo gets a frame. Families pick the type of frame and matting and then a professional framer gets started. Each tattoo is sewn to the canvas and the frame is pumped with nitrogen to help keep it pristinely preserved as museum-grade UV blocking glass is inserted into place.

In order to have the materials to perfect the science, Mr. Sherwood came up with the idea to pay for people’s tummy tuck procedures, which remove excess skin and fat, in exchange for being able to practice on that discarded skin.

The cost can range from about $1,700 for a small, 5 inch by 5 inch tattoo, to more than $120,000 to preserve an entire body suit.

Mr. Sherwood said while some people may find his business outlandish, he takes pride in being able to give people a long-lasting physical memory of their loved one.

The mortician recalled the case of one man who had a tattoo with both of his daughters’ names in a heart. The family contemplated whether to save the tattoo, but Mr. Sherwood suggested cutting it in half in the style of a friendship necklace, so each daughter would have a piece of their father with them.

In another instance, he helped a grieving mother keep her son’s memory alive after he was murdered. The tattoo had “Papa Eddie” written in a scroll with a fishing rod, in honor of his grandfather, and had been inked by the man’s uncle, who had also died. By preserving the tattoo, Mr. Sherwood said it represented not only her son, but also “three generations of families.”

“The gratification people have and that connection I’m able to make, you can’t explain it,” Mr. Sherwood said. “It’s very humbling and powering to have that impact on someone.”

Tattoo preservation isn’t just for people who have died.

Save My Ink Forever has preserved a handful of tattoos for amputees and recently received a new request from Asher J. Heart, who wants to preserve a tattoo after undergoing gender confirmation surgery next year. Mr. Heart, 30, from Muskegon, Mich., said the ink on his chest no longer felt right, but would serve as a tangible piece of the person he used to be.

“For me, it will not be erasing my past but erasing the pain of it,” Mr. Heart said.

For Mr. Gil, in addition to keeping his twin brother’s tattoo in a prominent viewing spot, he decided to honor him by getting two more tattoos — a portrait of Jason’s face and a replica of a glowing lantern tattoo that Jason had.

Mr. Gil said he hoped those tattoos, too, survived longer than he did.

“I hope someone else does it for me,” Mr. Gil said. “I don’t need this while I’m gone. Once you die, you die. You don’t take anything with you.”

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