Memento Mori (Tattoo)

Most contemporary tattoos are graphic signs or symbols related to belief systems or cultural trends. These include text, realistic pictures, cartoon or diagrammatic images, and icons ranging from sentimental to comical. What if tattoos were treated as site-specific art? Rather than depictions or references to images, could a tattoo operate beyond symbology and interpretive meaning and become experiential?

In The Ambassadors (1533), Hans Holbein depicts two men, surrounded by the accoutrements of a learned and cultured society. In the lower part of the painting, an elongated object slashes up and to the right, apparently in front of the posing gentlemen. When seen from a specific oblique angle, the object is revealed as a skull. Holbein’s skull is a vanitas or memento mori, or reminder of mortality. An art theme since antiquity, the memento mori is found on timepieces, funerary structures, painting and sculpture aimed at reminding each of us that we are mortal. In the 16th and 17th centuries, still life paintings with decaying plants and food, often combined with a skull, were a popular motif portraying vanitas, or emptiness.

The skull in The Ambassadors is an anamorphosis, or oblique projection. The technique is one way to generate site-specificity in two-dimensional art. Because the viewer must stand in a specific spot to decode the distorted image, anamorphosis generates spatial awareness as the viewer seeks the correct vantage point.

Hans Holbein, The Ambassadors (1533). The lower foreground is dominated by a distorted object.
Memento Mori Tattoo. Holbein's distorted skull is repositioned to fit on the underside of my index finger.
Pointing at someone reveals the anamorphic skull.
Memento Mori Tattoo Mockup in Cyan. Different colors offer varying clarity for different skin tones.