Human Pelts: The Art of Preserving Tattooed Skin After Death
Inked bodies can become permanent pelts after a person is carefully skinned and then covered in preservative chemicals, like an animal hide.
In 2009, retired school teacher Geoff Ostling was showing his tattoos at a seminar at the National Museum of Australia when he was approached by a curator with an unusual request: Would he be open to donating his skin for posthumous display at the museum? Nearly all of Ostling's body is covered with floral tattoos, the result of a creative collaboration between him and Australian artist eX de Medici.
There are currently no other tattooed skins on display at the National Museum of Australia, but they do have a collection of 18 other works by eX de Medici, who is now so acclaimed she no longer does tattoos (a different artist is completing Ostling's " body suit"). And while Ostling is still very much alive, he's agreed to donate his skin when he dies. A future visitor to the museum will be able to view his taxidermied body presented as a work of art.
The collection, study, and display of tattooed human skin is a practice that goes back hundreds of years. Modern tattoos preservation is mostly for the sake of saving art: Aside from Ostling, Irish performance artist Sandra Ann Vita Minchin plans to have her back tattoo, a recreation of a 17th Century Dutch artist's work, preserved and auctioned to the highest bidder after she dies. There's also Tim Steiner, who has given consent for his large back tattoo to be preserved by a German collector after his death. In the past, though, preserved tattoos were often saved for criminologists to study.
Dr. Gemma Angel, a tattoo historian and anthropologist in the United Kingdom, told me that "whilst today the focus is often on the artistic value or iconography of tattoos, during the time when these tattoos were being collected, scholars were more interested in deciphering their meaning, and trying to establish a taxonomy of symbols that could tell them something about the individual's usually 'criminal' psychology."
The largest collection of human skins is at the Wellcome Collection at London's Science Museum, which has over 300 individual tattoo fragments. Angel notes that there are other substantive collections that similarly display preserved tattooed skin: "The anthropology department of the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle has around 56 pieces, very similar to the Wellcome Collection, dating from the 19th Century. The Department of Forensic Medicine at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland has 60 tattoos, and the Instituto Nacional de Medicina Legal e Ciências Forenses (INMLCF) collections in Lisbon, Portugal, contains 70 specimens. And there are many more examples of smaller collections in London, Berlin, and Austria."
A tattoo typically outlives a person's body only by as long as burial or cremation arrangements will allow, so for a tattoo to be preserved after someone's death, special care has to be taken. In most cases, Angel explained, "the skin would simply have been cut away from the cadaver using a scalpel. Depending upon the degree of decomposition and atmospheric conditions, this is a relatively straightforward operation. Skin decomposes very quickly, so in most cases removal would have taken place during autopsy."
There are two main methods of preservation: dry and wet. The former, which is most prevalent in older specimens, requires scraping on the reverse to remove connective tissue. Angel explained that "after the skin has been scraped, it is stretched and pinned out to dry. It may be treated with various chemical compounds before or after this stage, or both. The skin shrinks as it dries, leaving a characteristic 'frilling' around the edges." With wet preservation, the skin is extracted in the same way, and kept in either glycerin or formalin alcohol.
As fascinating as it is, public exhibits of preserved tattooed skin are rare and controversial. That's in part because it's unclear whether many of these skins were acquired ethically. The preserved skins in the Wellcome Collection, for example, were all purchased from a single mysterious individual.
"As is often the case, the museum acquisition records are sketchy," Angel explained. "The seller called himself Dr. La Valette, but there was no registered medical professional by that name at the medical school during that time. In all likelihood, he was using a pseudonym—there had been one or two public scandals surrounding the use of human skin excised from cadavers to make souvenir items at the Paris medical faculty, as well as experimental tattoo removal on inmates at La Sante prison, so it makes sense that anyone in possession of such a large collection of preserved tattoos would be wary of revealing his identity."
There are other horrendous examples of acquiring tattoo specimens, like Ilse Koch, the wife of Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp commandant Karl-Otto Koch, who became infamous for having tattooed prisoners killed and turning their skins into lamp shades.
Even with the most ethically sourced of specimens, it's impossible to escape the fact that displaying a tattoo posthumously also means displaying someone's actual skin. While many argue that skin donation should be treated like all other organ donations (Ostling certainly did when I spoke with him), it's worth asking whether the sight of someone's preserved skin provokes the same response as, say, their preserved liver.
"Today, it's an important part of medical ethics that objects of human remains are treated with the appropriate respect, and in the UK, recent changes in the law require museums to have a public display license for human remains," Angel noted. "Since most collections of human remains belong to universities, and not all universities will have a public display license, it would be illegal for curators to allow unlimited public access to their collections. This is one of the reasons why access is usually restricted to the research community and medical students."
This restricted access means that some of the most impressive collections of preserved skin are rarely seen. The Medical Pathology Museum at Tokyo University, for example, has an extensive collection of preserved tattoos, including many very large, almost full-body skin fragments with tattoos of traditional Japanese themes—but the exhibit is not open to the public and access is rarely granted.
One of the few Americans to get a good look at this collection is, oddly enough, Don Ed Hardy of Ed Hardy fame. Hardy first visited in 1983 at the invitation of Dr. Katsunari Fukushi, who was at the time responsible for the collection, which was started by his father Dr. Masaichi Fukushi. According to Hardy's memoir Wear Your Dreams: My Life in Tattoos, the collection included more than 3,000 photographs of tattos (along with extensive notes and records from the elder Dr. Fukushi) and over 100 tattooed human skins. Hardy notes that Dr. Fukushi had acquired these skins by working in a charity hospital, and by offering people money "to finish their tattoos on the condition he could harvest the tattoo when they died."
Many of the dried specimens in the Medical Pathology Museumare are framed like wild animal hides; others stand upright on styrofoam mannequins. An even more exclusive part of the collection is a set of wet specimens kept submerged in chemical tanks in a lab room that was captured in photos of a later visit by Hardy.
Ostling has also visited the Medical Pathology Museum, as part of the filming of the 30-minute documentary Skin, which featured Ostling's quest to get everything in place for his museum donation. It turns out that this is no small task.
Upon Ostling's death, the first step is to freeze Ostling's corpse. He likened skin removal, which needs to happen within 24 hours of his death, to removing wall paper: "very easy to do, but not easy to do well. You have to be careful to not tear it, but after it's tanned and preserved it will last for a very long time." He says he has "every confidence" in the taxidermist he's chosen. Unlike the Tokyo collection where the tattooed skins—even the full body suits—are missing their extremities, heads, and genitals, Ostling wants his skin display to "stand complete."
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