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Matching tattoos across human history

Nicole Wilson’s “Otzi” at Praise Shadows Art GalleryTJ Proechel/Praise Shadows Art Gallery

“Ötzi,” Nicole Wilson’s heartening exhibition at Praise Shadows Art Gallery, sweeps from 3300 BCE to 2021, hitting on touchstones along the way: mummies, tattoos, and the worth of a digital file.

The mummy is Ötzi, the preserved remains of a 45-year-old, Copper Age man discovered in the Alps in 1991. We know he had brown eyes and Type O blood and he was lactose-intolerant. We don’t know what his tattoos signify. Ötzi is one of the oldest tattooed mummies, with 61 markings of lines or crosses in 19 groups, incised into his skin and rubbed with pulverized charcoal.

Nicole Wilson’s “Otzi” at Praise Shadows Art GalleryTJ Proechel/Praise Shadows Art Gallery

Using her own blood as ink, Wilson had the tattoos replicated on her own body. She photographed them fading over time. This exhibition includes photos framed and presented as sculptural objects, with text on the back corresponding to identifying notation used by Ötzi’s caretakers at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Italy. An artist’s book includes instructions for collectors who purchase a digital design file of a tattoo. The book and design files include Sol LeWitt-style instructions for use.

This project exquisitely holds all we don’t know of Ötzi’s story against the specificity of his tattoos, then opens back into intangibility with digital files registered to a blockchain — a series of servers that authenticates them.


Wilson prompts us to gaze across 5,000 years wondering how different this man’s life must have been from ours, yet knowing he blundered through it driven by passions and necessities, like all of us. Inking his tattoos into her own skin, she asks, who were you? What did these marks say about your health, your social standing, your spirituality? How are we the same?

Nicole Wilson’s “Otzi” at Praise Shadows Art GalleryTJ Proechel/Praise Shadows Art Gallery

She demonstrates our reflex for kinship. Her focus on Ötzi is like our fascination with the widower swan tending his babies along the Esplanade, only we relate to papa swan across species rather than millennia.


The digital files are incorporeal. But follow their instructions and you, too, can wear Ötzi’s tattoos behind your ankle bone or across your lumbar spine. Through the point of a needle piercing your own skin, you can touch a greater mystery about who this man was, and how we are all connected.


At Praise Shadows Art Gallery, 313A Harvard St., Brookline, through June 27. 617-487-5427,

Cate McQuaid can be reached at