Unlocking The Mysteries Of The Tattoos Of The Dead

The Huffington Post UK  |  By Posted: 09/05/2012 17:17 Updated: 09/05/2012 18:18

Gemma Angel is an expert on tattoos. Except, she doesn't know who the ones she studies belongs to, or really why - because they are the last remains of people who died over a century ago.

Angel is the PHD student chosen by University College London and the Science Museum to unravel the mysteries behind a macabre collection of tattooed human skins acquired by the Wellcome Collection, a London museum specialising in medical artefacts, 80 years ago.

All nameless, nobody knows who once sported these tattoos, or, more troublesomely, why they were cut off their bodies and how they were preserved in the first place.

We caught up with Angel to find out a little more, and she took us through her favourites of the 300 specimens, which you can learn about in the gallery below.

gemma angel

What are people’s reactions when you tell them what you do?

Most of the time people think it’s really interesting, they don’t expect this kind of thing to even be out there. There was one occasion when I was talking to a barman in Manchester about what I did, and he just said, “no, that doesn’t exist”, he refused to believe it. Some people think it’s quite creepy, or strange, but I’ve got so used to handling these things and working with them now that it doesn’t seem that strange to me any more. But I am aware that human remains in museums are a contentious issue. It's something that really splits opinion.

What was it like the first time you encountered the skins?

They fascinated me from the word go, but the smell of them took some getting used to! Because I trained as a tattooist, I was immediately drawn to the tattoos and I had a specific tattooist’s eye for looking at them. The longer you look at them, the more you get drawn in. It has a strange effect on you - you start to think more about what they really are. You turn them over in your hands and you realise that they’re pieces of somebody else’s skin. Then you start to really look closely at the skin and think about all the associations you have with tactility and touch, and whether you can categorise them as objects at all. Because they have this power of subjectivity, still. A tattoo is a mark of somebody else’s will inscribed on their body, which in this case has outlived the individual, and it’s very, very strange to look at them and think about that.

Do you have a favourite?

The chest piece. It’s more or less the entire torso, from just beneath the collar bones to just above the pubis, and he was clearly a very tall guy, easily six foot. The preservation itself is very well done, the design hasn’t been salvaged in it entirety, but the major parts of it are intact, it’s been preserved with care. The tattoo itself is very skilled, you still have all of this black and grey shading visible around the female figure on the right side, you can still see bits of the red pigment in the dagger and the roses. It’s just a really nice detailed work - it looks like it was done with hand needles, not a machine. It was definitely done by a professional. Of all the Wellcome Collection tattoos I could have come across in a photograph, this would be the easiest to recognise, and I couldn’t have hoped for a better result in that respect.

Because you’ve found a photograph of the tattooed man, haven’t you?

When I turned the page over in the book and I first saw this image I was so overwhelmed, I almost dropped the book. I came across this photograph after I’d been working with the skins for two years. So I had known this tattoo really well, I had handled the skin, they feel as familiar to me as the back of my own hand. So to then see the tattoo, in its entirety, alive, it was almost like seeing the face of a friend who you hadn’t seen for years in a crowd. I just wish his face was visible, I'd like to know who he was. The most frustrating thing about the photograph is that he’s headless.

Do you know why the specimens were collected?

This is the core mystery really. I think certainly there was a lot of interest in the tattoo in medico-legal circles during the late 19th century. There was a lot of debate about what tattoos meant, why people would get them. Amongst European populations, it was considered deviant by many scholars. Criminologists sought to connect it to criminality. But it’s not criminologists' names that I’m coming up with, it’s anatomists and pathologists. It’s strange - these people had the opportunities to collect them, but their motivations are more obscure. There are probably a lot of different motivations, but it was part of a wider interest in the surface of the body, and what you could read from the surface about the person within. Trying to get to grips with the soul, the psychological workings of the other.

Do you think that attributes to the mystery the collection?

Absolutely. I think these collectors knew they were doing something that was a bit dodgy. I’ve come across references to one or two scandals which came about as a result of particular doctors harvesting and preserving tattoos - you might keep a pathological specimen from a human body for a teaching aid for medical students, but can you really justify keeping a tattoo? It seems there’s some aspect fetishisation involved, of the tattooed image, and the skin itself. It’s complicated, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get to the bottom of it, but I’ve got some time yet.

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  • This is Gemma's favourite tattoo, and one she has managed to find a photograph of on the man during his lifetime. PHOTO: Gemma Angel

  • This is the famous 'Child of Misfortune'. I think that it's such a poignant thing to tattoo on your body, and for the tattoo to then outlive you as well, it's quite tragic really. PHOTO: Gemma Angel

  • This one is like compacted cardboard, it's so tough. The surface feels kind of soft, you can feel the trace chemicals - the preservation process has left a chemical film, which is why it's discoloured this orange colour. The tattoo is a nautical star, and lower there is a large female portrait (not pictured). From the looking at the curved grooves towards upper edge, this skin has most likely come from a shoulder. PHOTO: Gemma Angel

  • This is just the perfect collection of sailor tattoos - fouled anchor, creature of the sea, betrayal in love, the name tattooed as an identifying mark. It's like a narrative. PHOTO: Gemma Angel

  • This is a strongman, one of a small number of circus tattoos in the collection. There's also a tightrope walker and a juggler. It's a possibility that these tattoos belonged to circus performers. They stand out in the collection, there's not very many of them, although there is a similar collection in Paris, and there are quite a few circus performer tattoos in there. PHOTO: Gemma Angel

  • It seems strange that someone in the 19th century would choose a Roman figure, which makes this one interesting. It's not preserved in it's entirety either - was this one collected in haste? Was it collected opportunistically or was the body perhaps just too damaged to salvage more? Maybe this was as much as they were able to preserve. PHOTO: Gemma Angel

  • This is a tradesman's tattoo, clearly a blacksmith or metal worker. The discolouration of the skin shows different layers of epidermis - in the paler areas, the surface layer has shucked off, possibly as a result of decay, advancing before it was preserved. The condition of the skin can tell you something about the conditions of preservation. PHOTO: Gemma Angel

  • This is a military tattoo, commemorating a tour of duty. Souvenir tattoos such as this are quite common. PHOTO: Gemma Angel

  • This one I just think is really nice. It's part of a chest tattoo - you can see the nipple in the bottom left corner. This person was clearly a collector of tattoos themselves. Portraits and butterflies. I would love to have seen the rest of the body, I wonder if he was this extensively tattooed over the rest of his skin? PHOTO: Gemma Angel

  • I've included this one because I think she looks really sad. To me, with the veil, it looks like she's in mourning. PHOTO: Gemma Angel

  • This is a good example of the really detailed texture of some of these objects - the edges have been trimmed on this one to remove the frills and puncture holes made by pins during drying. But it obviously wasn't dried adequately, as we can see from this amazing wrinkling along the edge. The skins are not flat two dimensional images at all. PHOTO: Gemma Angel

  • This one's very hairy and very thin - you can see my fingers through it. Again, this is a regimental tattoo. PHOTO: Gemma Angel

  • The convex bubble is a nipple. I took this photograph partly to show how it protrudes from the surface, but also to show how thin the skin is. The red colouration here is capillaries in the surface of the skin. The tattoos are really just one interesting feature of these objects. PHOTO: Gemma Angel

  • The convex bubble is a nipple. I took this photograph partly to show how it protrudes from the surface, but also to show how thin the skin is. The red colouration here is capillaries in the surface of the skin. The tattoos are really just one interesting feature of these objects. PHOTO: Gemma Angel

  • The tattoo here is quite obscure, but its the texture of this one that's really interesting to me - it reminds you that skin is a three dimensional surface, it's textured. I don't know if you can make it out, but this tattoo is a little bit obscene! I couldn't figure this design out for ages, it's a bit of an odd one. PHOTO: Gemma Angel

  • This is a damaged skin, and this tear would have occurred before it was preserved. You can see the pinholes along the edges of the tear where it has been stretched out to dry. PHOTO: Gemma Angel

  • This one is really thick, it's very stiff, there's no pliability at all. The texture of the skin is very different from the others - it's incredibly smooth, and there are almost no visible pores. I imagine that this person would have had great skin for tattooing! PHOTO: Gemma Angel

  • I love how bold this red is. I'd love to be able to do chemical tests on this, but my suspicion is that this particular red is cinnabar, which has a very high mercury content. It's highly toxic, but this kind of red pigment really stays in the skin. PHOTO: Gemma Angel

  • This is a memorial tattoo. There's a grim reaper holding an hourglass. The words 'Pense A Moi' - think of me - are tattooed at the top right above a weeping willow, as well as an image of a pansy, the French flower of remembrance. PHOTO: Gemma Angel

  • PHOTO: Gemma Angel

  • PHOTO: Gemma Angel