The Art Of Preserving Tattooed Skin After Death
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.
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.”
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.
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