When we think about honoring the life of a loved one who has passed away, we often first think of funerary rites and customs. We reflect on the desires and beliefs of the deceased in regards to how they want their passing handled, and then reflect on how we can contribute and show our care within those moments. Even though the physical bond we have with this special person has changed, the memory and emotional bond remains and this is why we take such care in after death proceedings.
After the death of a loved one, we continue along our emotional journeys of healing, acceptance, and change; and for many people tattoos are a part of this experience. This article’s main intention is to discuss the act and art of memorializing someone by tattoo preservation or tattoo art.
By reading this article, you can expect to learn about why and how people preserve the tattoos of loved ones as well as why people memorialize loved ones who have passed through tattoos, and how it assists the grieving or honorary process.
Tattoo preservation is a form of art in which the tattooed body art of the deceased is embalmed and preserved to be framed as memorial pieces. Families who wish to memorialize a loved one by preserving their body art work hire professionals like the ones at the company, Save My Ink Forever. The professionals at this company are “morticians by trade” and handle matters with care and passion.
Tattoo preservation art seeks to preserve unique and meaningful tattoos of the deceased, with quality control and boundaries that seek to maintain the integrity of the craft. For instance, the tattoos they take in are restricted to certain body parts and had to have been done professionally.
The resulting product is a preserved piece of framed art that resembles the material of parchment paper.
Those who wish to honor the memory of the deceased in this way then place the art in an area that holds meaning to them, such as within their home or as a donation to galleries which seek to memorialize such artwork like The National Association For The Preservation Of Skin Art (NAPSA).
The first example of significance from tattoo preservation first emerged from Otzi the Iceman’s appearance within the anthropological community. The time of Otzi’s living life was around 3300BC and lived in a cold climate which naturally preserved his remains and led to some of the most “stunning examples of preserved tattoos in antiquity”.
These 61 tattoos that Otzi bore allowed a unique cultural insight into the time Otzi was alive, because it appeared Otzi’s tattoos were done for therapeutic reasons- each of his tattoos only linear and crossed lines were in places similar to acupuncture points and points where Otzi most likely felt pain.
Similarly the preserved tattoos of The Princess Pazyryk Ice Maiden were celebrated! Her preserved body due to a similar cold climate allowed for witnessing elaborate and detailed sleeves of tattoos from the 5th century BC covering her arms “full of stylized and mythological animals”.
The relevance of tattoo preservation and tattoo preservation as art exists outside of mummies and ancient discoveries as well. The preserved tattoos of the 1800’s were featured as a part of an exhibit in a London Museum called The Wellcome Collection from Sir Henry Wellcome. This collection was primarily acquired for insight into the cultural and social mindset of the time and people who bore the tattoos.
Around the same time further East, Nicolae Minovici, a prominent Romanian forensic doctor, was also exploring the cultural insights of preserved tattoos as well as the psychology behind stylistic choices. While Minovici of Romania only had access to the lower tiers of society, since passed nobles were much less likely to be accessible for study, Dr. Katsunari Fukishi of Japan was able to build a collection of preserved tattoos from the ill at a charity hospital.
Dr. Fukishi funded the terminal to be able to complete their tattoos with the understanding that their pieces would be added for preservation at the time of their deaths.
The result is amazing displays of Japanese traditional artwork including koi fish, dragons, snakes, and Bushido Samurai. Dr. Fukishi was “respected by Tokoyo’s top tattoo artists” and was “often invited as an expert judge in tattoo contests” in competitions overseas showcasing traditional Japanese style tattooing.
The social, historical, and cultural value of tattoos and their preservation beyond human lifespans continues to exist in our modern culture. The National Association For The Preservation Of Skin Art, or NAPSA, was founded in 2015 with the intention of people’s “story, spirit, and legacy living on for generations to come”.
It is important to many people to leave a legacy for their children and loved ones and preserving a tattoo after death can definitely help the memory and stories of their loved one live on. It can also be a large part of people’s healing after loss.
Tattoo preservation gives people a permanent representation of the person they loved. One touching story is of a man who had his heart tattoo with his toddler’s name on it, so that his son would always know his father loved him.
This modern day art form, although not new, is still considered innovative and progressive for many. For some this is what makes it even more special, they feel the fact that this artform is so unique makes it to where it better represents them and their uniqueness as well.
In 21st century culture compared to earlier exhibitions of tattoo preservations, there is an increase in the appreciated value of the pure artistic qualities of the tattoos. Although all art has cultural and social value, modern day tattoos are increasingly preserved due to their nature of featuring incredible artistic qualities, being considered masterpieces, or featuring work of a famous artist who is no longer alive.
The London Science Museum- This museum is home to The Wellcome Collection which features 300 individual tattoo fragments
The Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle- The anthropology of this department has around 56 pieces dating from the 19th century
Jagiellonian University Krakow, Poland- The Department of Forensic Medicine in Krakow, Poland has about 60 tattoos
the Instituto Nacional de Medicina Legal e Ciências Forenses (INMLCF)- This collection in Lisbon, Portugal features 70 specimens
The Medical Pathology Museum at Tokyo University- This exhibit is not open to the public, but features 100 preserved tattoos, over 3,000 photographs of tattoos, and extensive notes from the famed Dr. Fukishi
South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology- This museum in Bolzano, Italy features Otzi the Iceman, famous for being the earliest preserved display of tattoos
The first step is to find a company that is trustworthy, and experienced. It would be a good idea to see samples of their work! Considering this is a special object, and there is only one opportunity to do it correctly, you want to make sure the people handling your loved ones' tattoos know what they are doing.
Here are some guidelines for finding a reputable company and starting the process for a piece of tattoo preservation art:
These people should have prior experience as morticians, have samples of their previous work for you to refer to, and have positive reviews from other customers. You can find the right company for you by doing research on the internet and checking social media platforms.
The tattoo preservation artist needs to be connected with the funeral home to send a removal kit and make arrangements for properly acquiring your loved ones tattoo art.
The price of the preserved art should reflect the size of the tattoo being preserved and the quality of the frame that the art will be placed in. Other factors can include the shipping costs based on how far away the artist is from you. It is always a good idea to ask if there are any other fees to be aware of.
The amount of time it takes to get your finished product can depend on how busy the artist is, delivery, and whether or not you are doing custom framing. The artist should however be able to provide a pretty accurate assessment.
These people also feel deeply connected to the sentiments behind tattoos, and are dedicated to their craft and the lasting memory they are providing to their customers. If there is something special you would like for them to have in mind while curating the art piece, you should let them know. Minor details can make a major difference in your happiness with the final product.
The professionals and artists who are chosen to help create the tattoo preservation art send a tattoo removal kit and instructional materials to the funeral director that the family is working with. The piece of art is then embalmed and preserved, and the final product resembles the material of parchment paper. The loved one’s tattoos are then framed and placed in a meaningful area.
Tattoo preservation follows many of the similar protocols of embalming, where the goal is to preserve the body for the use of funerary and memorial viewing. The two most common ways that professionals preserve tattoos is through the use of dry or wet preservation, although for commercial tattoo preservation art, the most common method is dry preservation since the art is typically framed and hung on a wall.
Dry preservation begins with the removal of any unnecessary tissue from the underside of the tattoo. The next step is to prevent any shrinkage of the surface area through stretching it to size and pinning it to dry, this step is followed by the proper chemical treatment. Sometimes chemical treatment occurs before the second step as well.
Wet preservation is more traditionally found in museums and university collections where there is more variety in the specimens of preserved tattoos. For this process, the tattoo is treated through the same preliminary steps as dry preservation, but the final product is preserved in either glycerin or formalin alcohol.
There are some commonly asked questions when it comes to tattoo presesrvation. Having an idea of the cost, the length of the process and other 'must knows' can save you some headaches down the road.
The cost of tattoo preservation is very similar to the costs of high quality urns or solid gold cremation jewelry. The price of the process is around $1,000 depending on the size of the tattoo, and the quality of the frame chosen. The National Association for the Preservation of Skin Art also offers affordable rates for people to be able to preserve their tattoos as well.
For tattoo preservation to be effective, the company you are working with needs to be notified within 72 hours of the death. This is the amount of time that the tattoo will be viable to begin the process of preservation. After that the process takes about three to four months for the final product to be completed and delivered.
As long as the tattoo was not altered from the death, death does not affect the quality of the tattoo. Typical factors that dull tattoos include age and sun exposure, however the tattoo preservation process has revealed that when topmost layers of the skin are removed, the tattoo becomes more vivid and bright. So you can expect your loved one’s tattoos to look even better than before.
Depending on your relationship with the person who has passed away, and your involvement in their funerary procedures, you may need to get written consent. Some companies who make tattoo preservation art require this, as well as some funeral directors and funeral homes.
Many people find the process of discussing the topic and concept with their loved ones who may be passing to be a part of what makes the art special. This can be due to choosing the tattoo together, learning more about the story behind the tattoo, or getting to tell your loved one why you love their tattoo.
There are a myriad of reasons why people may preserve their loved one's tattoo. It's a highly personal decision and up to the discretion of each individual.
Tattoos are often done to commemorate special moments in life, tattoos that mark important dates and people in the lives of the deceased. For people who have lost their spouses, getting the tattoo that showcased their love and commitment or incorporated their wedding date might be especially meaningful. Sons and daughters may also value commemorative tattoo art if a parent got a tattoo out of love for them.
Tattoos can hold strong symbolic value for the wearer, as well as for those who see them. If a military tattoo on your grandpa’s arm inspired you to follow his footsteps into service, that tattoo held meaning for you. If your grandma’s tattoo captured her rebellious spirit, tattoo preservation might help the memory of that part of her live on.
For one woman, she pursued tattoo preservation for the tattoo that her mother had done after her first year of sobriety. She goes on to explain that the “tattoo is meaningful to my entire childhood and adult life” and even helps her in continuing down the path of her own sobriety
For some people, their loved one was an artist and designed the tattoo. One customer testimonial through the company Save My Ink said that her husband as a “well known artist” would have loved how his piece turned out, describing it as tasteful and a representation of tattoos as a passion for him.⁹
As an artform, tattoo preservation can capture the incredible variety, skill, and uniqueness of a tattoo. There are hundreds of different styles of tattoos Spanning American Traditional, Minimalist, Dotwork, Watercolor, and many many more. Often the case for those who pursued tattoo preservation, love the fact tattoos that were on their loved ones were done with immense detail, beautiful colorwork, and shading.
Some tattoos have countless hours put into them to create remarkable artwork. Tattoos are never identical, they belong and exist in that exact quality and form only on one person, and these were images, quotes, or symbols that their loved ones chose to wear for life! Memorializing it can be a proud moment for those who admired their loved one’s tattoos.
Modern day society has witnessed massive cultural changes in regards to tattooing as an artform. What was initially reserved to identify criminals or prisoners, or was done with important spiritual or religious association, eventually evolved into something dynamic and widespread.
Some pieces of tattoo art are preserved due to their artistic value, at the National Museum of Australia there are 18 works of art by Australian artist eX de Medici, and soon that will include a display of tattoo preservation art that features her work.
In regards to historical value, as the culture around tattoos evolved tattoos began to be closely linked with armies, militaries, and wars. Tattoos would mark involvement in battles, as well as unit association.
Soldiers who were a part of the navy would frequently get tattoos of ships and anchors, while soldiers who were in the cavalry would get horses. Many of these tattoos, as well as tattoos from previous eras also came to be valued as reflections of sentiments and reflections of the times.
The concept of taboo is simply this, if it isn't something that is regularly practiced in your culture or is something that you haven’t heard of before, you may consider it abnormal or taboo! Practices and discussions around death in the world have only recently become more of a private and less socially connected experience in societies that are less connected and more individualized.
If we look back not even 150 years ago to the Victorian Era, expressions of grief and mourning were very public, and traditions that were very popular and normal then would feel odd to us today! For example, hairwork, this was once a very popular category of mourning jewelry and it incorporated intricate patterns using locks of a loved one’s hair. Even Queen Victoria wore it!
Much like tattoo preservation art, these mementos were “painstakingly handcrafted” and considered “an act of utmost devotion”.
Today, we still seek items and wear jewelry connected to the person who passed away. It is not uncommon to see memorial jewelry like the lockets of the Victorian era, or necklaces that feature an engraved photo like this necklace sold by Everlasting Memories.
When a loved one passes, we find our spirits guided to memorialize our loved ones through intentional acts and service that honor their memory and being.
Records have shown that intentional acts and care for the deceased has a history that extends beyond 100,000 years ago, as illustrated in an academic paper by Cambridge University Press. Between forty specimens of the two species of humans during this time period, they found that both used consecrated graves and offered gifts that possibly suggest some form of belief in an afterlife.
When put into a context of a time and place where humans acted primarily on strong feelings and instincts, we can see how reverence towards our deceased is incredibly human, heartfelt, and special. As time passed, we also found that the way in which we memorialize those who have passed has changed and become incredibly varied as well.
The ways in which we memorialize a passed loved one is a highly personal and beautiful act that has multitudes of depth and variation from culture to culture and person to person. In Vietnamese cultures, maintaining “communion with their ancestors” and beloved deceased is incredibly important in regards to showing reverence, often day-to-day interactions with elaborate shrines allow the living to find both comfort and strength.
For some people, when they experience the death of a loved one they hold onto treasured items and keepsakes that once belonged to them such as jewelry, lockets, artwork, dishware, photos and other novelties. These are all common objects that we keep and oftentimes tell the stories of.
We treasure mementos that reflect something we love about the person who passed. Items that provide our spirits with their comforting presence and memory in our daily lives. This is also why many people like to hold onto their loved ones ashes, keeping them in urns or as cremation jewelry.
There are great articles to help guide purchasing crematory mementos, we recommend “The Ultimate Guide On Buying Cremation Jewelry” and “A Buying Guide For Cremation Urns” for thorough coverage and examples!
Tattoos may seem like a modern tradition, but tattoos have been used with symbolic meaning modern far back into ancient history. In fact, the oldest record of tattooing demonstrates the symbolic meaning of tattoos rather than it being solely cosmetic.
In the specimen from over 5,000 years ago, examined in this Smithsonian article, archeologists noticed this form of tattooing called “therapeutic tattooing”, a method of tattoo that was done with the intention of “healing” and strengthening the body.
In a similar way people frequently get tattoos to strengthen their spirit and serve as eternal reminders of something deeper.
Expressing grief through art is healthy and natural. In fact, artwork facilitates the healing process around hard emotions and difficult experiences by providing an outlet for the emotions that can be hard to deal with logically.
Through art, you can bring a memory or feeling from within out into the world. To choose the color that holds significance, or captures the way a loved one's eyes shone when they are happy. These are all things you might initially think of when it comes to artwork and healing through the grieving process.
We find that often pieces of art like these, if chosen to display, invite opportunities to discuss a person or event and can bring in experiences of support from our community.
Absolutely! There are many different things that can serve as memorial objects that are inspired by your loved one’s tattoo. Here are some alternative meaningful tattoo memorializations to carry on the memory of your loved one's tattoo.
Find a company or artist that will paint the likeness of your loved ones tattoo and have it framed! To do this, look online for an artist who takes painting commissions.
There are many online shops that will turn a photo into wall art. It is important to use a good quality high resolution photo for the best final product when choosing to memorialize in this way.
Having your loved one’s tattoo painted on their cremation urn could be a great way to represent their memory. You can also incorporate the tattoo as photo engraved cremation urns.
Bring a photo of your loved ones tattoo to a tattoo shop that has an artist that can appropriately re-create the tattoo. Choosing an artist that does tattoos in a similar style is really important to recreating the tattoo with as minimal differences as possible.
Things such as keepsake boxes, engraved coins, and keychains can incorporate their tattoo in tandem with their name, a quote, and the years of their life.
There are disting differences between getting a memorial tattoo and tattoo preservation art. There is no right or wrong answer - simply choose what is the best fit for you individually!
Memorial tattoos received in response to grieving or memorializing a person who has passed is an act not limited to any religion, culture, ethnicity or age, in the same way that death too is not limited by any socio-cultural, political, or economic bounds. Many people find a parallel between death and the permanent aspect of tattooing in that both last forever and can’t be taken back.
Research on memorial tattoos by sociology professor Deborah Davidson spoke about this sort of eternal bridge, in that tattoos can even make people feel as though their loved ones are “still with them”. This feeling can bring comfort and strength for many people as they heal from their grief and continue on in life. This aspect of memorial tattoo makes it to where that connection to that person remains permanent.
This aspect of a memory living on ties into memorial tattoos in the way that they also facilitate healing by providing opportunities to talk about the person memorialized and even the experience of the loss. Persay the bird on the wearer’s arm was chosen due to it being her grandmother’s favorite bird, this allows the wearer to talk about her grandmother in a positive or meaningful way.
It’s found that memorial tattoos provide safe and reliable frameworks to discuss grief or an honorary person due to their symbolic nature, and can make talking about grief or loss socially less awkward in situations or cultures where death and “grief is still a taboo subject and… difficult dialogue”³. In some instances, memorial tattoos can also serve as an opportunity to introduce the memory of the memorialized person in new relationships that are built farther down the road.
Memorial tattoos can symbolize a bond between them and the person they are memorializing. Once a person passes on, emotional bonds and memories are what is left to hold and be cherished, and tattoos that symbolize these bonds and memories can keep personal and emotional connections strong
Drawing on these memories and feelings can lead to beautiful and powerful symbolism within the tattoo, for instance if your loved one was someone you connected with through nature- you may consider incorporating natural themes such as the flowers you would see on your walk or the woods you both found solace in.
Tattoos are very commonly gotten as intentional acts for memorializing the memory of a loved one. Tattoos can frequently symbolize declarations of love as well as spiritual or religious beliefs. In regards to remembering a loved one, people will get tattoos in the form of a portrait, their name, or a design that is special and relevant to the person whose memory they are commemorating.
These types of tattoos fall under the category of memorial tattoos and like cremation jewelry where the intent is to have the loved one with you, these tattoos can even be infused with trace amounts of a cremation ashes.
Like death, tattoos are permanent and irreversible, they are impactful forms of art that are often infused with great meaning. This is why people, especially those within tattoo culture (and those outside of it) also preserve the tattoos of loved ones and turn it into art.
Memorial tattoos are permanent pieces of art inked into the skin to mark the death of a person, or in response to a life-changing event. Memorial tattoos are highly personal and individualised, as the primary purpose is to convey the feelings of the person getting the tattoo.
One of the primary traits of a memorial tattoo is that it contains elements that reflect unique traits of the person, event, or animal it pays memory to.
Another trait is that the memorial tattoo should incorporate some aspect of personalization to demonstrate the relationship between the wearer and the event, or person it honors.
Tattoos, like other forms of art, use symbolism, colors, and shapes related to an wearer's intention and can function as visual and non-verbal forms of communication where meaning can be found and messages are expressed. Frequently they are images or quotes that represent something special, or mark significant moments in their life.
In fact, out of 157 participants in a research study completed by a group of South African psychology students “The most prominent motivation for getting a tattoo related to its symbolic personal meaning”. ⁸
When we examine tattoos as both a public and private expression regarding losing a loved one, we oftentimes are referring to what is called a memorial tattoo. A memorial tattoo is defined as a tattoo that is “acquired in reference to the death of a loved one”.
In a study completed by Elizabeth Shriffin on “Tattoos and Their Functions for the Bereaved” these were some of her findings:
Whether you are getting a tattoo of your loved one turned into art, or getting a memorial tattoo, both should absolutely be considered powerful ways of overcoming grief. As a proper grieving ritual, both meet the three characteristics defined in the literature- it integrates structure, symbolism, and involves other people.
If you are considering either of these options, we hope this article has empowered you to make a decision for yourself as well as discuss the topic with family members and friends.
February 10, 2022 by Frances Kay