When I was a child, my favourite Roald Dahl story was Skin, a macabre tale about an old tattooist named Drioli, who has a magnificent work of art tattooed on his back by the famous painter Chaïm Soutine. One day he happens upon an exhibition of the dead artist’s work in a fancy Paris gallery, and recalling the tattoo on his back, he decides to go inside and take a closer look. Having fallen on hard times and now reduced to begging for a living, he is not welcome amongst the wealthy art patrons – until he reveals the original artwork permanently inked into his skin. The gallery owner immediately offers him a large sum of money for the tattoo: “But how,” Drioli asks, “can I possibly sell it?”
The gallery owner suggests that he have the tattoo removed by skin graft operation, and offers to pay a handsome sum for the flayed ‘artwork’ – a proposal that is immediately countered by protests from the gathered patrons – the old man could never survive such a procedure. Poor old Drioli becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the discussion going on around him, until eventually, he is made an offer by one of the art collectors to perform as a living picture gallery at his hotel, where he will be able to live a life of luxury in return. Drioli accepts, and a few weeks later, a “nicely framed and heavily varnished” picture by Soutine, matching the description of Drioli’s tattoo, turns up at an auction in Buenos Aires. As a child, I remember the shiver of morbid delight I felt reading this outlandishly ghoulish ending – but I never would have dreamed that such a thing as preserved tattoos actually existed. Now, I wonder whether Roald Dahl drew inspiration from personal experience of seeing such a collection.
Until recently, the real history of tattoo collecting in the 19th and 20th centuries has received little serious research attention. Despite this, the preserved tattoo has continued to capture the popular imagination in film and fiction. Representations of the practice are typically portrayed within the horror genre as the work of murderous psychopaths, and tattooing is frequently connected with criminal elements: Robert Schwentke’s noir-ish and heavily stylised 2002 film Tattoo is a case in point.
The film opens where Roald Dahl’s gallery owner leaves off – with the removal of a tattoo from the living body by skin graft. Dahl’s gruesome suggestion is graphically realised by Schwentke: A naked and traumatized female victim stumbles down a dark main road in a drugged stupor, blood running down her legs – the camera pans up to reveal her back, a raw and bloody wound, almost all of the skin stripped away in a neat rectangle. Her tattoo has been stolen; she does not survive the procedure.
The deviant, disreputable and underworld associations with the tattoo, its related subcultures and practitioners is ever-present within the film’s milieu: From the tattooist who smokes as he works on tattooing the arm of an underage boy, his studio doubling up as a back-alley porn studio; to the street junkie who sells his pound of tattooed flesh for a hit; to the tattooed porn actress who is inevitably murdered, the tattooed skin of her breasts discovered pinned to the back of a door in a ad-hoc attempt at preservation. Wherever tattoos are encountered, criminality, morally dubious behaviour and anomie are never far away. Even the cultured collector, who admits that the tattooed skin of a murdered girl is the “pinnacle of tattoo art – perhaps all art” believes that our present day taste for tattooing represents a return to the primitive, a retreat from civilisation: “Instead of advancing away from the primitive, we are drawn back to our base natures.” But his apparent appreciation for the tattoo as an art form is undermined when the police discover a private room adjacent to his gallery of decorated human skin, which is lavishly furnished with soft, pale leather wall panels, lamps and upholstered armchairs. Human skin is itself fetishised, made into tactile objects of everyday use – the ultimate in taboo collectors’ items, recalling the worst perversions of Nazi concentration camps, and the spectre of the human lampshade.
It is interesting to note that both Schwentke’s film and Dahl’s story locate the preserved tattoo within the sphere of the art world – both treat the tattooist as ‘great artists’ in their own right, whether he be a painter or Japanese tattoo master. The value of the work is considered to be far greater once the artist/tattooist is dead. And both narratives identify the collector of tattooed human skin as fine art collectors who possess a cultured appreciation of the tattoo. Despite this, Dahl and Schwentke’s collectors look down upon the tattooed themselves, occupying a more privileged class position. By adopting an art world context in their narratives, the subjugation of the bodies and interests of one group of people, for the sake of the pathological aesthetic values of another, can perhaps be more clearly understood in terms of class. The lower classes are tattooed; the upper classes collect art. Of course, 19th and 20th century tattoo collectors were not strictly art connoisseurs, though some certainly took an interest in tattoo iconography. Rather, they were doctors and police scientists in positions of institutional authority over the tattooed classes whom they studied. They were people who possessed the power and resources to collect tattooed skin from cadavers in prisons, hospitals, barracks and asylums.
Whether or not Dahl did see such objects for himself, it is clear that his tale is intended to be read as a black comedy. Schwentke’s film on the other hand, clearly references real historical practices of tattoo preservation. The choice of the classical Japanese style of tattooing, or irezumi, as the exemplary ‘pinnacle’ of the art form, for instance, recalls the famous (though seldom-seen) collection of tattooed human skins at the Medical Pathology Museum of Tokyo University. Established during the early 20th century by Dr. Masaichi Fukushi and succeeded by his son, Dr. Katsunari Fukushi, this collection contains around 105 human skins tattooed in the traditional Japanese style, including a number of full body suits similar to the one pictured on the DVD cover above.
But perhaps the most powerful and uncomfortable subtext present in Schwentke’s film are the associations that can be drawn between tattoo collecting and Nazi concentration camp atrocities. Stories emerged during the 1940’s of the fetishistic tattoo collecting practices of Ilse Koch, the wife of commandant Karl-Otto Koch at the Buchenwald and Majdanek concentration camps. Though never convicted due to a lack of evidence, Koch became known in the press as the “Bitch of Buchenwald”, and was accused of selecting concentration camp inmates for their tattoos, before having them executed and their skins preserved. During her trial, Ilse Koch was portrayed as an evil and sadistic femme fatale, responsible for organising the execution of inmates and ordering the manufacture of grim tattooed human trophies from their bodies. In the final scene of Tattoo, is not difficult to see the parallels with Koch in Schwentke’s villianess: As the arctic and calculating gallery owner, who orchestrates a murderous trade in tattoo collecting, casually lifts the shirt-sleeve of a waiter in a cafe and gazes covetously at the tattoo on his arm.
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© Life & 6 Months, 2012
Part of this post was first published in the November issue of Things and Ink magazine.
Speaking of Pictures: Japanese skin specialist collects human tattoos for Tokyo museum, in Life magazine, April 3rd 150.