09/05/2012 13:17 BST | Updated 09/05/2012 14:18 BST

Unlocking The Mysteries Of The Tattoos Of The Dead

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.

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.