This post originally appeared on VICE Romania.
Say what you want about the kind of people who get barbed wire tattooed on their biceps or tribal tramp stamps—deep down you know you envy them for their commitment. They have the guts to brand themselves with something silly for life, while people like me can barely commit to a three-month gym membership.
Which is why I couldn't miss the History of Symbols: The Tattoo in Romania exhibition taking place at Suțu Palace in Bucharest. The show features some of the oldest tats in the country, on the very pieces of dead skin on which they were etched. And yes, some of these still have hair on them, which is both disgusting and fascinating.
The tattoos are part of the private collection of Nicolae Minovici (1868–1941), a forensic doctor who served as as head of Romania's anthropometric service. Minovici wrote an essay on Romanian tattoos in a time when ink graced the bodies of those representing the bottom of the social scale, like drunken sailors or prostitutes. (He was also pretty much responsible for the introduction of concepts like the morgue and an ambulance service in Romania, but that's another story.)
Most of the tattoos Minovici gathered belong to illiterate male delinquents. Half were Romanian, half were foreigners. Most of them made the safe choice of getting their girlfriend's names inked on their chests and arms, but the collection also features some pretty obscene designs. In his essay, Minovici talks about the 11 cases of penis tattoos he encountered in Paris and three cases of what he calls "sick" tattoos in Romania. In one of those, "the naked body of the man's mistress contrasts the dead body of his son." Romania's most famous penis tattoo belonged to the dick of a highwayman called Terente and said "I fuck well and I'm heavy on the beak."
There were professional tattoo artists in Bucharest back then, but they were mostly Greek, which means the whole thing was an imported trend. Most drew their own tattoos using a pretty awful method that involved burning oil and mixing the leftover ashes with urine.
To find out a little more about Minovici and tattoo culture in Romania, I spoke with professor Octavian Buda, a psychiatrist at the Institute for Forensic Medicine and the author of many articles and books on tattoos. He told me that this collection is special, because during those times, tattoos were a rarity. I still found it odd that there were no rebellious noblemen tattoos among the collection, but he explained that "it was difficult to gain access to those people, because they had a higher social status, so they were buried accordingly," meaning they couldn't be used as study material at the morgue.
Minovici would take photos of the tattoos in his collection and show them to his students of forensic medicine. Photography itself was a rarity in that age, but it was used a lot in forensics.
Professor Buda thinks that Minovici's interest in tattoos could be considered "artistic only as a form of expression. By which I mean he wanted to express the mindset of the criminal, and the psychological universe that made him act this way. Minovici was considered a gutsy pioneer who dealt with the dark side of society, a theme that fascinated both the local and the international press at the time."
So yeah, do check out A History of Symbols if you happen to be in Bucharest some time until the end of March, when it closes.