Banshee the cat finally got under Tim Shallbetter's skin.

For almost a decade, he lovingly nursed his fur friend through chronic renal failure, proving wrong the veterinarian who had given Banshee four months to live. With kidney medication, a special diet, and weekly subcutaneous fluids, Banshee made it all the way to age 18. When he died in 2016, Shallbetter wanted to keep his "miracle cat" forever near. He ground some of Banshee's cremated remains into a fine powder, put the dust in a plastic zipper bag, and with a posthumous paw print in hand, headed for a tattoo convention near his home in Duluth, Minn.

There, the artist blew up the image to "cougar size." Dipping the needle into ash-laden ink, he tattooed the paw print across Shallbetter's left knee, underlining it with the name "Banshee."

"What a great idea, to carry someone with you for the rest of your life," the 57-year-old IT specialist said of the indelible memorial.

He added: "And then, my mother passed."

Artist Frank DeMao, of Bent n Twizted Tattoo, Willington, Connecticut, tattoos a portrait of recently deceased Carol Shallbetter onto the right forearm of her son, Timothy, at the Villain Arts Minneapolis Tattoo Convention.
Edward Kido/Contributed
Artist Frank DeMao, of Bent n Twizted Tattoo, Willington, Connecticut, tattoos a portrait of recently deceased Carol Shallbetter onto the right forearm of her son, Timothy, at the Villain Arts Minneapolis Tattoo Convention.

Cremated remains have been scattered across beaches and over oceans, interred in cemeteries, stored at home, planted in gardens, encased in jewelry. Once in a while, though, a mourner goes rogue and turns cremains into body art.

At Black Vulture Gallery in Fishtown, artist Chad Knight has done a handful of such tattoos, including a portrait of a German shepherd. "I mean, I felt weird going into a bag of bones and crushed-up ashes," he said. "It's not like all of it is super-fine."

Knight lines up thimble-size ink dips, resembling cough-medicine dosage cups, and dusts the ashes in with a black or gray blend. The customer then settles in for the typically hours-long process, in which a mechanized needle jackhammers ink into the second layer of skin.

He makes minimal use of Fluffy's cremains. "You're pouring, like, 10 caps of ink," Knight said, "so you sprinkle it in one cap [and] maybe just dip the needle in one or two times."

At Olde City Tattoo, "we do it all the time," typically on customers sitting for portraits or stylized names of the dearly departed, said owner Jason Goldberg. "Who am I to say no? It's your tattoo."

He, too, combines the ink with "just a little bit" of the ashes. He considers the addition a symbolic gesture, since they won't necessarily dissolve.

"They're just in there," Goldberg said.

Eric F. Bernstein, a dermatologic laser surgeon at Main Line Center for Laser Surgery, does plenty of tattoo removals. He gets it.

"It's a really nice gesture," he said, "to want to keep part of a loved one you have lost with you."

Still, he has concerns.

Temperatures during cremation, he noted, range from 1,400 to 1,600 degrees — high enough to "sterilize just about anything." But crematorium employees aren't necessarily preparing the ashes to be tattooed into a living person's arm.

"Most of the ink is carbon black, and what is the Star Trek line? 'We're just carbon-based life forms?' " Bernstein said. "But there should be a process in place. Maybe a company that could take some of the ashes, make sure they're sterile, create a particle size that's perfect to mix with tattoo ink, and standardize and test remains like that, and prepare them for placement in a tattoo."

A New York-based company, Everence, does offer a service that converts DNA into a polymer to be mixed with tattoo inks, but as of now, it requires cheek swabs from an upright human or animal. The service is also expensive, starting at about $300. That doesn't include the tattoo itself, which will make the cost multiply; a portrait can run around $900.

And the substance is not ideal, Bernstein said.

"I very much like the scientific approach," he said. "But I think incorporating [ashes] into the ink without putting it into a polymer is probably a better idea."

Shallbetter got the idea for his Banshee tattoo from a widowed friend who had his wife's ashes inked into a bouquet over his heart.

But before proceeding, Shallbetter decided to take his own precautions. With Star San, an acid-based sanitizer more commonly used on home brewing equipment, he sterilized a mortar and pestle to crush the cremains and a fine strainer to sift them. "It just seemed logical to me that I'd want as fine of a powder as possible," he said. On his way to the tattoo convention with his plastic bag, "it almost looked like I was toting around some illicit substance.  I was really hoping nobody pulled me over and searched me." 

A circa 1950s, black-and-white photo of Carol Shallbetter (left) was the inspiration for her son’s tattoo.
Courtesy of Carol Shallbetter
A circa 1950s, black-and-white photo of Carol Shallbetter (left) was the inspiration for her son’s tattoo.

In January, he went to another tattoo fest — this time carrying the cremains of his mother, Carol. He found himself in a booth next to the main entrance to the Minneapolis Convention Center.

"Even though I only told a couple of people," he said, "by mid-tattoo, word had spread."

During the six-hour process, many artists sneaked a peek, asking, "Is it true that you have cremains in there?" and "Is it legal?"

"Disposal of cremains is really up to the next of kin," he answered.

He did catch flak, however, from a God-fearing family member who insisted the remains should not be separated.

Shallbetter scoffed. "I have never read that in the Bible," he said. "I think it's more superstition than religion, and I think they were just jealous because they didn't think of it."

Before meeting the artist at the convention center, Shallbetter had sent along a 1950s-era black-and-white photo of his mother but didn't mention any added ingredients.

When they met up, Shallbetter pulled out his plastic bag and asked, "Would you mind?"

"Normally, I'm kind of leery about doing that," artist Frank DeMao told him. "But I'll do it."

He dusted a cup with about one-eighth of a teaspoon of Mom, and inscribed the black-and-gray portrait on his forearm.

"She was just such a beautiful woman," Shallbetter said.

It was his 28th tattoo and — sorry, Banshee — his favorite.