By Helen Lewis (Story original appears at: http://www.newstatesman.com/.)
You smell room G34B before you see it. It’s the smell of formaldehyde. “It’s like nothing else,” says my guide, Gemma Angel. “It’s death, but very old death – not like in a dissection room.”
As we approach the corner of the corridor, a young woman comes round it, pushing a cart as tall as she is. “What’s in there?” asks Angel. “Prosthetic limbs,” comes the answer. “From the Paralympics display.”
G34B might be the most fascinating room in London, inside one of the most quietly unusual of the capital’s buildings. Blythe House in Barons Court is deliberately anonymous, a forbidding slab of red brick among quiet streets. To enter it, you need a very good reason – Angel is an academic researcher – and an appointment. We are buzzed through the clanking gates and past a sign that reads: “State of vigilance: HEIGHTENED”.
Inside, it looks like a Victorian institution, the kind of place where the insane or poor or otherwise undesirable might have been housed. Its high windows and squeaking linoleum floors positively demand a children’s nursery rhyme played in a minor key. It would make a very good setting for one of those episodes of Doctor Who where the producers haven’t got the budget to create an alien planet.
The reason for the secrecy around Blythe House is a good one: this is where several London museums, including the Wellcome Collection, keep their overflow when it is not on display but still needed for academic study. On our way in, we walk past canoes and eclectic paintings; the general air is of the world’s most historic jumble sale.
Then we turn the corner and Angel unlocks the door to G34B. It is the building’s “human remains” room and it demands a moment of silence. I see the skull of a foetus, the cranial sutures still not fused, and study my reflection in the billiard-ball smooth steel of a replacement hip joint. Under tissue paper in a box at floor level, I see something humanshaped. “Oh, I always say hello to the mummy,” Angel says cheerfully, lifting up the makeshift shroud to reveal a jaw hanging open in a soundless scream.
What we’re here to see appears at first glance less striking than many of the other inhabitants of the room. In glass cases and plastic sleeves are 300 slivers of skin from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Each one bears a tattoo. They are of varying levels of intricacy and artistry. Some are crude, black squiggles; others are detailed portraits that capture something of the sitter.
Studying them has been Angel’s life for the past three years, as she works towards a doctorate at University College London. (It will be awarded by the history of art department but her research crosses several disciplines.) She wants to know the identities of the men whose skins live on in room G34B; who harvested their tattoos and how; and what we can learn about the lives of people who had no way to document their experiences other than by recording them on their bodies.
My first meeting with Angel had taken place a few weeks earlier in the café of the Wellcome Collection on the Euston Road. I’d emailed her after seeing that she was speaking at a science event at the nearby Bloomsbury Theatre, where she was described simply as a “historian of tattoos and melder of art and science”.
What on earth does a tattoo historian do, I had wondered. The answer is much the same as an ordinary art historian, except the canvas is living (or dead) human skin.
Thanks to her mass of curly red hair, I spot Angel across the café easily. Dressed for the cold in a woollen jumper and jeans, she is not visibly tattooed – but later in the conversation she shows me a Gothic-lettered chest piece that reads: “Nothing human is alien to me.”
It is one of a small collection. She acquired her first tattoo, a Japanese character meaning “strong”, when she was 16. “I didn’t get another one until I was 21,” she says. “That was a turning point for me, because I spent two hours under the needle, so I had more time to contemplate the process and I talked to the tattooist as well. It really appealed to me – to submit yourself to a painful but personal transformation, moulding your body to fit your idea of yourself.”
At the time, Angel was studying for a fine art degree at Leeds. She and her self-taught tattooist “clicked”, she says, and he offered to show her the basic techniques of the trade. She worked at a studio in Manchester while finishing her degree; then she took a Master’s in Manchester in visual anthropology, studying the use of touch in special-needs schools. It’s one of the more eclectic CVs, filled out by a stint as a massage therapist, but there is one unifying component: skin.
“Guess what that is.”
I can feel my brow furrowing as I regard what looks like an L-shaped piece of parchment with a small doodle on it. Disconcertingly, in the hinge of the shape, there is a clump of hair. “It’s an armpit,” says Angel, tucking it away.
She holds up a pair of eyes, preserved separately, and grins. “These are from buttocks. I think it’s so that when you turn your back, it’s like, ‘Lads, I’m still watching you.’”
Studying old tattoos involves certain precautions. The collection Angel is working with has been preserved with formaldehyde, so we have to turn on a nozzled fume extractor that she calls the “elephant’s trunk” every time we take a piece of skin out of its wrapper. Despite the trunk, the smell of preservative hangs in the air and I can feel a headache being born somewhere in my sinuses. My hands are sweating uncomfortably in their latex gloves.
What I’m not feeling is queasy – and this surprises me, because touching other people’s buttocks and armpits, once they’ve been detached from the people themselves, ought to be slightly disorientating. However, the tattoos look so much like they are on parchment that it’s hard to remember they once sweated and tingled and hurt. The only moment of connection I have is when Angel holds up an intricate chest piece – complete with nipples – against her torso, to show off its impressive size. “Big guy, huh?” she says.
Oh, God, I think, there are more than two of us in this room right now.
In pictures, the tattoos don’t produce this effect. Angel worries that they look “flat” and has tried to photograph them in ways that preserve their architecture. One chest piece has the navel still attached. “That’s hard to preserve,” she says. “It’s like the tip of your nose – it’s just attached to cartilage. They usually just have holes.”
Another couple of samples are recognisably from torsos, because the nipples are still visible, either as rosy areolae or simply as bubbles in the surface. A long stretch of skin is impossible to place until it is held up to the light: suddenly, a row of four little circles of thinner tissue becomes apparent. These are the knuckles.
Over the years, Angel has become increasingly interested in the collection as objects, as skin, but originally her brief was to focus on the tattoos. In working out the identities of the men, one of the few pieces of information available to work with is the French military insignia that make up some of the designs. During her archive research, Angel stumbled on a photograph of a naked man bearing two of the tattoos in the collection; the symbols used elsewhere on his body showed that he’d spent time in prison.
As she says: “Suddenly, this person became three-dimensional and it was a little bit like recognising the face of an old friend in a crowd.” Who was he? Frustratingly, the photo was headless. “I really wanted to see his face. I find it interesting that he’s been photographed in life and then his skin turns up in a collection. What’s the relationship between these two historical documents?”
Angel hopes that by searching through military records she will be able to discover more about the first owners of these tattoos. However, she is resigned to the likelihood that even after she has finished, much about the collection will remain unknown, probably including its precise origins and whether the donors consented to their tattoos living on beyond their death.
“I doubt they were grave-robbed,” Angel says. “But it’s possible that some of them were taken opportunistically in a military hospital. With some of them, you can tell that the body had started to decompose before they were preserved, so that gives you an indication of the conditions – it might have been a field hospital, or somebody [might have] brought a body to the morgue and thought: ‘I know someone who’s interested in collecting these.’”
That sentiment isn’t as rare as you would think – several medical museums around the world have preserved tattoos in their collection, alongside the obligatory dwarf skeletons and tumours in jars. At the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, a roughly removed tattoo sits next to a Bible bound in human skin; there is also a specimen from Angel’s collection on public display at the Wellcome Collection in Euston. The Barts Pathology Museum in Farringdon, central London, has several “wet preservations”: skin suspended in jars of formaldehyde.
What motivated these collectors? While some may have been driven by the desire to study the tattoos, it seems likely that in many cases it was more about a fetishisation of skin – and especially the skin of the “underclass”.
Angel doesn’t know for sure where her collection came from but suspects include the Académie Nationale de Médecine in Paris, because of the French military badges on some inkings and the language of the lettered tattoos. The doctor who sold them to the 19th-century collector Henry Wellcome said they were the skins of “sailors, soldiers and criminals”. Angel adds: “But look at the collection – there’s no way one person collected and preserved all these objects. There’s too much variation in the skill and technique.”
So how do you harvest a tattoo? These days you’d use a dermatome, a gadget invented in the 1930s that slices off a fine layer of the epidermis and is now used for skin grafts. In the 19th century, you had to use a scalpel and care; many of the Wellcome specimens are of different thicknesses or marked with slashes, or have scalloped edges from being stretched and pinned during preservation. Some are thick and soft like leather; others are scratchy and stiff like card; some are translucent when you hold them to the light. “I know they’re not my skin,” says Angel, running a gloved finger over the bumps of hair follicles under faded black ink. “But that’s how I think of them: my skin.”
Click here to read full article: http://www.newstatesman.com/art-and-design/2013/04/will-tattoo-ever-hang-louvre.