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Forever bound: Meet the tattoo artist transforming cremated ashes into inked memories

Under your skin: Tattoo artist inks cremated remains in art
Under your skin: Tattoo artist inks cremated remains in art Copyright Credit: AFP
Copyright Credit: AFP
By Theo FarrantAFP
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In a growing trend, people are finding solace by incorporating the cremated ashes of their loved ones into tattoos.

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“She was already part of me, but now she will really be part of me forever and will be able to accompany me on my adventures," says vintage clothing shop owned Scout Frank. 

She's one of many in a growing trend of people incorporating the cremated ashes of their loved ones into their skin by mixing it into tattoo ink

Armed with gloves and a small shovel, cremation tattoo specialist Kat Dukes takes a small portion of the grayish ashes of Frank's late mother. 

In the small studio with immaculate white walls, Dukes ceremoniously hands them over to her client, so that she can add them herself with ink.

“Come on, mom!” says Mrs. Frank while carrying out the operation. She smiles despite the tears.

The unique tattoo trend that keeps loved ones close

Tattoo artist Kat Dukes (L) lifts the ashes of Scout Frank's cremated mother before mixing some into the ink
Tattoo artist Kat Dukes (L) lifts the ashes of Scout Frank's cremated mother before mixing some into the inkCredit: AFP

Known for her tattoos done point by point by hand, rather than using a machine, Kat Dukes has become a specialist in this type of funeral tattoo incorporating the ashes of a loved one.

The artist, who runs the Steel Honey studio in California, began exploring the technique three and a half years ago, when one of her clients wanted to make a particularly intimate tribute to his deceased dog.

The process, which she did not know, turned out to be “very simple” according to her. “All you had to do was add the ashes” to the ink.

“This made the tattoo ” in homage to the animal “even more special,” judges the 32-year-old artist . “I thought it was so cool, so I kept doing it.”

Is it a safe practice?

Tattoo artist Kat Dukes inks a hand poked tattoo of a dove on Scout Frank using ink mixed with the ashes of Frank’s cremated mother in Oceanside, California on October 6, 2023
Tattoo artist Kat Dukes inks a hand poked tattoo of a dove on Scout Frank using ink mixed with the ashes of Frank’s cremated mother in Oceanside, California on October 6, 2023Credit: AFP

“A lot of people think it’s unhygienic,” explains the tattoo artist, who herself inked her father’s ashes under her skin.

“Here in the United States, it’s rather frowned upon because people don’t often hear about it,” she says. “People tend to reject what is unknown to them.”

But Dukes asserts that, when done correctly, there is no risk of infection or contamination from the ashes. 

Properly administered tattoos remain in the dermis and do not migrate into the bloodstream. 

Furthermore, cremations occur at extremely high temperatures, rendering the ashes usually sterile. 

“I like being able to do this for people because there aren't a lot of tattoo artists who are outspoken about it,” explains Dukes.

To honour her mother,  Frank asked her to draw a picture of a dove with open wings on her ankle.

“It’s something so simple,” says Frank, adding the work to her numerous tattoo collection. “But it really means a lot to me.”

Video editor • Theo Farrant

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