In late August, 2018, I presented a multimedia discussion for the members of Death Party Philadelphia with the catchy title of “Where do we go when we die?” The group, some three years old now, hosts monthly events relating to death positivity 1 and death adjacent subject matter so I worked my particular niche (the presentation may have alluded to me being a one trick pony) into it by discussing human taxidermy of tattooed skin and the fluid concept of “forever” when it comes to the human body. The central focus of the discussion were photographs and video from museums and institutions that house and exhibit preserved, tattooed, human skin- the Wellcome Collection, the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle (MNHN), Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum and Japan’s famous Medical Pathology Museum at Tokyo University were represented alongside pop culture ephemera and some deep dives into the semiotics of tattoo culture.
Once presented, synchronicity intervened and media and information about preserving tattooed skin started to randomly pop up in my day-to-day; a revised version of the .PDF is being worked on for the members of Death Party Philadelphia while some of the new material is being shared here on Sacred thanks to body piercer and Anthropologist Paul King, who recently visited Riga, Latvia, and spent some time at the Paula Stadina Medical Museum which as luck would have it was hosting an exhibition of dry preserved tattooed human skin. With his blessing, we’re sharing some of his photographs here along with a brief travelogue he was kind enough to include. The following photos are ©2018 Paul R. King.
“Riga, the capital city of Latvia, probably won’t conjure up images of important tattoo exhibits for
you either. “Important” might be arguable, but it’s an enjoyable exhibit and it’s complicated.
ĀDAS SKINS is a temporary show running from August 31 st to December 29, 2018. The exhibit is
housed in the wonderfully kitschy Paula Stradiņa Medical Museum. (This museum is well worth a
visit even if the SKINS exhibit isn’t on. You can read about the museum in Atlas Obscura.)
The exhibit was assembled with a very modest budget. The collection comprises thirty “skin
specimens” displayed along two walls of a single room, approximately 300 square feet. The
Latvian RSU Anatomy Museum collected all the tattooed skins from cadavers from November of
1921 through the 1930s. Analysis reveals the tattoo inks comprised India Ink, cinnabar, Prussian
blue, gunpowder, and charcoal. No examples or descriptions are provided about the equipment
used in tattooing. Some of the tattoos are believed to date to the late 19th century.
This assortment of tattooed skins was collected, owned, displayed by medical institutions. As such, this history is inescapable and the curatorial voice presents narrowly from an outsider and medical perspective. The bodies were sourced from prisons, hospitals, mental institutions, and hanging gallows. During the latter 19th into the 20th century, Scientists and medical professionals believedthat tattoos were a sign of criminality and an indicator of a lesser mental development. The tattoo designs would be analyzed in context with the bearer’s life story and crimes to establish andpredict criminal personality traits. Specimen tags are in some of the photos. These were called “corpse numbers” in order to match the tattoo patterns to the criminal biography.
Interspersed through the exhibit are etched drawings on limestone done by local artist Ausma
These collaborative pieces are meant to imagine what future sailors’ tattoos might be like
in the time of space travel. The choice of limestone was to resemble the look of skin.
If you’re anywhere in the region, it’s not to be missed! In drawing attention to this interesting
exhibit, I hope this collection may gain international support for a broader platform and deeper
-Paul King, September 2018
- Death Positivity on Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death-positive_movement ↩