These People Are Taking Meaningful Tattoos To The Absolute Next Level
Do you love someone enough to get their DNA tattooed on you? These people do.
On an early Sunday morning in January 2007, 18-year-old Ashley Myers was driving home from Washington, D.C. on Interstate 66 when a tanker truck hauling gasoline struck the car directly behind her, causing it to crash into her Volvo station wagon. In a matter of seconds, all three vehicles were consumed by flames.
What remained of Ashley was, in her mother Wynnie Myers's words, not much more than a pair of sneakers. Eleven years later, a week before what would have been Ashley's 30th birthday, Myers got a portion of her daughter's DNA tattooed on her left shoulder as part of an ornate sunflower-and-butterfly tattoo in memory of her. "It brings me a sense of peace and happiness," Myers tells Refinery29. "I can touch her. I can feel her. It’s such a different experience to know that I have her DNA on me."
With help from a new company called Everence, thousands of people have now injected DNA from their loved ones (including children, parents, spouses, and even pets) into their skin via tattoos. The idea for the company — which, yes, sounds like something straight out of a Black Mirror episode— came to co-founder Patrick Duffy in 2013 when he was running a scuba diving therapy program for military veterans. During one dive in Key Largo, Florida, he met a woman who had a tattoo in honour of her late husband, a Navy SEAL killed in combat, on her leg.
"I saw it and thought, Wouldn't it be interesting to turn that tattoo into a reliquary for her husband?" Duffy says. "I came out of the water and couldn't shake the idea."
For the next four years, Duffy worked with scientists and tattoo artists around the country to try and figure out if this could – and should – be done. "I just kept on asking myself the question, How can you really make a tattoo even more personal than it already is?" Duffy says. After numerous patents, Duffy landed on a system that turns the DNA of another human being or pet into a powder-like substance (called "Everence"), which can then be mixed into tattoo ink. As freaky as the concept sounds, it was actually closely monitored by Bruce Klitzman, associate professor of surgery at Duke University, and Edith Mathiowitz, professor of medical science and engineering at Brown University.
The process to get such a tattoo begins a little like 23andMe. First, customers order a $350 USD Everence kit, which instructs them to collect a sample of the DNA they'd want in their tattoo, and can come from a strand of hair, cremated ashes, or a cheek swab. After sending the hair, cremains, or swabs back to Everence in the original box with a pre-paid shipping label, it's sent to a lab, where the sample undergoes a patented 21-part process in which scientists extract a short strand of DNA, amplify it, purify it, and then micro-encapsulate it in a medical-grade polymer, which protects it from ever being destroyed by the body.
After the powder is individually inspected for quality, it's sent back to the customer within 45 days. When the Everence arrives in the customer's mailbox, it looks like a tiny vial of white powder or sand, but if you were to look at the powder in extreme closeup, you'd see microspheres, which are protecting the DNA.
Customers can then hand that vial over to any tattoo artist, who then pours it into the ink, stirs for 10 seconds, and begins buzzing away. The Everence is invisible within the design and, thanks to that micro-encapsulating, the DNA doesn't disappear into the body, but instead sits permanently on the surface of the skin with the tattoo. The biggest difference between it and any other tattoo? The removal. Duffy says to remove it completely, you'd have to get a biopsy. In other words, it's very permanent.
Although this entire process sounds eerily futuristic, people have been getting so-called biogenic tattoos, also coined "morbid ink," for years. But unlike those often underground practices, in which people dumped ashes and hair directly into the ink, Everence has taken the extra precautions to ensure the process is safe.
So why would people feel compelled to get these tattoos with DNA in the first place? "About 98% of people who get the tattoo do so for two reasons, either something involving emotional connection or individual expression," Duffy says. And just like regular tattoos, the types of people interested in getting Everence tattoos vary. "Our customers are two-time Oscar-winning directors, lawyers in their early '20s, and grandmothers who have never had a tattoo before," Duffy says. "It’s been a lot of people who have just beaten cancer, and people who have lost someone, or gotten engaged."
By Duffy's calculations, about 55% of people who have ordered Everence have never had a tattoo before. Boyd Renner, who'd eventually become one of the co-founders of Everence, was one of those people. After hearing whispers of Duffy's idea through a mutual friend, Renner reached out to Duffy in the early stages of Everence's development. "To be honest, it didn't resonate with me right away," Renner says. "I had spent 28 years in the Navy and I had never had a tattoo in my entire life. I dismissed it generationally."
But then his wife, who has cystic fibrosis, got poor results back from a lung test. On the long drive home, he started to change his mind about Patrick's idea. "It's then that I decided that I wanted my wife’s DNA in my very first tattoo, not because of the cystic fibrosis, but actually because she's the one person who inspires and motivates me the most," Renner says. "She’s the one that I look up to every day." Renner ended up getting an ornate rose design on his left calf, with the Everence poured into the red ink to create the roses.
For Merriman Mathewson, her Everence tattoo marked the second time she was getting inked. The 46-year-old mother of three, who lives in San Francisco, had been thinking of an excuse to get another tattoo after her first one disappeared under a cesarian scar.
"At first, I thought it was a little bizarre," Mathewson says. "Like, is this safe?" But after discussing it with Duffy, Mathewson decided to move forward with a tattoo that contained multiple DNA strains: specifically those of her four children. "My kids inspire me, and just to be able to carry all of them with me and walk forward with a part of each one of them in my everyday was inspiring."
Much like Myers, Mathewson's Everence tattoo is highly sentimental. She wasn't just using DNA from her three living children, who are aged 10 to 15, but also DNA from Perin, her child who died just after birth 13 years ago as a result of toxoplasmosis, which Mathewson contracted from unwashed salad greens.
Using cheek swabs for the DNA samples from her three children, Mathewson had to collect some of the strawberry-blonde locks the nurses cut from Perin's head at the hospital, and send them away to Everence. "It was some way I could have him with me," Mathewson says. "It’s not like I have a world of memories with him or a world of mementos that I can keep."
This January, with the four Everences in her possession, she went to a tattoo artist in Arizona and got an outline of a trumpet on her ribs as an homage to her hometown of New Orleans, with the Everence powder woven throughout the entirety of the black outline.
Though tattoos have long been sentimental for many people who have gotten them in honour of someone they love, swirling in that DNA takes things to another level.
When Myers saw tattoo artist Virginia Elwood of Saved Tattoo in Brooklyn, New York sprinkle her daughter's Everence into the ink, she was flooded with memories. "It was such a loving experience," Myers says. "There was no pain. There was laughter. They let me talk about her and asked questions about her and they let me share memories of her."
For Elwood, tattooing women like Myers has helped ease her own concerns about the process. "The science and safety, I had no doubt they would make a really safe product," Elwood says. "The reluctance would have come from knowing that tattoos are, in and of themselves, meaningful enough. Do we really need this DNA in there?"
But when you hear stories like Myers's and Mathewson's, there's obviously more emotional value for them knowing that they're literally carrying a part of their loved one on them at all times. As Myers says, "Even though I hold her close to my heart, Everence has allowed me to hold her even closer."