by J. Malec
Image by George Eastman House: "Tattoo"
Memorial tattoos are nothing new, possibly as old as the art form, dating back centuries. The concept of incorporating a loved one’s cremains into the ink of a tattoo, however, is a relatively recent development. The amount of ashes used in a tattoo is minute. Cremation ash jewelry memorializes a loved one with the same intention. Both techniques – either adding ash inside a piece of jewelry or to a tattoo - create a lasting bond by utilizing a very small portion of cremains.
While no one knows exactly how long the largely underground practice of adding ash to tattoos has been occurring, this way of memorializing the departed is gaining popularity.
In a lecture titled “Morbid Ink: Field Notes on the Human Memorial Tattoo,” Dr. John Troyer, Deputy Director of the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath, discusses this commemoration of the dead, describing it as “a technology of memory.” He says that:
The tattoo is more than just a representation of the dead. It is a historiographical practice in which the living person seeks to make death intelligible by permanently altering his or her own body. In this way, memorial tattooing not only establishes a new language of intelligibility between the living and the dead, it produces a historical text carried on the historian’s body. A memorial tattoo is an image but it is also (and most importantly) a narrative.
Health and Safety
There is little scientific evidence that speaks to the safety or dangers of adding ash to tattoo ink. Health experts are concerned about the practice, speculating that it may be unhygienic or harmful to add foreign material to the body that can result in infection or rejection. Proponents of ‘morbid ink’ claim that since the ash is made sterile prior to tattooing, it should pose no health risks. Neither claim has been confirmed by objective study, so the question remains up in the air.
Bob Johnson of Finest Lines tattoo parlor in Wickliffe, Ohio, has been creating memorial ash tattoos for over 30 years. He explains that the amount of ashes used in the tattoo is minute: “The preparation is different but it's the same way we would do any tattoo. We sterilize them first in an autoclave as we would the rest of the equipment, and them [sic] make sure it's fine powder and mix it with the ink.”
Making the ‘Ask’
Safety risks aside, it can be difficult to find a tattooist who is willing to add cremains to a memorial tattoo. Some may be prohibited from adding additional substances to inks due to licensing restrictions, and some may just feel uncomfortable with the practice as a whole. If you have made up your mind to pursue a commemorative tattoo using cremated remains, be prepared to make a lot of phone calls to tattoo parlors in your area. Also anticipate that you might receive a considerable amount of rejection before you find an artist willing to complete the work.
In addition, when sharing information with others about your choice to incorporate cremains into your tattoo, be prepared for negative feedback. In an article on eHow on using cremation ashes in a memorial tattoo, it is pointed out that adding human remains to your body via tattoo seems to be a societal taboo by many.
If you intend to broadcast that your tattoo includes cremains, be comfortable with the potential to be on the receiving end of some hurtful comments, however unjust they may seem. Keepsake urns offer an alternative by way of storing a loved one’s ashes and keeping them close to you, and is perhaps more acceptable to the majority of people.
J. Malec is a visual artist and writer whose work often deals with themes related to loss and healing. She lives in Minneapolis, and spends much of her time practicing permaculture in the city.