Just a regular old tattoo is pretty ho-hum at this point, its edginess sanded and shellacked by mainstream assimilation. It takes getting one on your face or eyeballs to get anyone to notice. So when news surfaced a few years back that folks were getting the ashes of their loved ones and relatives mixed into tattoo ink, it wasn't too shocking to find out that people want tangible traces of their lost loved ones inked into their skin until they themselves passed—at least, that's what they think they're doing.
"You use the tiniest amount of ink for a tattoo," says Stenvik Mostrom, a tattoo artist at Atlanta, Georgia's Liberty Tattoo. He's administered three ash-and-ink tattoos so far, and most of the former element settles to the bottom of the ink well. "It doesn't float on the top, and it doesn't really mix homogeneously with the ink, anyway." You might be getting small bits of ash—"on a molecular level"—into your tattoo, but "it's more the ritual of it, like the belief that they're in you now."
Taylor Oviedo was down for that ritual: When she went for her seventh tattoo, she wanted to add "something special" to commemorate her grandmother who died in December 2015. "I'd heard from a friend that she had ashes in her tattoo, so I knew what I wanted done with a part of my grandmother's ashes," she tells me over email.
Oviedo brought a zippy bag of her grandma's ashes to the shop, where her artist mixed it with black ink to outline a purple gladiola flower—her grandmother's favorite. "She wanted to be remembered as beautiful, and for me, this was the way I wanted to remember her," says Oviedo, whose tribute now takes up permanent residence on her bicep.
Adding people parts to one's tat sounds like a helluva health-code violation. But Dr. Sandra Whitehead, the director of Program and Partnership Development at the National Environmental Health Association, says it's no more dangerous or gross than non-human ink ingredients.
Caution and using a reputable body artist are always the best bet.
"There are health risks inherent in tattooing itself, regardless of the kind of ink used or other material injected under the skin," says Dr. Whitehead, who has 10 years of experience dealing with body art regulation, health policy, and evaluation. "A very small amount of cremains in the ink does not, in general, present a risk, even if the deceased loved one was very sick."
Still, there have been relatively few studies on other substances such as cremains in ink, says Dr. Whitehead. And the studies that do exist are inconclusive. "Caution and using a reputable body artist are always the best bet," she says. "Check with the local health department to see if the establishment has complaints or has been cited for unsanitary practices."
Some are commemorating a favorite pet friend with these tattoos. Human or not, Mostrom says such details don't really matter. "Ash is ash," he explains. "It's all pretty uniform." He says the most important thing is to make sure the remains brought into the shop have experienced minimal handling in order to keep everything as sanitary as possible.
Ashes aren't even the most wild request Mostrom has had in his decade-plus career. He says while working at a shop in San Francisco's Castro neighborhood, he sidestepped a handful of requests to incorporate blood and semen into tattoos. "Most inks are just like a pure powder pigment mixed with a wetting agent—like propylene glycol or something like that—that the body can break down and leaves the ink behind," Mostrom says. He draws the line at ash when it comes to adding foreign materials into ink. If mixing your dead friend's ashes with tattoo ink isn't the your thing, no worries. There are other options for tributes using cremains. One company compresses them into diamonds, another into bullets. One will even put them in an hourglass for you, just in case you want a constant reminder that inescapable death looms.
But it doesn't get much more profound than a permanent reminder etched in your skin, according to Oviedo, who says her last ink experience "was definitely a different feeling than any other tattoo I had gotten before."
"I mean, I have a dead person's bones inside me," she says. "I believe having her ashes inside my tattoo only brings my grandmother that much closer to me."
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