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Photography karl Heinz Weinberger

Save My Ink Forever: the morticians preserving your loved one’s tattoos

We speak to father-son duo Michael and Kyle Sherwood about death, taboos, and sentimentality

Father-son duo Michael and Kyle Sherwood occupy a unique space in the world of service providers; part morticians, part art restorers, theirs is the business of preserving a person’s body art after they’ve passed onto the next realm. The idea for Save My Ink Forever came about after a conversation with friends turned to the question of whether it was possible to preserve a person’s tattoo after they’d died. Both Kyle and his father have a few tattoos between them; Kyle’s are on his chest, side, stomach, back and leg, symbols from his grandfather’s funeral prayer card, embalming instruments, an angel greeting at the gates of heaven, while his father is in the process of getting similar tattoo to the one on Kyle's back. Immediately the father and son saw the value in creating a process that would allow friends and family members to retain something physical that had meant so much to that person while on this earth. As second and third generation morticians, they also knew that if anyone could do it, it would be them, so they set about to find a way. The complexities of the process – which took over two years to perfect – is a closely guarded family secret, but essentially, after consent is given by the next of kin, the tattoo is surgically excised from the body, it is then embalmed and eventually mounted in a frame of your choice. Think of it in the same way as you would a funerary urn, tangible remnant of somebody you love who is no longer with you. Though currently based in the Cleveland, Ohio area, they have big plans to expand in the future. We caught up with the pair to talk about death, taboos, and sentimentality.

What is the significance of preserving a person’s tattoos?
Save My Ink Forever: The significance is endless, you have the art factor. Some of these tattoos are truly works of art. Then you have the personal meaning of the tattoo, to that individual as well as to their family.

What are the ethical issues of preserving a person’s tattoo? Do they always have to give their consent? What happens when they don’t?
Save My Ink Forever: The next-of-kin has to give consent. If the individual who wants their tattoos preserved does not think their family will give consent, they can appoint a lawyer to carry out their wishes. Our authorization form is filled out by the next-of-kin, given permission to excise tissue for the purpose of preservation. If this form is not filled out, we simply do not move forward.

How does it work? Can you tell us a bit about the actual process of removing and preserving tattoos?
Save My Ink Forever: The actual preservation process we keep secret. All we can say is the process takes roughly three and a half months to complete. The tattoos are surgically excised. We only excise the skin, we do not excise any muscle tissue. The process is done as precisely as possible.

How do you collaborate with funeral parlours?
Save My Ink Forever: We collaborate with them by building a network of funeral homes that will offer our services. We call them preferred providers and have them listed on our site. If the funeral home is not listed on our site, we will still be more than happy to work with that funeral home. We, of course, compensate the funeral home for their time and cooperation. At this point; however, it has to be a family owned funeral home. We are in the process of being cleared by the SCI or corporate owned funeral homes.

Who are your clients?
Save My Ink Forever: Our clients are everyone. Mothers, fathers, children, brothers, sisters, you name it. Many individuals have multiple tattoos preserved and different tattoos going to different family members. It’s a similar idea to keepsake urns, where cremains are divided into several smaller urns and given to different family members.

What were the biggest challenges you faced launching the business?
Save My Ink Forever: We are the only ones doing this, so it is a learning experience. We learn new things daily, but with the overall goal of being able to offer our services across the world.

What are the biggest misconceptions about what you do?
Save My Ink Forever: The biggest misconception is that we will do anything or preserve anything. This is false. We do everything in a dignified manner. This means no lampshades or books. We’re not doing anything similar to the Nazis or The Butcher of Plainfield, Ed Gein. What we do is with the consent of the family. This is their wish. We also will not do any face tattoos or genitals.

What’s the most rewarding aspect of your job?
Save My Ink Forever: 
The most rewarding part is the gratitude of the family. How happy they are with the results makes everything worth it. We are in the service industry and we are here to serve families, and fulfil their loved one's wishes. So as long as the families we serve are satisfied, no one else's opinion of what we do matters.

What’s been your proudest moment so far?
Save My Ink Forever: Our proudest moment so far is hands down our Chris Wenzel preservation. We preserved an almost full body suit. His wife was so pleased, we love her. We have established a life long bond with her. It was such a groundbreaking moment for us, and a movement in the right direction of what we are trying to achieve.  

What’s it like working in the funeral service industry?
Save My Ink Forever: It has its ups and downs; some days better than others. The worst days are when you are dealing with a family who has lost a child. Unfortunately, death does not discriminate. We wish everyone passes away at the ripe age of 100, but that simply is not the case. But again we take satisfaction in knowing we are doing the best we can and serve each family as our own.

How do you deal with being constantly surrounded by death?
Save My Ink Forever: You learn not to take things for granted. That means appreciating the little things: "Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you may die". And most importantly no matter what happens do not go to bed mad at the ones you love. If you are in an argument, say you are sorry, there is no guarantee you will be able to say sorry tomorrow.

How do you see the business evolving in the future?
Save My Ink Forever: We see things only picking up in the future. We see things becoming more mainstream, as the taboo of tattoos is slowly disappearing. Tattoos have become more socially acceptable. So with that, in time, we will see the preservation of them as being no different. People visit a headstone where their loved ones are or place cremains on a mantle. All cultures memorialise their loved ones. How is having and holding onto a piece of art, and a memory that represents your loved one any different?