The Tattoo Collectors: Film & Fiction

When I was a child, my favourite Roald Dahl story was Skin, a macabre tale about an old tattooist named Drioli, who has a magnificent work of art tattooed on his back by the famous painter Chaïm Soutine. One day he happens upon an exhibition of the dead artist’s work in a fancy Paris gallery, and recalling the tattoo on his back, he decides to go inside and take a closer look. Having fallen on hard times and now reduced to begging for a living, he is not welcome amongst the wealthy art patrons – until he reveals the original artwork permanently inked into his skin. The gallery owner immediately offers him a large sum of money for the tattoo: “But how,” Drioli asks, “can I possibly sell it?”

The gallery owner suggests that he have the tattoo removed by skin graft operation, and offers to pay a handsome sum for the flayed ‘artwork’ – a proposal that is immediately countered by protests from the gathered patrons – the old man could never survive such a procedure. Poor old Drioli becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the discussion going on around him, until eventually, he is made an offer by one of the art collectors to perform as a living picture gallery at his hotel, where he will be able to live a life of luxury in return. Drioli accepts, and a few weeks later, a “nicely framed and heavily varnished” picture by Soutine, matching the description of Drioli’s tattoo, turns up at an auction in Buenos Aires.[1] As a child, I remember the shiver of morbid delight I felt reading this outlandishly ghoulish ending – but I never would have dreamed that such a thing as preserved tattoos actually existed. Now, I wonder whether Roald Dahl drew inspiration from personal experience of seeing such a collection.

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