Preserved tattooed skin: Art or horror?

Preserved tattooed skin: Art or horror?

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Homeless tattooist Drioli has a full back tattoo by famous dead painter Chaïm Soutine. One day, Drioli stumbles across an exhibition of Soutine's work. At first, Driolo isn’t welcome in the gallery. But when the gallery’s owner discovers the artwork etched on his skin, Driolo’s offered huge sums of money for the tattoo, even suggesting it’s removed by skin graft. Eventually, Drioli is offered a life of luxury to become a living work of art. The conclusion of Roald Dahl's short story Skin takes a sinister turn when a framed and varnished work by Soutine, matching the description of Drioli’s tattoo, turns up at auction… When I think of skin being removed from the  body, I’m also haunted by horror film Martyrs in which Anna tries to help her traumatised friend, who was tortured by a cult as a young girl, but ends up becoming the cult’s newest test subject – and they skin her’s brutal.

Those nightmarish scenes send goosebumps over every inch of my tattooed skin. But have you ever thought about what will happen to the works of art that are inked on to your own skin once you’re dead? In honour of spooky season, here’s some examples of human tattooed skin that’s been removed from the dead and preserved:

The bodysuit collector

Nicknamed the "bodysuit collector", pathologist Dr Fukushi Masaichi (who lived from 1878  to 1956) had a passion for Irezumi (the Japanese word for tattoo). So he started collecting human tattooed skin. With their consent, Dr Fukushi removed people’s skin after they died, preserving the tattoos in Tokyo's Medical Pathology Museum. The skin was peeled from the body, and nerves and tissue scraped off. He’d use one of either the dry or wet preservation method. The former meaning skin was stretched and pinned to dry, while the latter preserved by immersing the skin in glycerin or formalin. There’s more than 100 skinned items including full body suits, alongside 3,000 photographs with detailed notes, housed inside the museum in Tokyo. Sadly, it’s rarely open to the public. However, legendary American tattooist Don Ed Hardy was invited back in 1983. In Hardy's memoir, Wear Your Dreams: My Life in Tattoos, he writes that Dr. Fukushi acquired the skins by working in a hospital, he offered people money "to finish their tattoos on the condition he could harvest the tattoo when they died."

The Siberian Princess

The remains of a beautifully dressed “princess”, aged around 25 and preserved for several millennia in the Siberian frost – which acted as a natural freezer – were discovered in 1993 by scientist Natalia Polosmak during an expedition.The mummy’s covered in tattoos from her shoulders to her wrist. “It is a phenomenal level of tattoo art,” commented Polosmak. One of the tattoos on the mummy’s left shoulder looks like a mythological hybrid of a deer with a griffon’s beak and Capricorn antlers. The mummy was identified as a woman from the nomadic Pazyryk tribe (related to the Scythian people who lived more than 2,600 years ago during the 7th and 3rd centuries B.C).

The iceman with charcoal tattoos

Another tattooed body preserved by ice. Ötzi the “Iceman” was discovered in 1991 by a pair of hikers in the Alps bordering Austria and Italy. It’s thought that Ötzi died around 3,500 B.C and researchers have found a total of 61 tattoos on his body. The tattoos were likely created by inserting charcoal into incisions. 

The museum with tattooed skins

The Wellcome Collection in London is home to a collection of preserved tattooed human skin, shrunken heads and instruments used for surgical amputations. One such skin from around the 1800s shows several women’s heads, some of which are wearing hats, with butterflies flying in between – the designs are reminiscent of motifs still created in tattooing today. The tattoo was once owned by Parisian surgeon Dr Villette who worked in military hospitals and collected and preserved hundreds of samples from the bodies of dead French soldiers. 

Credit: Human skin, with tattoos of women's heads, France, 1900-1920. Science Museum, London

The Bitch of Buchenwald

Her nicknames have included: "The Beast of Buchenwald", the "Queen of Buchenwald", the "Witch of Buchenwald", "Butcher Widow" and "The Bitch of Buchenwald". Ilse Koch, wife of Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp commandant Karl-Otto Koch, was infamous for having male tattooed prisoners killed then reportedly turning their skin into lamp shades, albums and table covers. A photo album made from the skin of a prisoner was spotted in an antiques market in Poland by a collector who noted the cover had a “tattoo, human hair and a bad smell”.