In “Skin”, a short story by Roald Dahl, a homeless man named Drioli spots a painting in the window of one of Paris’s most exclusive art galleries. He recognises the style of the young artist who decades ago tattooed a portrait on his back. Inside he rips off his shirt to show the assembled crowd the signed artwork embedded in his skin. The oily gallery manager offers to buy the work, speculating aloud about how soon Drioli might die. Another proposes that Drioli should come to his hotel in Cannes, where he can show his back to guests in return for a life of luxury. Drioli leaves with the stranger and a few weeks later a framed work by the artist turns up for sale in Buenos Aires. Drioli is never heard of again.
Today this grim work of fantasy, published in 1952, is becoming reality as tattoos move from the underground to the art gallery. Tattoos are more popular than ever. According to surveys, around 40% of Americans between the ages of 26 and 40 have at least one, and the number of tattoo parlours in the US has grown from 15,000 in 2012 to over 21,000 today. The trend is reflected in a new crop of exhibitions that explore the art of the tattoo, including a season called “Tattoo” at the Field Museum in Chicago and a show about British body art at the National Maritime Museum in Cornwall. While these shows explore their subject through artefacts, paintings and photographs, others go further.
Tim Steiner, a former tattoo-parlour manager from Zurich, makes a living showing his tattoo at art institutions (above). The garish design, which covers his back, is the work of Wim Delvoye, a Belgian artist, and features roses, a skull, bats, Japanese fish and a praying Virgin Mary. In 2008 it was sold to a German art collector, Rik Reinking, for €150,000 (Steiner received a third). The contract stipulated that he must exhibit himself three times a year. He is currently on show at the Socle du Monde Biennale in Denmark, and will travel to Art Basel in June and the Museum of Old and New Art in Australia in November. At each show, he spends around five hours a day sitting in the gallery with his back to the visitors. As they file by, some think he is a sculpture, others that he is a corpse. When he dies, Reinking has the right to flay him and preserve his skin.
Perhaps Reinking could turn to Peter van der Helm. In 2014 he created the Foundation for the Art and Science of Tattooing in Holland as a way to establish a collection of preserved tattoos. Van der Helm fears that, without collectors, “in 100 years the best work from all the artists we have would be gone”. So far 60 people have signed up for the service. The tattoo must be cut from the body within 48 hours after death, before the skin starts to decay. It is then frozen or placed in formaldehyde and sent to the foundation’s pathologists, who remove the water from the skin and replace it with silicone. Van der Helm guarantees the result will be “a really natural-looking piece of skin” that will last at least 300 to 400 years – “but probably forever”.
Van der Helm is not alone in seeing tattoos as art. In Canberra, the National Gallery of Australia has an unusual informal agreement with Geoff Ostling, a retired school teacher. His tattoos, designed by eX de Medici, a prominent Australian artist, depict the native flora and fauna of Australia. One day the artist was giving a talk at the museum, and a curator joked that it was a shame Ostling couldn’t donate his skin to the gallery. Ostling decided to do just that. For the NGA it would be a natural, if grisly, extension to their collection: the museum already owns about 50 works by eX de Medici including a series of watercolours painted on vellum. When Ostling dies, a museum panel will make a final decision on whether to take his tattoos. “If Geoff were to die tomorrow,” Elspeth Pitt, a curator, explains, “the gift would have a pretty good chance of getting through…Working on Geoff’s skin or an animal skin, it’s a similar kind of theme.”
But according to Dr Gemma Angel, a scholar at University College London who specialises in the history and anthropology of tattoos, preserving them after death misses the point. “I think they resist easy categorisation as art because they’re on the body, because they’re lived, because they’re embedded in some kind of a ritual process,” she says. “People get them to commemorate events and important things in their lives, so they have a kind of personal, biographical meaning for a lot of people that is not just about aesthetics and never will be.”
The idea that the significance of tattoos lies in the stories and experiences behind them has been explored in several recent conceptual shows. Shelley Jackson’s “Skin” involves writing a 2,095-word story on the flesh of 2,095 volunteers. Each person is tattooed with a single word, and only those who participate are permitted to read the story. Meanwhile Scott Campbell, whose “Whole Glory” has been exhibited in New York, London and Moscow, invites volunteers to embrace the spontaneity that often drives people into the tattoo parlour on holiday. Participants stick their arms into a hole in the wall and, sitting on the other side, Campbell tattoos them with whatever he wants, from detailed and delicate images of eyes and lips to skeletal hands or skulls.
Although his work on Tim Steiner’s back is seen in galleries, Wim Delvoye thinks the design itself is worthless. “It didn’t really matter what we tattooed on him,” Delvoye says. What interests him is the fragility of an artwork that changes as the body does and begins to decay when the subject dies. Death looms over the whole enterprise. Steiner, he says, “could get thinner or he could get into an accident on his motorbike or whatever. So we don’t know where the art piece starts and where it ends.” Steiner echoes his enthusiasm. “An exciting aspect of the piece is that we’re talking about something that could go on for the next 40 or 50 years or it could be over tomorrow.” Unexpectedly, Steiner has developed a close friendship with his collector, Reinking. “In many twisted ways I find it quite humorous,” he says. “He gets very uncomfortable when I introduce him to people as my owner.”