Sixty glass jars with slices of tattooed human skin are on display at MUDE, a design museum in Lisbon, Portugal. They were taken from prisoners, prostitutes, and sailors who called the city's old town home in the early 1900s, when inked skin was generally condemned. Next to the fragments are sketches and details written by doctors of the day, who seemed more concerned with categorizing their subjects than healing them.
The exhibition, O mais profundo é a pele ("The most profound is the skin"), explores the sociocultural context surrounding these tattoos, from the people who wore them to the physicians who recorded them with such a stern sociological gaze. The samples are borrowed from Portugal's National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences and on display until June 25.
"Philosopher Michel Foucault wrote about the anatomy of power and how you can find different systems of control and power on the body," Director of MUDE, Bárbara Coutinho, tells Creators. "This is one of those systems. The body is a map and the doctors took record of the signs as a way to see and study the physiological and psychological profile of that person in specific."
By studying the tattoos and asking personal questions, physicians developed profiles about their subjects, classifying them as murderers, seafarers, and people with various mental illnesses. The profiles tell as much about the people who were tattooed as they do about the institutions of power present at the time.
"They'd record the names and lives of these people to know why, where, and what they tattooed," Coutinho says. "What did they have to say? What was their intention?"
Though society's view of tattoos—and the people who wear them—has changed, many of the motivations and motifs haven't. Mother Mary and bare-chested women are common, sometimes even in proximity of each other on the body. There are signs of personal feats and phrases meant to intimidate. Names of lovers and ex-lovers are etched into hearts pierced by arrows, while flags and shields shows national pride.
But, above all, the tattoos paint a kind of social portrait of Portugal and, more specifically, Lisbon in the early 20th century. Zoom in a little further and they give a glimpse of the old neighborhoods where prostitutes and seamen hung around, both with their own unique ink.
Portuguese tattoos were typically simply drawn and monochrome. Coutinho calls them "naive." Soon-to-be-prisoners would mark themselves with warnings of their crimes. "They'd have messages or symbols that gave a clear message—'Don't fuck with me, don't mess with me, I'm dangerous,'" she says. Prostitutes were often involuntarily inscribed with the initials of pimps and lovers.
Sailors on the other hand wore exotic and colorful designs acquired abroad. "You can see this documentation and these descriptions of city life compared to the outside from people who left and returned," Coutinho says. "The tattoos outside Portugal are different than those inside."
Back then tattoos were an aesthetic accessory and a way for wearers craft their own identity. Coutinho points out that this is an accepted act today but was far from commonplace up until just a few decades ago.
"The body was like a book where some people compose themselves with symbols and images of their own identity. In that moment tattoos were a very marginal activity. They weren't accepted by society." she says. "But it has now become a contemporary."
O mais profundo é a pele is open now until June 25 at MUDE in Lisbon. Read more about the exhibition on the MUDE website.