Andrew McCann had never considered getting a tattoo.
That was until Dec. 16, 2018, when McCann awoke on his 30th birthday to find his 2-month-old daughter Charlotte had died overnight from sudden infant death syndrome.
His brother suggested McCann and his family have memorial tattoos drawn in honor of Charlotte. Instead of just typical ink, the tattoos would contain remnants of her cremated ashes.
“It was a way for her to be literally and figuratively a part of us forever – literally inside of us,” said McCann, 33, who works in medical device sales in Jacksonville.
The prevalence of ash tattoos is increasing as a way for those mourning a loved one to cherish that person’s life and legacy. Some are even doing it with an animal who has died.
Two months after McCann received his first memorial tattoo in February 2019, he and his wife Carly founded Your Angel’s Ink, an online company that infuses tattoo ink with loved ones’ ashes. With their own experience in mind, the couple wanted to help others cope with their own loss and feel comforted knowing that person is still with them.
Your Angel’s Ink uses a three-step thermal sterilization process to mechanically infuse the ashes. Those who purchase ink on his website receive a collection kit in the mail that they can use to extract just a teaspoon of ash, which they then send back to the company.
The company received just 19 orders in 2019. In 2021, that number jumped to 84.
“This company that we’ve created,” McCann said, “it gave me a purpose again, and it gave me a reason to get out of bed in the morning – to breathe.”
Joe Ventimiglia, 53, of Tucson, Arizona, was McCann’s first customer, reaching out just two days after the website went up. He lost his youngest son, Nico, after the 20-year-old took a pill he thought was Xanax. It was 87% fentanyl, Ventimiglia said.
On Father’s Day 2019, the artist who had done his son’s tattoos started working on Ventimiglia’s tattoo sleeve made with ink from Your Angel’s Ink. Ventimiglia described the design as “Italian New York.” It includes a stairway to heaven, a design his son had.
When people ask how many children he has, Ventimiglia says he still has two: one physical and one spiritual. While watching TV, he sits with his arms crossed and his hands touching his ash tattoos, he said, so he can give his youngest son a hug.
“It’s one of those things that brought some light into the dark side of my life,” Ventimiglia said.
While those seeking memorial tattoos can use companies like Your Angel’s Ink to sterilely infuse cremated ashes, some tattoo artists will mix them into their ink themselves.
Jennifer Gonzales, 39, owns Artistic Soul Tattoo in Chiefland. About 10 years ago, clients began coming to her with requests for memorial tattoos using cremated ashes. She said the idea seemed weird at first but now estimates she’s done between 300-400 of them. It has gone from designing one or two a year to one every two or three weeks.
“When you get to help a person through their loss, that’s where it becomes kind of intimate,” Gonzales said. “You’re helping them with their journey.”
Brenna Terranova, 33, of High Springs, is a tattoo artist at Sacred Skin Studios in Gainesville. She’s done between 30-40 memorial pieces with cremated ashes, including for a client who brought in those of a beloved bearded dragon.
Terranova said when she’s giving someone a memorial tattoo, she can’t help but feel the other person’s emotions. She likened it to a therapy session for her clients.
“I really like being able to give people something they didn’t know they could have,” Terranova said.
The Food and Drug Administration has not yet approved the use of tattoo ink on the skin. It also does not monitor the everyday practices of tattoo shops.
Dr. Rodrigo H. Valdes Rodriguez, a clinical assistant professor in the dermatology department of the University of Florida College of Medicine, said he’s never witnessed a case in which someone was injected with ink infused with cremated ashes. However, he suggested that the use of ashes in ink could increase the chances of an acute or chronic skin reaction.
Michael Carrington, 58, who owns Artistic Vision Ink Tattoo and Body Piercing in Hawthorne, said the healing process is slightly different for memorial ash tattoos, as they tend to be redder and more irritated at first.
Carrington also said his clients enjoy this way of preserving the ones they’ve lost.
“If you lose a loved one, they’re there with you permanently forever,” he said. “Not just in your heart and brain, in your body, too.”