Art 03.07.2010

Morbid Ink: Field Notes on the Human Memorial Tattoo

If you’re in the UK and happen to be near Bath, this is one to mark on your calendars. The University of Bath is holding a lecture from Dr. John Troyer about historical tattooing and their use as memorials on the body. Below is from Observatoryroom.org:

In 1891, Samuel F. O’Reilly of New York, NY patented the first “…electromotor tattooing-machine,” a modern and innovative device that permanently inserted ink into the human skin. O’Reilly’s invention revolutionized tattooing and forever altered the underlying concept behind a human tattoo, i.e., the writing of history on the body. Tattooing of the body most certainly predates the O’Reilly machine (by several centuries) but one kind of human experience remains constant in this history: the memorial tattoo.

Memorial tattooing is, as Marita Sturken discusses the memorialization of the dead, a technology of memory. Yet the tattoo is more than just a representation of the dead. It is a historiographical practice in which the living person seeks to make death intelligible by permanently altering his or her own body. In this way, memorial tattooing not only establishes a new language of intelligibility between the living and the dead, it produces a historical text carried on the historian’s body. A memorial tattoo is an image but it is also (and most importantly) a narrative.

Human tattoos have been described over the centuries as speaking scars and/or the true writing of savages; cut from the body and then collected by Victorian era gentlemen. These intricately inked pieces of skin have been pressed between glass and then hidden away in museum collections, waiting to be re-discovered by the morbidly curious. The history of tattooing is the story of Homo sapiens’ self-invention and unavoidable ends.

Tattoo artists have a popular saying within their profession: Love lasts forever but a tattoo lasts six months longer.

And so too, I will add, does death

An Illustrated lecture with Dr. John Troyer, Deputy Director, Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath
Date: Tuesday July 20th
Time: 8:00
Admission: $5
Presented by Morbid Anatomy

Thanks to Sarah Nehama for sharing the link!