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Hans Holbein’s Anamorphic Skull as a Temporary Tattoo

"Memento Mori Tattoo" by Pablo Garcia (courtesy the artist)
“Memento Mori Tattoo” by Pablo Garcia (courtesy the artist)

A huge, distorted skull appears like a slash across Hans Holbein the Younger’s 1533 “The Ambassadors,” and it’s only when viewed from an angle that the death’s head emerges from the painting in three dimensions. It’s one of the most famous uses of anamorphosis, but how to communicate this unique omen of impending mortality in a more personal way? Artist and designer Pablo Garcia used the 16th-century illusion for a temporary tattoo whose dimensions are activated when you place it on your finger and ominously point like the Ghost of Christmas Future.

Hans Holbein the Younger, "The Ambassadors" (1533), oil on oak (via National Gallery/Wikimedia)
Hans Holbein the Younger, “The Ambassadors” (1533), oil on oak (via National Gallery/Wikimedia) (click to enlarge)

Garcia is offering the “Memento Mori Tattoo” through Kickstarter ($5 for four in black and magenta). “Place it on the side of your index finger, point at someone and remind them: THOU ART MORTAL!” Garcia writes on the campaign page. “Want to humble yourself? Point at yourself in the mirror: I AM MORTAL!”

Holbein’s “The Ambassadors,” on view at the National Gallery in London, is similar to other vanitas paintings of the era that plopped a skull down amidst the proceedings of the living to remind them of their shared place in a dance of death. A few other artists also used the anamorphic to startle their viewer with this fatal future. The New York Public library recently added Italian anamorphic prints from the 17th century to its Digital Collections, including one which reveals a corpse on a table with a gravedigger nearby:

An anamorphic print from Italy (1601-1700) (via New York Public Library)
An anamorphic print from Italy (1601-1700) (via New York Public Library)

Garcia, an assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, often reconsiders art history with work like his collaboration with Addie Wagenknecht, “Webcam Venus,” which asked sexcam performers to assume poses of Old Masters, part of Eyebeam’s exhibition F.A.T. Gold in 2013. Recently, he created a Memento Mori selfie stick add-on that also considers mortality with anamorphic graphics which stretch out along the stick and flatten the image into a skull. As for designing a stick-on tattoo, he states: “They’re easy to apply and easy to take off; they’re temporary. Just like you.”

Detail of the skull when viewed from an angle in "The Ambassadors" (1533) (via Thomas Shahan/Wikimedia)
Detail of the skull when viewed from an angle in “The Ambassadors” (1533) (via Thomas Shahan/Wikimedia)
The skull when viewed to the side of "The Ambassadors" (photo by Michele M. F./Flickr)
The skull when viewed to the side of “The Ambassadors” (photo by Michele M. F./Flickr)

Memento Mori Tattoo by Pablo Garcia is funding on Kickstarter through April 5.

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