Human skin with tattoo of women's heads, some with hats, and butterflies, French, 1900-1920
Several images of women’s heads are tattooed onto human skin. Some are wearing hats and in between the women are multiple images of butterflies. It is unknown whom these tattoos represent, although it was, and remains, common to illustrate such images and motifs upon the skin. The tattoo was once owned by Parisian surgeon Dr Villette. He worked in military hospitals and collected and preserved hundreds of samples from the bodies of dead French soldiers.
In the late 1800s, tattoos were often seen as markers of criminal tendencies or ‘primitiveness’. Medical men tried to interpret common images and symbols. Tattoos were also a tool for identification, a practice that continues today. This tattoo is one of a large group bought for Henry Wellcome’s medical collection by one of his agents, Captain Johnston-Saint.