A few months ago, I was at a social event when I saw someone peering with avid curiosity at my chest, a not entirely unusual state of affairs because in addition to having a large chest, I also have a large chest piece, and at that particular event, I was wearing a v-neck that set it off quite nicely. The person drifted through the crowd in my general direction and I braced myself for the unusual ignorant questions. What I got was a photo request, which is also not that unusual. I don’t really like being photographed, but because people usually make an issue out of it, I often end up submitting to avoid causing a scene. The host, knowing my inclinations and seeing the camera come out, made a beeline in our directions before blood was shed, but it was what this person said, rather than the request, that left me astounded:
‘May I take your picture,’ he said. ‘I collect medical tattoos.’
Collect. Yes, he actually said that. And while I understood the intent, I couldn’t help but think about how that language is used about us tattooed people. We are often objectified and reduced to our tattoos, and while this man may not be aware of it, a number of museums, especially medical museums, have actual specimens of tattooed skin in their archives. Most of these specimens date to an era when dissection was a punishment for heinous crimes, and the skin was taken as a sort of…prize. If you have the right connections, you can do things like looking at wallets and books made with the skin of famous murderers, and tattooed skin is a valued macabre curiosity in these collections.
Sometimes you don’t even need the right connections; I’ve been to a handful of museums where these items are right in the public collection. They are often presented without context. There’s no information about their origins or history, and there’s no indication as to the circumstances surrounding the collection, or the attitudes that contributed to the historical trend of collecting tattooed skin.
Collecting the skin of tattooed people after death (and during life, in some cases—in some subcultures where membership in the subculture is marked in ink, withdrawing from the subculture before death may require you to remove your tattoo, and if you don’t do it, people will do it for you) is fortunately quite rare today. I suspect that most people encountering objects made from tattooed skin would be unnerved and possibly disgusted by them. I talk about it not to upset you or to gross you out, but to point out that there is a loaded context when it comes to the word collection in reference to tattooed people. Not all tattooed people are aware of this history, and even fewer nontattooed people are, but it’s there, nonetheless, a quiet social undercurrent.
The treatment of tattooed people as collectible objects and curiosities persists. In the West, this hearkens back to a long legacy of displaying tattooed people; at first as ‘exotic specimens’ from regions where tattooing was widespread, and later as sideshow attractions when the practice of tattooing was revived in the West. In the era of the sideshow, many tattooed people were young white women, and the titillation was as much in seeing a mostly (sometimes entirely) nude body as it was in seeing the tattoos on display. This has contributed to an idea that tattooed people are public property and objects for display.
This is not the first time someone has tried to ‘collect’ me. Every now and then, people ask for permission to photograph my tattoos when they happen to be visible, which is, I suppose, a step up from people who just take my pictures without asking. I’ve also had people attempt to ‘collect’ me in the sense of wanting to have sex with me specifically because I am tattooed and it’s exotic or exciting, evidently. These are experiences many tattooed people I know seem to share; get a group of us together, and when we talk about the weird questions we get, someone will probably also discuss the collector attitudes that surround our bodies.
There are a lot of odd social attitudes about tattooed people and tattooed women in particular, and I see similar ideas about collecting people when it comes to interacting with other types of body modifications. People often seem repulsed and fascinated by things like lip plates, or neck rings, or other modifications made for personal, religious, or cultural reasons, and one of the ways that expresses is in a desire to ‘collect’ people in the form of stories and experiences.
It’s incredibly dehumanising. How could it not be? When someone outright says that ou wants to ‘collect’ me, it’s a reminder that I am considered more an object than a human being, solely because of how my body looks. It’s one of the reasons most of my tattoos are on parts of my body that are not publicly visible; I am not interested in being an object of speculation, nor am I interested in having people exert ownership over my body and my experiences. It’s why I often carry a scarf or wear a bag with a broad strap, so I can easily cover my chest piece and melt away into the background in a crowded environment.
I have to conceal a key part of my identity to avoid having it weaponised against me not just in the form of negative social attitudes about tattooed people, but in the sense that it will attract very much unwanted attention. Tattoos here in the US are hardly unusual or remarkable at this point. The intense curiosity and probing questions I encounter aren’t the result of natural curiosity springing from lack of exposure. They are solely about the fact that I am considered an object when my ink is visible; sometimes I consider just standing nude on a revolving podium in an art gallery for a few hours, since that’s what people seem to want.