Skin For Sale

Creating art on the human body raises ethical issues that are widely discussed and far from resolved

News | Stephanie Levett | October 2008

Part of the exhbition “Bodies” at the Gasometer (Photo: Courtesty of the exhibition)

Tim Steiner sold the large tattoo on his back for €150,000, according to a September report by the Tagesanzeiger, a Swiss daily newspaper. The buyer of the bizarre work collects pieces by tattoo-artist Wim Delvoye – who gained celebrity status by tattooing pigs with luxury labels such as Louis Vuitton. While shocking, the skin sale is probably most important for the questions it raises. Is there a potential market for human skin? And if there is, should it be allowed?

Steiner, a 31-year old Zurich resident, signed a contract requiring him to display his creative back for four weeks a year.  The collector may sell the mobile piece of art if he wishes (and finds a customer), and he legally has the right to skin Steiner, literally, after his death to acquire the tattoo permanently.  The transaction was the first of its kind in the commercial art world and raised ethical issues that are being widely discussed and are far from resolved.

Ethicists, like presidential advisor Leon Kass, cite "the ‘yuck’ factor," in an effort to label things they find instinctively wrong. But beyond the gut level, it gets more problematic.

"It is surprisingly difficult to come up with a good non-religious non-magical argument against using the human cadaver, or a piece of it, as an object of art," Dr. Frederick A. Childs, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics at the New York State Bioethics Research Center told the Vienna Review.

The German film Tattoo, released in 2002, used the notion of an actual tattoo mafia as the basis for a thriller. The Steiner deal raises the question of whether the screenwriter was simply prescient or whether rumours of a literal skin trade were already making the rounds of Hollywood. The existing trade - both legal and black market - in human organs for transplant suggests that this could be just the tip of the iceberg.

"Who would want to buy something like that?" wondered Gheorghe Carp, owner of a tattoo studio in the 6th District, upon hearing the Steiner story.  Confronted with the idea of a tattoo mafia, he shrugged.  "Nothing would surprise me anymore," he said, although "nobody in my network believes there is such an organization."

So, is it just an urban legend, catalysed by a movie, and sustained by this strange purchase?  Monika Weber, a 32-year old independent tattoo artist with a studio on Wiedner Hauptstrasse, just laughs. "Well, Steiner certainly made a good deal!" she said. Beyond making jokes about it with her customers, she doesn’t worry too much about skin theft.

Not that it wouldn’t be lucrative, if there were an actual tattoo-stealing mafia. The cost of getting a full-colour detailed back tattoo is usually between €1,500 and €5,000. By comparison, Steiner sold his tattoo for the grand amount of €150,000 (approx. $215,000). A man 1,80m tall desiring a full suit (whole body) tattoo would face a total cost of €20,000 and upward, depending on complexity.  A full suit commission is heavily sought after in the world of tattoo artists. "If you are asked to do such a big piece, it’s an honor and the price will adapt accordingly," Weber says.

Even if a person wanted to sell his or her skin, is it legal in Austria?  Prof. Dr. Ulrich Körtner, Head of the Institute for Ethics and Law in Medicine in Vienna, claims that such a deal would be at least problematic.  As the skin is a bodily organ, he says, it falls under the general regulations for organs which forbid such transactions for profit.

"According to the EU Statutes on Human Rights, the human body is not allowed to be commercialised," he said. "It is not an item to sell." The consequences if such transactions were legal are, at best, disturbing: Instead of just donating blood, people in financial need might be tempted to sell bits of ligaments or liver, a kidney or a lung.  Organs would be sold to the highest bidder instead of being given to those in greatest need.  Then there is the problem of who would supervise the transactions. Who would be given the authority to draw the line before the ‘supplier’ gradually self destructs?  If casualties resulted, who would be to blame? People with highly compatible blood groups could be forced into ‘donating,’ while officials stood by helpless.

Of course this subject poses questions that are not easily answered.  Dr. Frederick A. Childs says that "treating the human body as an object for commercial use is a classic denial of human dignity." But ethics is a two-sided coin: "On the other hand, forbidding a human being to do whatever he wishes with his own body(...)would seem to be just as much a denial of his human dignity and autonomy," he continues. "After all, Tim Steiner is exhibiting his tattoos for pay in the same sense that a runway model is exhibiting the fashions for pay."

So, while there are certain restrictions as to what a person may and may not do with the human body, most people are fascinated by its nature and possibilities and curious about the gruesome exploitation of it.  The best known example is the Bodies exhibition, produced by Premier Exhibitions Inc. and Jam Exhibitions currently on tour around the world.

During the last week of its stay in Vienna at the Gasometer, there were queues outside the exhibition hall.  Hundreds of school children rushed inside to see the displays, created from preserved parts of real human bodies, while their parents left a small fortune at the cash register – €20 per adult, €10 per child or a family card for "only" €49 (up to 2 adults and 2 children).

Visitors to the show were shown things ordinarily reserved for the eyes of doctors and med students.  The show tried to keep the amateur public interested and to satisfy everybody’s need for the bizarre.

For some, the plasticized corpses were undoubtedly grotesque, often positioned in awkward ways that seemed cartoon-like: one carcass had a tennis racket in its hand, poised to hit a ball, and another body was playing volleyball, just to give two examples.

Walking through the dimly lit rooms of the exhibition, one wondered if those who donated their bodies had known how they would be used.

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    the vienna review October 2008