It seems that there is a bit of a hype surrounding commemorative tattoos that go a little further than a tattooed name, or symbol of a loved one. Lately, the media seems filled with opinions on the use of human ashes in tattoos.
Now, I don’t believe it is anyone’s place to judge someone else’s grieving process. In fact, the very act implying this act is a trend or phase around this subject seems disrespectful; this is an act that has been performed amongst those in tattoo culture for over thirty years.
However, there have been concerns. Predominantly, the health implications of this seemingly extreme form of tattooing. Is this safe? Artists say that if, like any tattoo, the proper precautions are taken these commemorative tattoos do not heighten any chances of infection or health risks. Medical professionals do indicate that any time you are putting a foreign substance into your body, you are heightening the chance of infection. Again, the same can be said for any tattoo.
Jodie Marsh has a commemorative tattoo for her nan, using her ashes.
This act of tattooing ashes into the skin is a different process to a normal ink tattoo. The ashes must be baked and ground in order to reduce the residual bone matter which doesn’t turn into a fine dust in the cremation process. Only fine ash can be mixed with ink, so this procedure must be taken into account when considering a commemorative or “ritual” tattoo of this kind. Of course, many artists do not offer this service. Some believe it is morbid, some worry about the health risks. Some just prefer that their art takes a meaning of its own.
Speaking with Nova, who works as a shop girl at Tattoo Zoo in Victoria, Canada gave me an insight to the way that commemorative tattoos are viewed across the world. She offered an alternative perspective from within a tattoo environment. Calling herself an “outside observer” rather than a member of the tattoo industry, she has prepared ashes to be tattooed on three occasions in her six years of working in the studio.
Nova expressed, “I usually explain to people that even though you stick some ashes into some ink, most of it instantly settles to the bottom and later gets disposed of. With the ink. In the trash.” This certainly shows a different perspective on the use of our loved ones ashes; the ink we put in our skin is irrelevant in the bigger picture of tattoos. Tattoos are art, but the ink used is essentially disposable. It is the artist who makes a tattoo special, so involving the ashes of a family member, pet or friend in this process may not be as special as it first seemed.
Nova indicated a strong feeling that, rather than special, she views these tattoos as a little too macabre. “it’s a way to ‘get intimate’ with your departed loved one, but to me it’s just taking a pulverised bit of their bone and trying to put it into your skin.”
I must admit, I agree with her. Although I think the sentiment of ashes to ink commemorative tattoos is beautiful, in its practical usage it’s just not very appealing. Several artists I’ve spoken to even suggested that sometimes customers are told that the ashes are in the tattoo but in fact, they didn’t place them in the ink for reasons stated above. A lot of artists don’t want to deal with it; I agree that the art itself should be the focus of tattoos, rather than the materials used to make it.
To see more on memorial tattoos – rather than commemorative tattoos – see issue Three of Things & Ink, which you can buy here. Page 70 deals with the way in which a childhood pet was memorialised in ink!