"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."
These are the words of Gemma Angel, doctoral student at University College London. She has (for some) the enviable task of studying a selection of 300 tattoos acquired by the Wellcome Collection and now held in storage at the Science Museum archives in London. The specimens of inked human skin were purchased in Paris in 1929 from an osteologist and anatomist named La Vallete. They date from 1850 to 1920 and were likely obtained through the doctor's work at French military establishments and prisons, but the identities of their bearers remain unknown. In fact, not much is known about the collection at all and the tattoos have never been comprehensively studied. Angel's background as a tattooist gives her some insight as she explores the material properties of the skins as prepared specimens, the iconography of the tattoos, and the social and historical contexts of their preservation and collection.