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Meet the lady who works with preserved tattooed human skin

Photo: Gemma Angel / Science Museum London

Photo: Gemma Angel / Science Museum London

Dr. Gemma Angel‘s studies have a very particular speciality – she knows all there is to know about tattooed skin that’s no longer attached to the living.

A trained tattooist with a degree in fine art, Gemma was awarded her doctoral award in 2013. She is committed to the research of tattooed human skin, working regularly with the Wellcome Collection, UCL and the Science Museum.

I had the pleasure of interviewing her ahead of the opening of the major tattoo exhibition at the National Maritime Museum. Gemma’s work forms part of the exhibit and I can’t wait to go down next month to see her artefacts in person.

Tattooed human skins on display at the Wellcome Collection, London. Photograph © Gemma Angel, 2011

Tattooed human skins at the Wellcome Collection, London. Photo: Gemma Angel, 2011

Nice to speak to you, Gemma! Can you tell me what has been your specific involvement with the exhibition?

I was approached by the museum in the planning stages of the exhibition and assisted with arranging the loan of the Wellcome Collection’s preserved tattooed skins from the Science Museum. I worked on this particular collection for 4 years and I’m currently writing my book on the history of these objects.

I suggested the selection of the four tattoos on display in Falmouth, as the iconography of these designs resonate most strongly with a maritime context. The NMM invited me to contribute to the current exhibition as an expert on the collection and I wrote the display panel text that you see on display alongside the skins.

Photo: Gemma Angel / Science Museum London

Photo: Gemma Angel / Science Museum London

What do you think about why tattoos are starting to enter gallery spaces?

This is a very big question and I’m not sure I can answer it in any coherent and succinct way here! I will say that the move from high-street studios to an art gallery context is not new and has been happening for a while. It is significant that national public museums are now starting to focus on the tattoo.

The current exhibition is a case in point and I think it’s fantastic that this often-overlooked and frequently-stereotyped part of cultural history is now starting to be reflected in public programming and the quality of the material on display reflects exciting new scholarship on the history of European tattooing.

Photo: Gemma Angel / Science Museum London

Photo: Gemma Angel / Science Museum London

Have your elements of the exhibition been on show before?

Some of the tattoos have been on display before in a variety of small temporary exhibitions, but I believe that this is the first time they’ve been displayed outside of London. There are two tattoos on permanent display as part of the Medicine Man exhibition at the Wellcome Collection on Euston Road in London.

Reactions to my specialisation in this area vary – from interest to total disbelief. I once had a barman ask me what I did, back when I was studying for my PhD, and when I told him, he said “that doesn’t exist!“. I often forget how strange it is for some people that I work with tattoos in this way – with human remains – but it’s a fascinating field and I love my work.

Photo: Gemma Angel / Science Museum London

Photo: Gemma Angel / Science Museum London

Gemma with her collection and tattoo collector Geoff Ostling

Gemma with her collection and tattoo collector Geoff Ostling. Photo: Gemma Angel

Read more about Gemma’s research, Life and 6 Months.

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