The oldest naturally preserved mummy ever found, Ötzi the Iceman, was covered in tattoos. Visual artist Nicole Wilson adopts the same exact markings as the man born 5,000 years ago and reflects on how far we’ve come.
Photos by TJ Proechel, Peter Roessler and South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/Eurac/Samadelli/Stachitz
Nicole Wilson walked into Three Kings Tattoo in Brooklyn, New York carrying two small vials of her own blood. Soon the blood would be tattooed into her skin, leaving behind the exact same marks as those found on Ötzi the Iceman.
Ötzi was discovered by hikers in the 1990s in the Ötzal Alps on the border of Austria and Italy. His body is covered in tattoos, well-preserved from being frozen in a glacier for thousands of years. Scientists dated him to 3300 BCE and through research have figured out intimate details of his 45 years on this planet: what he ate, what region he was from, and how he died.
Wilson, a visual artist living and working in Brooklyn, has always been drawn to the one thing that scientists cannot quite figure out—the meaning behind the mysterious tattoos covering his body. “The reason I’m so interested in Ötzi is because scientists were able to recreate his last meal, they were able to identify where he was from, identify all these things about him. But the one thing they can’t actually go back and tell the story of his tattoos,” she says. It was this that motivated Wilson to delve deeper into Ötzi. Although scientists have speculated what the tattoos mean, claiming they could be identificatory or medicinal, they are not able to come to any definite conclusions. “No amount of science will ever be able to reconstruct the story that tells us why these tattoos are on his corpse.”
Wilson, drawn to these marks found on the representative of early man, decided to recreate Ötzi’s marks on her own body. “Ötzi is an archeological figure, but he also can be translated into an archetypical male figure,” Wilson says. “My artwork at large is interested in challenging structures of power, especially male-centered and patriarchal. I became obsessed with the idea of taking Ötzi’s marks and making them mine. There was something deeply feminist and very empowering about doing this.” But she knew that simply tattooing them would be too easy, too direct a translation.