As fashion choices, tattoos are fairly permanent. But compared with other works of art, tattoos are ephemeral, doomed to decay as their hosts' skin wrinkles and, when they die, be burned or buried along with them. Tattoos can cost thousands of dollars and mark major life milestones, but unlike paintings, you'll never be able to bequeath them to your descendants. No one showcases old tattoos in their home.
Charles Hamm wants to change that, which is why he started the National Association for the Preservation of Skin Art (NAPSA). The nonprofit organization is devoted to enabling people to preserve their tattoos—skin and all—and pass them on to their loved ones after they die.
Hamm, a 60-year-old former accounting guy from Cleveland, has developed a process by which tattoos and the skin surrounding them can be removed from your corpse and preserved, allowing your friends or relatives to literally keep a piece of you forever. (There's a $115 fee to join NAPSA, and yearly dues are $60; beneficiaries will get a $2,000 stipend to defray the costs of preserving the tattoo.) Hamm envisions a future where people might display the tastefully framed tats of their forebears on the mantle, much like some people do with urns of cremains. It may sound grisly, but the NAPSA founder believes there's going to be a lot of demand for his group's services. He's fond of the Johnny Depp quote, "My body is my journal, and my tattoos are my story." If you felt like that about your body art, why would you want your story to be thrown away after your death?
In advance of NAPSA's official launch today, VICE spoke to Hamm about how all of this would work.
VICE: How did you develop this concept?
Charles Hamm: I'm pretty much tattooed from my neck down to my waist, with the exception of a couple little spots here and there. They all have meanings to me—my grandson designed a couple, and I even had one of my business partners develop one for me. And I'm quite proud of them, they're very big works of art—I probably have $10,000 on my back, and it is a piece of art.
I sat around, really thinking about that. Someday I'm going to pass away and I'm sure I'll be cremated and it'll all vanish into the air. I just didn't think that was right. So I got together a bunch of people in the industry; we talked a lot about it, spent a great deal of time trying to put this together, and we developed a process [to preserve tattoos]—however, we had nothing to test the process on.
I had a little extra skin on each side of my body, so I went to a plastic surgeon and asked if he could cut that skin off, and I said, "Could you draw a line around what you'd be cutting?" He did that, and I said, "I'm coming back next week with two tattoos in those spots, and I want that skin back." So we got 'em, and it worked. And now it's time to get this thing off the ground.
So if I have a tattoo and I die and want it preserved, how does that happen? Who actually removes the skin?
The beneficiary [of the tattoo] has 18 hours to notify NAPSA that passing has occurred. We will then send out to the funeral home a package that will be utilized to deliver the product back to us. Already, you sit down with the funeral director and go over [the deceased's] final wishes—they wanted this kind of funeral, they wanted these things done. This will just be another part of that process: Charles wanted this tattoo removed and sent to NAPSA. And we will get it, we will do our preservation process, and in three to six months they'll get back their preserved tattoo.
What do you imagine people doing with the preserved tattoos?
Talking to my children about this, initially they were like, "What will we do with it, dad?" And it was amazing to me how quickly they decided what they wanted off my body and what they were going to do with it. I have a long lizard that goes up the inside of my arm that my grandson developed for me, and he certainly wants that. He wants to frame it, and he wants to always be able to say, "I did that for my grandpa." So that's what I envision happening.
How are you going to deal with the discoloration and fading that can occur as tattoos age? Does your process restore them?
We didn't expect this to happen, but when you remove layers of skin, the ink pops out more, so it looks better and much brighter. It's a phenomenal byproduct.
If people have these preserved tattoos in their homes, do you think that will lead to a greater appreciation for tattoos in mainstream culture?
I think so. Someone asked me that the other day, about hanging a tattoo on a wall, and I said, I know people who have ashes on their mantelpiece, it's not much different to me. In fact, in my mind, this is a much better thing to look at, because when you see that tattoo, you have a clear remembrance of that person that you loved.
We just recently had a situation where a poor young man died at 34 years old in his sleep. He and his wife had a lot of tattoos, and on his shoulder he had a replica of a real heart, and inside the heart it said Hunter. Hunter was his two-and-a-half-year-old son. And his wife called [someone who knew NAPSA] and said, "Listen I know they're not up and running but I gotta get that tattoo—I want my son to know how much his dad loved him." And we were able to retrieve that tattoo. And that's what this is about.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
To join NAPSA or just check out their website, go to SaveMyInk.com
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.