The colours are blood red and inky blue black, and the designs an artistic journey through life on the ocean wave, American history and its people, myth and mystery.

For the very young man who endured the tattooist’s needle over and over again, the result was a full body, living artwork, the kind that even with today’s modern acceptance of tattoos might turn heads.

But this was the dying days of the 19th century, and the intricate patterns, colour, symbols and depictions of characters – George Washington, cherubs, Native Americans and the birth of Venus – was certainly going to be a talking point.

Indeed, so much so, that when the unfortunate owner of a fully tattooed body expired at the relatively tender age of 29, his skin stayed behind.

And in the hushed surroundings of the University of Edinburgh’s anatomical theatre in 1892, the man’s preserved tattooed skin was presented for all to see – a curiosity alongside an array of more medical themed exhibits.

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The tattooed skin, skilfully removed in three sections and sealed in a trio of glass frames, was later tucked away within the University’s Anatomy Museum, explains art historian Dr Matt Lodder, who came across it as he researched his book, Painted People, which explores the often-surprising history of tattooing.

After decades in the shadows, he had spotted a passing reference in the 19th century record of the anatomists’ presentation – and was amazed to find the specimen not only still exists, but looks as if it might have been framed just days ago.

He now plans to share the brief details of what’s known of its story next month, in an illustrated talk hosted by the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh will explore the long and winding background to how and why people down the centuries have chosen to ‘ink’ their skin.

He says the exhibit – not for the squeamish – is a remarkable example of not just the tattooist’s work at a time when it was shifting from hand-drawn to mechanical, but of fashions of the day and attitudes to tattooing.

While notes from the event suggest that although the tattooed skin came from a 29-year-old man, he was a child of just four to seven years old when he was ‘inked’.

The Herald: Cesare Lombroso’s L'homme criminel (1895)Cesare Lombroso’s L'homme criminel (1895) (Image: Anatomy Collection, University of Edinburgh)

Dr Lodder was researching his book, Painted People, which explores the history of tattoos when he stumbled on the story.

“I came across an article from the proceedings of the Anatomical Society of Great Britain and Ireland, which describes the fourth quarterly meeting in the anatomical theatre at the University of Edinburgh, in August 1882,” he says.

“Among these Victorian anatomists showing off their stuff, is this, which I had not heard of seen before.”

The report spoke of “Some splendid specimens of tattooed skin from an Irish American.

“He had been operated on by his brother when a boy from four to seven years of age, and the process of tattooing had occupied nearly three years.

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“The whole surface of the skin except the face, hands, soles of feet, and -front of pelvis was covered with most artistically executed designs in red and black, in which several Irish and American emblems were introduced. The man died of phthisis.”

Its mere existence tells its own story about the practices of anatomists and physicians of the times and their quest to secure body parts to show colleagues, he adds.

“It was the done thing, anatomy at this period was like the Wild West, and anything of interest that came across dissection table - whether a weird tumour or strange anatomical feature – was cut off and kept.”

The curious story forms part of a talk that will cover 5,000 years of tattooing history, and promises to explode myths surrounding the practice and the people who choose to go under the needle.

Among the theories it challenges – much repeated in stories and movies – is that Scotland’s ‘painted people’, Picts, covered their bodies with tattoos.

The Herald: a prosthetic leg with ‘tattoos’ on it dating 1980sa prosthetic leg with ‘tattoos’ on it dating 1980s (Image: Anatomy Collection, University of Edinburgh)

Instead, Dr Lodder suggests the lack of proof of tattooing suggests they probably adopted a less permanent option - paint.

While far from its popular image of being introduced to western society by globe-trotting sailors and adopted by working classes, he reveals tattoos of the past were often sought out by the landed gentry from kings to society ladies.

Moral outrage, he suggests, could be traced to deep rooted racist attitudes that associated them with the tattooed native people encountered by Captain Cook in Tahiti on his visit there in 1769.

Yet tattoos were already familiar among Britons much earlier: sought out by 16th and 17th century pilgrims to the holy land – sometimes, with dire consequences.

“William Lithgow was a writer and chronicler who went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1612,” he explains.

“He was there on Easter Sunday and like a lot of pilgrims got a tattoo – the earliest modern tattooing in British people was done on pilgrims in late 16th century.

“Lithgow was tattooed with a conventional design of the time, a Jerusalem cross, one cross in the middle with four crosses around it – the same design that King Edward VII had when he went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1862.”

Lithgow parted with 12 shillings for his tattoo and requested an added extra: a crown with the mark of King James.

“Years later he was spying in Inquisition-controlled Spain, and was captured,” he adds.

“They saw a Catholic cross and a Protestant symbol, put him on the rack and cut it out of his body as punishment.”

As tattoo artists become more visible in cities and towns in the late 19th century, people across society sought their skills, from ladies who hid leg tattoos under floor length skirts, to royalty.

“When George V was tattooed, people copied him,” he adds.

Tattoos also influenced and were influenced by daily life. “Tattoos derived from Japanese prints began to appear on European tableware, some people had tattoos of famous paintings.

“If they were into hunting, shooting and fishing, they would have scenes of duck hunts.

“In the Second World War, people had tattoos of pin-ups, and now people are getting internet memes and portraits of film stars.”

His talk corresponds to an exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, Skin: A Layered History, which explores the changing meaning of skin from the 1500s to the present day.

Among the exhibits is a striking wooden prosthetic leg made for a woman who had lost her leg in a car accident, complete with decorative ‘tattoos’, and pages from an 1895 work by Italian physician Cesare Lombroso who gathered images and examples of tattoos from captured or murdered Mafiosos as part of his research into criminology.

He argued that ‘Tattooed persons who are not in prison are either latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats’ and “If someone who is tattooed dies in freedom, then he does so a few years before he would have committed murder.”

The exhibition also touches on how tattoos can become an aid to assist people who have experienced changes to their body, such an an example of an areola tattoo, for someone whose nipple is misshapen, miscoloured or has been affected by breast cancer surgery.

Dr Lodder adds: “There is this idea that tattooing is a ‘hot new thing’, or was just for sailors back in the 1880s when tattoo shops were starting out,” he says.

“But you can find articles from that time basically saying ‘we used to think tattoos were just for sailors and now it’s for everyone’.”

Painted People: An Untold History of Tattooing presented by Dr Matt Lodder is at the same venue on 13 September. For details visit

‘Skin: A Layered History’ is at the Royal College of Physicians, Queen Street, Edinburgh, and runs until 13 October.