Te Manawa: an Arawa warrior

Inspired: Tattoos as pain relief

Sometimes provocative and always interesting, this series of shorter stories can be inspired by pretty much anything in Wellcome Collection and offers a quick insight into some of the themes we explore. This one comes from Rock Webb.

L0035683 Plaster cast, man of the Arawa tribe showing Maori tattooing

Plaster cast of the face of Tauque Te Whanoa, a Rotorua native, of the Arawa tribe.

The Treating Yourself cabinet in our Medicine Man gallery contains two tattoo exhibits. One of them is a facial plaster cast depicting Tā-moko, traditional Maori tattooing. Incisions are made into the skin using uhi (chisels) made from albatross bone; the skin is carved, leaving it with grooves, rather than a smooth surface, in which soot is rubbed for colouring.

Moko designs are very much about belief and spirituality; never just decorative, they have to be earned. A mark of rank, they are generally concerned with ancestry and Iwi, or tribal, information. Captain Cook often remarked on these practices during his Pacific voyages and reputedly coined the word ‘tattow’, or tattoo, from a local word.

Body modification and personal adornment seems as popular as ever. Whatever the motivation for being permanently inked, we encounter it throughout the ages and across cultures. Mummified human remains, ceramic figurines and art all give us a glimpse into historic practices. Getting a tattoo is usually viewed as a painful event; however, a view into the past suggests that it may have served as, and maybe had its origins in, a procedure for pain relief.


Te Manawa: an Arawa warrior.

The discovery of a 5300 year old mummy in the Alps has shed light on many aspects of life at that time. This particular mummy, nicknamed Ötzi, has been extensively studied and scanned. To date, over sixty tattoos have been identified on his body. Consisting of simple line-work, it was initially thought these may be stylised art or symbols. Closer inspection does not support the idea of decoration: being situated on likely areas of pain such as the lumbar spine, wrist and hip suggests that the tattoos may have been therapeutic. Indeed, the scans have confirmed that Ötzi had osteoarthritis and other old wounds in these areas.

Just like Maori tradition, perhaps Ötzi’s lines and dashes are part of a belief system. In this case, he may have believed in the enchanted properties of tattoos to hinder pain. Further examination possibly reveals a medically related explanation: many of the tattoos tally up directly with known acupuncture lines. With so many individual tattoos, Oetzi seemingly trusted in their power to heal. Whether he realised that there might have been more to it than his belief alone, we don’t know.

Rock is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

A to Z of the Human Condition: S is for Skin Art

We invited you, as fellow experts on the #HumanCondition, to add your own idiosyncrasies to our current exhibition by submitting photographs on Instagram for a few of the themes explored in the gallery. As a thank you for your wonderful pictures, this series explores those themes and finds out the roles they play in making us human. This week, Nicola Cook looks at one of the ways we adorn our bodies as she explores how we illustrate human skin, illustrated by your photos.

Your #HumanSkin photographs in our current exhibition.

Your #HumanSkin photographs in our current exhibition.

It’s in our very nature to change our bodies. Some say the choice to alter and adorn ourselves, the active desire to show the rest of the world exactly who we are through our appearance, is one of the things that makes us human. From facial hair to hair dye and lipstick to lip piercings, the ways we can express ourselves are endless and range from fleeting aspirations to near-irreversible transformations.

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Curious Skin

Tattoo on Human Skin. Wellcome Images

Tattoo on Human Skin. Wellcome Images

Some of Henry Wellcome’s collection of tattoos on human skin will be on display in our forthcoming Skin exhibition. But how did the Parisian doctor from whom they were acquired come by his macabre collection of tattoos in the first place, and what did they mean to those whose skin they were on? It’s Gemma Angel‘s job to find out…

In 1929, one of Henry Wellcome’s itinerant purchasing agents, Peter Johnston-Saint, purchased 300 preserved tattooed human skins from one Dr. ‘La Valette’, the ‘old osteologist’ at Rue Ecole de Medecine, Paris.

Eighty years later, I find myself in the fortunate if somewhat challenging position of researching this collection, which has spent most of its quiet history in storage at the Science Museum in London. Challenging it is; not only because the total sum of archival records pertaining to these intriguing objects are described in my opening sentence above, but also because of the unique and contentious issues inevitably confronted when working with collections of human remains.

One of the key questions that I want to answer is of course who was Dr. La Valette, and why did he have in his possession 300 dry-prepared specimens of tattooed human skin? How did he acquire them? And why, in the 1920s, did he decide it was time to be rid of them? Tattoos were of great interest to European criminologists during the late 19th century, and were the source of much debate in medico-legal circles; many scholars believed that the presence of tattooing in European culture represented worrying signs of atavism, criminal proclivity, or dangerous ‘degeneration’ within their populations.

No doubt my research will lead me to Paris in search of the elusive ‘La Valette’ soon enough; but for now, much of my current work is focused on the skins themselves. My work in the Science Museum archives involves a great deal of painstaking visual and material analysis of the objects. As I endeavour to learn something of their past lives I am reminded of the pithy characterisation of tattoos as ‘speaking scars’- the oft quoted phrase of Alexandre Lacassagne, a prominent late-19th-century forensic scientist who took particular interest in tattoos. What did they ‘say’ to him and his contemporaries, and why was this obscure visual code of such fascination that the very skins themselves were harvested, as though their message were all the more significant encoded in flesh? Why not simply take a photograph?

The tattoo itself occupies an intriguing boundary, both physiologically and socio-culturally; it appears at the body’s surface, but is suspended indelibly within the flesh. Tattoos seem to present a legible message to the outside world, promising to reveal the depths of the tattooed other; yet our attempts to decipher this message uncover innumerable interpretations, which often lead us only into further mystification. Without the context of a life, a personal history, what can these marks really tell us about their bearers?

As museum collection objects they are extremely curious; varying from delicate artefacts prepared with surgical intent to rather grotesque scraps of gnarly flesh, which appear to have been hacked from the cadaver, not always preserving the tattoo intact. Most of the tattoos are the work of amateurs, their style clear to the naked eye as a string of loosely grouped dots – an easy mistake to make if the tattooist does not know to stretch the skin adequately. Most too are applied with simple hand-made needles. There are a few examples of early machine-produced work. Nearly all are black, with occasional flashes of red. Some of the designs possess a simple eloquence, expressed in phrases such as ‘Child of Misfortune’ and ‘I swear to love Henri Faure until death’. Others, like this tattoo of an apparent auto-abortion, are disordered, difficult-to-decipher images whose dark subject matter eludes comprehension.

If these objects could speak, what would they tell me? They are fragments of the lives of others, memories made flesh, markers of identity, objects of medical interest and museum artefacts. Uncovering their secrets will be my greatest challenge.

Gemma Angel is a current AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award holder with UCL History of Art Department and the Science Museum London. Further details of her PhD research project can be found at ucl.academia.edu/GemmaAngel