Collectible tattoos

For some days now I have been receiving suggestions about Dr. Masaichi Fukushi‘s tattoo collection, belonging to Tokyo University Pathology Department. I am willing to write about it, because the topic is more multifaceted than it looks.

Said collection is both well-known and somewhat obscure.
Born in 1878, Dr. Fukushi was studying the formation of nevi on the skin around 1907, when his research led him to examine the correlation between the movement of melanine through vascularized epidermis and the injection of pigments under the skin in tattoos. His interest was further fueled by a peculiar discovery: the presence of a tattoo seemed to prevent the signs of syphilis from appearing in that area of the body.

In 1920 Dr. Fukushi entered the Mitsui Memorial Hospital, a charity structure where treatment was offered to the most disadvantaged social classes. In this environment, he came in contact with many tattooed persons and, after a short period in Germany, he continued his research on the formation of congenital moles at Nippon Medical University. Here, often carrying out autopsies, he developed an original method of preserving tattooed epidermis he took from corpses; he therefore began collecting various samples, managing to stretch the skin so that it could be exhibited inside a glass frame.

It seems Dr. Fukushi did not have an exclusively scientific interest in tattoos, but was also quite compassionate. Tattooed people, in fact, often came from the poorest and most problematic bracket of japanese society, and Fukushi’s sympathy for the less fortunate even pushed him, in some instances, to take over the expenses for those who could not afford to complete an unfinished tattoo. In return, the doctor asked for permission to remove their skin post mortem. But his passion for tattoos also took the form of photographic records: he collected more than 3.000 pictures, which were destroyed during the bombing of Tokyo in WWII.
This was not the only loss, for a good number of tattooed skins were stolen in Chicago as the doctor was touring the States giving a series of academic lectures between 1927 and 1928.
Fukushi’s work gained international attention in the 40s and the 50s, when several articles appeared on the newspapers, such as the one above published on Life magazine.

Life

As we said earlier, the collection endured heavy losses during the 1945 bombings. However some skin samples, which had been secured elsewhere, were saved and — after being handed down to Fukushi’s son, Kalsunari — they could be today inside the Pathology Department, even if not available to the public. It is said that among the specimens there are some nearly complete skin suits, showing tattoos over the whole body surface. All this is hard to verify, as the Department is not open to the public and no official information seems to be found online.

Then again, if in the Western world tattoo is by now such a widespread trend that it hardly sparks any controversy, it still remains quite taboo in Japan.
Some time ago, the great Italian tattoo artist Pietro Sedda (author of the marvelous Black Novel For Lovers) told me about his last trip to Japan, and how in that country tattooers still operate almost in secret, in small, anonymous parlors with no store signs, often hidden inside common apartment buildings. The fact that tattoos are normally seen in a negative way could be related to the traditional association of this art form with yakuza members, even though in some juvenile contexts fashion tattoos are quite common nowadays.

A tattoo stygma existed in Western countries up to half a century ago, ratified by explicit prohibitions in papal bulls. One famous exception were the tattoos made by “marker friars” of the Loreto Sanctuary, who painted christian, propitiatory or widowhood symbols on the hands of the faithful. But in general the only ones who decorated their bodies were traditionally the outcast, marginalized members of the community: pirates, mercenaries, deserters, outlaws. In his most famous essay, Criminal Man (1876), Cesare Lombroso classified every tattoo variation he had encountered in prisoners, interpreting them through his (now outdated) theory of atavism: criminals were, in his view, Darwinianly unevolved individuals who tattooed themselves as if responding to an innate primitiveness, typical of savage peoples — who not surprisingly practiced tribal tattooing.

Coming back to the human hides preserved by Dr. Fukushi, this is not the only, nor the largest, collection of its kind. The record goes to London’s Wellcome Collection, which houses around 300 individual pieces of tattoed skin (as opposed to the 105 specimens allegedly stored in Tokyo), dating back to the end of XIX Century.

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The edges of these specimens show a typical arched pattern due to being pinned while drying. And the world opened up by these traces from the past is quite touching, as are the motivations that can be guessed behind an indelible inscription on the skin. Today a tattoo is often little more than a basic decoration, a tribal motif (the meaning of which is often ignored) around an ankle, an embellishment that turns the body into a sort of narcissistic canvas; in a time when a tattoo was instead a symbol of rebellion against the establishment, and in itself could cause many troubles, the choice of the subject was of paramount relevance. Every love tattoo likely implied a dangerous or “forbidden” relationship; every sentence injected under the skin by the needle became the ultimate statement, a philosophy of life.

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These collections, however macabre they may seem, open a window on a non-aligned sensibility. They are, so to speak, an illustrated atlas of that part of society which is normally not contemplated nor sung by official history: rejects, losers, outsiders.
Collected in a time when they were meant as a taxonomy of symbols allowing identification and prevention of specific “perverse” psychologies, they now speak of a humanity who let their freak flag fly.

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(Thanks to all those who submitted the Fukushi collection.)

21 comments to Collectible tattoos

  1. Gigi says:

    Ricordo in Gozu di Takashi Miike una scena in una sorta di lavanderia dove, sui ganci porta-vestiti, al posto degli abiti c’erano le pelli tatuate di alcuni ex-membri della yakuza. 😀

  2. SisKa says:

    Ciao Ivan,
    grazie per questo articolo.
    Da dove vengo io abbiamo l’uomo del Similaun, o più affettuosamente chiamato da noi: Oetzi.
    Questa mummia antica, secondo studi, più di 5.000 anni, presenta sul corpo, ancora perfettamente conservato, numerosi tatuaggi.
    Sono piuttosto sicura che la sua storia è una di quelle che potrebbero suscitare il tuo interesse.
    Con affetto,
    SisKa

  3. alex says:

    Dimenticate anche le raccolte di pelli tatuate fatte dai nazisti. Addirittura, se non ricordo male, realizzarono portafogli e altri oggetti con le epidermidi tatuate dei morti dei lager.

    • WordPress.com Support says:

      Hai fonti attendibili su questo?

      • Gilgamesh says:

        Non so se e una fonte attendibile

        Nella trilogia “I medici dei lager” e´ riportato, che con le pelli tatuate, alcuni nazisti ne facevano dei paralumi

        • bizzarrobazar says:

          Possiedo anch’io la trilogia di Philippe Aziz, e il suo lavoro non è particolarmente affidabile. Si tratta di un’opera di indubbia efficacia emotiva ma in cui l’autore spesso “romanza” i fatti (un modus operandi da attribuire in parte all’epoca in cui questi libri divulgativi sono stati scritti, cioè più di quarant’anni fa).

  4. imma says:

    Wow! Davvero inquietante. Una collezione degna di Jame Gumb nel Silenzio degli innocenti.

    Posso proporvi un argomento bizzarro. Il mento asburgico ed in particolare lo sfortunatissimo Carlo II di Spagna.
    Ciao

  5. Cristiano says:

    Vomitevole, schifosa roba da depravati.

    • michelebast says:

      Il tatuaggio giapponese ha una storia centenaria ed una tecnica raffinatissima, e, con esso, molte altre tradizioni, strutturate agli angoli del globo con le loro proprie caratteristiche tematiche, i loro valori spirituali, la loro autentica singola identità. L’incidere segni indelebili è qualcosa che ha accompagnato l’essere umano nel corso di tutta la sua storia e, praticamente, non esiste popolo antico (anche i “nostri avi”, tra questi) che non lo conosca, o lo abbia praticato. In Europa, con la scoperta ed i viaggi soprattutto verso l’Australia e la microasia, è tornato in auge, dopo secoli di marginalità, tanto da affascinare anche le classi sociali più elevate, fino alle famiglie reali (Lo Tsar Nicola II dei Romanov è celebre, come Cristiano IX di Danimarca), oltre ovviamente a quello che Marx avrebbe detto “lumpenproletariat” e che lo ha strutturato con le sue esperienze di vita, di armi e d’amore. Nell’incidersi la pelle un individuo si riconnette idealmente a tutte queste umanità differenti, a volte conflittuali; il tatuaggio può essere davvero l’espressione di una sensibilità che riconosce il valore della Storia, della Tradizione e delle Diversità, oltre ad essere una grandiosa dichiarazione di Umanità: marinai, “selvaggi”, avventurieri ed imperatori, galeotti e militari, uomini della medicina e studiosi, cosa sono se non differenziazioni dello spirito dell’Uomo?
      La depravazione è il giudizio di valore, prima del giudizio di conoscenza.
      Complimenti, come sempre, all’Autore.

  6. Considero il tatuaggio giapponese (irezumi) una vera e propria opera d’arte anatomica, per questo motivo comprendo perfettamente il desiderio del Dr. Fukushi nel volerli preservare.
    E’ la tecnica che viene utilizzata ad affascinarmi,quel gesto ripetuto ritmicamente…la simbologia nascosta dietro ogni figura.
    Se non ricordo male il film “TATTOO” tratta l’argomento.
    Un saluto 🙂

  7. Livio says:

    Molto interessante, come sempre. Il commento di Cristiano mi sembra eccessivo, ma forse il nome “Cristiano” fa intendere una sua forte predisposizione religiosa bigotta. Nel Levitico, infatti, si dice “Non vi dovete fare addosso alcun tatuaggio” e il nostro da buon “cristiano” prende alla lettera nel suo giudizio. Stai più tranquillo, te lo dice uno schifoso depravato.

  8. Manu says:

    E un’altra schifosa depravata è dell’idea che alcuni tatuaggi siano vere e proprie opere d’arte,e come tali vadano trattate. E’ una fortuna che qualcuno si sia dedicato a conservarle!!
    Amatissimi schifosi depravati del mondo, UNITEVI !!!!

  9. Ca Gi says:

    Noto un dettaglio al tempo stesso commovente e spiazzante: la pelle tatuata della prima foto sembra essere quella di uno degli uomini dell’articolo di “Life” (“Devil’s mask”, sotto la foto dei bagni). L’accostamento della persona tatuata alla sua pelle post-mortem fa un certo effetto.

  10. Livio says:

    Siete mitici, vi adoro!

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