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Talofa, Matt: As a tattoo aficionado, I recall reading that before it was destroyed during WWII, there existed a collection of preserved dermagraphics from Japanese yakuza members, and supposedly due to the atrocities in Germany, this practice has been prohibited in the U.S. since. What’s the real scoops on this? Mahalo. — Mermaidmike

Yikes! A conglomeration of strange and awful stories. None of them true, by the way. First of all, a yakuza’s full-body tattoo is so much a part of his identity, he would never consider having his skin flayed before burial. He’d never want to be separated from all those symbols of blood and courage and strength. (Yakuza, if you don’t know, are considered Japan’s mafia — a secret and dangerous crew.) So, a museum of yakuza suits is unlikely.

Second, tattooing was illegal in Japan from the 1860s until 1948. It was so closely associated with the criminal underground and low-life people that your average Japanese person was disgusted by the sight of them. Despite the fact that Japan is considered the heartland of beautiful tattoo art, with examples of designs going back to 300 BC, it lost favor in the mid-1800s. During this time, the government tattooed criminals on their foreheads so they’d be identifiable. The only reason tattooing was legalized again is because of the American occupation in 1948. General MacArthur knew American sailors loved tattoos, so to accommodate them he lifted the ban.

Since then, many tattoo museums have popped up around the country, the most significant in Yokohama, the heart of fine Japanese tattoo art. But none of Japan’s public museums have actual human skin on display, just copies of historic and contemporary designs. That’s not so in the Medical Museum of Tokyo University. In vats of liquid preservative, they have body suits (not yakuza) and other examples of the tattooists’ skills. Actual tattoos on actual human skin. None of them are on display or available in any form to the public; you need some very special permission to view them.

As for the prohibition against dealing in human skin in the U.S., no special laws were needed. A slice of tattooed skin would fall under the laws controlling the sale of any other body part, like a kidney or an eyeball. But the U.S. does own real flayed, tattooed human skin. (They’re dried, not all goopy and realistic like the Japanese examples.) Some are in the National Archives and the others in the Walter Reed Army Hospital. Museum of Health and Medicine. They’re examples of tattoos removed from inmates in the Buchenwald concentration camp. Though most concentration camp inmates were given numbered tattoos on their arms for identification, the tattoos in the U.S. collections are pictorial, apparently removed by the Nazis because of their curiosity value. They’re pictures of sailors, a woman and an anchor, a knight and a dragon, a woman with butterfly wings, and other non-camp-related figures. It’s unlikely any were taken from Jews, since Judaism frowns on tattooing the body. Once again, they’re not on public display.

Buchenwald was a particularly grisly camp, commanded by a tough officer and his very sadistic wife. They undoubtedly ordered the tattoos removed. Buchenwald is also the camp that is said to have made the infamous tattooed human-skin lamp shade. Turns out that story is probably a myth, since no one’s ever proved that such a thing ever existed.

Okay, Matt: Not liking to crush little creatures, I sometimes flush them down the toilet. Once I did this with a cockroach, and even though he was out of sight, he reappeared in the toilet about 15 minutes later. When I completely flushed a bunch of snails from my garden, the next day one of the snails was sliding itself up inside the porcelain. What makes these creatures possess such incredible survival skills? — P. Harris, Clairemont

The muffled snickers you hear is the Harrises’ amused-cockroach population. The species has survied disasters that wiped out dinosaurs. A little thing like plumbing won’t stop them. Cockroaches love water. Their shells are very waxy. They can flatten themselves down to a sixteenth of an inch and grip any surface. And they don’t have lungs or a breathing system like mammals. The trap in your toilet or any bumps on the pipes give them a safe spot to wait out the flood. Then they just crawl back up the way they came in. Same with snails. And if this is the most fascinating thing going on in Clairemont, well, it might be time to move.

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Dragonfly Feb. 23, 2011 @ 10:36 p.m.

Such a thing as a lampshade of skin apparently has existed, although whether it came from Buchenwald is uncertain. There's a book that describes the object: "The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story from Buchenwald to New Orleans" which you can find at amazon.com. The book has been discussed on NPR; go to npr.org and search on the keyword "lampshade".


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