Would you consider preserving the tattoo of a loved one who has died? It’s becoming an increasingly common request from people in their final weeks.
Chris Wenzel’s lifelong love affair with tattooing began when he was just nine years old when his aunt asked him to design her a tattoo, one he ended up partly inking on her skin himself.
By the time he was teenager, both his arms were completely covered in skin art. As an adult, he was a respected tattoo artist who owned Electric Underground Tattoos Inc, a studio in Saskatoon, Canada.
“He loved seeing the ink on people’s skin, fell in love with it,” says his wife Cheryl, who now runs the tattoo studio with a business partner.
Chris died last October of heart failure, after struggling for years with ulcerative colitis, leaving her and the couple’s five sons behind. He was 41.
Before he died, he had a request: he wanted his tattoos preserved.
Ms Wenzel says her husband had always been fascinated by preserved bodies and by other similar artefacts they had come across on museum visits.
Then Chris Wenzel discovered Save My Ink Forever, a family-run business based in Cleveland, Ohio.
He told his wife: “Why would I want to have all these hours of tattoo work put into my body for me to be buried with them?”
The company, owned by Michael and Kyle Sherwood, works with funeral homes in the US, the UK, and Canada to preserve the tattoos of people who have died, as a memorial for their loved ones.
The father and son – both embalmers and funeral directors – launched the company just over two years ago.
The idea came from what Kyle Sherwood described as a “semi-serious” conversation his father had with a friend about preserving tattoos.
The Sherwoods looked at two trends – there are an estimated 45 million Americans inked and tattoos are growing in popularity; and meanwhile there is a shift towards more customised funerals and memorials.
So they decided to develop a technique that allowed for the long-term preservation of excised skin art.
“Being embalmers we were at least familiar with the concept of preserving tissue,” says Kyle Sherwood.
“But with the embalming, that process isn’t permanent, as much as we’d like it to be. So we started doing some research and blended a few techniques together. It was trial and error.”
It took them two years to develop their specific technique.
“There were no corners cut. We wanted to make sure we did things right and did it consistently,” he says.
At the request of the family, the funeral home will surgically remove the tattoo – a simple process, say the Sherwoods – and send it to a lab for preservation before it’s mounted and framed behind UV-protective glass. The entire process takes about three months.
“People put urns on their mantle and to me, my tattoos are more meaningful than an urn on the mantle,” says Mr Sherwood.
“It’s an actual piece of a person that symbolises something.”
Ms Wenzel sought out the Sherwoods’ help following her husband’s death.
“When my husband passed away, half of me passed away with him,” she says. “I didn’t know what to do. I just knew he wanted this preservation done. I had to set aside my own emotion to get this part done.”
Because Chris had large tattoos covering much of his body, Kyle Sherwood flew to Saskatoon, a city in the Canadian prairies, to oversee the process himself.
Most tattoos the company handles are on a smaller scale – individual pieces that measure a few inches across – and “with that we are comfortable with the funeral home and their embalmer removing or surgically excising the tattoo,” he says.
Ms Wenzel chose the pieces to be preserved – two full sleeve tattoos including the top of Chris’ hands, his throat and chest piece, his full back piece, two thigh pieces and calf piece.
It was the largest tattoo preservation the Sherwoods had done.
Kyle Sherwood says his work provokes three kinds of reactions.
“You have the people that don’t like it – the majority of those people don’t have tattoos, the majority of those people couldn’t understand the meaning that a tattoo can have,” he says.
“Then you have the people that have tattoos that are kind of on the fence about it.”
And finally, “you have the people that absolutely love it”.
The fledgling company has also faced scepticism from some funeral homes, with Mr Sherwood saying that some “old-school funeral directors” have been resistant to the novel idea.
“With that being said, anyone in my generation has been pretty receptive of it, understanding even if we don’t agree with this necessarily, we are in the industry as a whole of serving people and we’re here to fulfil their wishes.”
In Chris Wenzel’s case, a number of funeral homes turned Ms Wenzel down before she was able to find one that would work with Save My Ink Forever.
Mr Sherwood said the company ensures the entire process is completed with dignity, and that it will only work on professionally done tattoos.
And he says it’s not usually obvious the art is preserved on a very unique canvas.
“A lot of time you look at it like a painting and you appreciate the art,” he says. “And once you digest that, you’re left with: ‘Wow, this is the remains.’”
Ms Wenzel has displayed her late husband’s body art at tattoo conventions in Saskatoon and in Vancouver, and plans to do the same this summer at a convention in St John’s, Newfoundland.
She says he wanted his preserved artwork to serve as a reminder that life continues after death but that those left behind never forget the loved ones they lost.
“I see it as a beautiful art. To me it was like bringing my husband back. I get to see him everyday,” she says.