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THE STRONG ROOM

Dr Gemma Angel (UCL History of Art 2013) chooses an object from the UCL Collections.

Interview Penelope Rance
Photograph Alun Callender

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“These skins have fascinated me ever since I first laid eyes on them. They have a certain power – on the one hand they are museum pieces, but on the other they are pieces of people. As a trained tattooist they obviously have a specific appeal to me, but they also have this power of subjectivity, traces that have incongruously outlived the people they belonged to.

And the butterflies are the most fascinating. We know they belonged to a professional Tattooed Man, who died aged 79, and the unknown pathologist or technician who preserved them has clearly taken aesthetic care with the display case and its contents. He or she noted that the lymph nodes were heavily pigmented, indicating that particles of ink are able to migrate through the lymphatic system. But it is the tattoos that the pathologist has chosen to preserve, not the lymph glands. This suggests an interest that goes beyond the anatomical – the tattoos are a kind of curiosity. The way they have been presented is similar to the way that an entomologist might house a collection of lepidoptera.

The range of designs in the whole collection tells us something of the iconographic development of European tattooing as a folk art form. There is actually a very long tradition of European tattooing that goes back until at least the Middle Ages – tattooing was not, as many still believe, an entirely foreign practice imported from the South Seas. Christian pilgrims travelling from England to Jerusalem would often mark their journey with a tattoo of the Jerusalem cross – hence travel souvenir and religious tattooing have been a part of European tradition for a very long time.

We still see traces of this in the nineteenth century collections – tattoos of place names marking a journey, or the dagger-through-the-heart tattoo, which has gone through many stylistic changes but also has Christian roots. The evolution of the designs over time is fascinating, and collections such as these are invaluable in tracing the development and adaptations of a folk artform that has been – and continues to be – hugely misunderstood in European culture.”

The tattoos are part of the UCL Pathology Collections at the Royal Free Hospital in London.

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