When is a tattoo parlor the perfect venue for a contemporary art show? When the art on view is Nicole Wilson’s nearly decade-long project “Ötzi,” in which she recreated each of 61 tattoos found on the over 5,000-year-old Ice Age mummy of the same name on her own body, using her own blood in lieu of ink—and documented the healing process, photographing as the marks slowly faded away.
Archaeologists discovered Ötzi the Iceman in 1991 in the Ötztal Alps on the Italian-Austrian border. He had died circa 3230 BC—likely murdered—but his body was remarkably intact, the oldest naturally occurring mummy ever found in Europe. (He’s now housed at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Italy.)
“I like to say he was preserved due to cataclysmic circumstances—a perfect storm of him dying as a storm came through, covering him in snow and ice that perfectly preserved his body,” Wilson told Artnet News. “He’s a mummy, but not in the same way as Egyptian mummies. He wasn’t prepared for death in any way.”
The artist, who is 33, remembers learning about Ötzi as a young child, shortly after his discovery, and questioning her teachers’ assertions that the Iceman was her ancestor. As an adult, she became captivated by his mysterious tattoos, 15 groupings of 61 lines that mark various parts of his body. (Ötzi’s prehistoric tattoo artist rubbed pulverized charcoal into cuts in his skin, rather than using ink.)
“The tattoos themselves are super interesting,” Wilson said. “Scientists think they might have acupuncture significance, but we don’t actually know. We can’t ask what the lines and the dashes and hashes meant to this person.”
The idea of replicating those marks became a fixation for the artist.
“I started to become really obsessed with this idea of matching myself to history,” Wilson recalled. “If I could be a proxy for his body, or vice versa, what would that mean? It’s about closing some kind of historical time warp, as if we could compress time.”
The physical display features the photographs of the tattoos, but collectors can also buy digital files for each tattoo that have been authenticated and registered on the blockchain. (The South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology has given Wilson its permission.)
The purchaser can buy just one of the 15 tattoo groupings, which range in price from $400 to $1,800, based on complexity—Wilson wanted to keep the pricing somewhat in line with traditional tattooing—or get the whole set for $10,000.
The editioned design files come with instructions for tattooing, with Wilson likening it to purchasing a Sol LeWitt wall drawing. Because the lines in each tattoo are so simple, each grouping takes maybe ten minutes or so to ink—a process that several collectors have already done, Wilson said. (She estimates that getting the full set done with tattoo artist Matt Moreno took less than two hours.)
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