While it might seem taboo to make art or other functional objects out of human body parts, the practice is nothing new. Artists have often found ways to turn bones, skin, teeth, hair, and even their own blood into remarkable works of art, or at the very least, something useful - like a criminal who determined that his memoirs should be bound with his own flesh!
It was also somewhat common for people in the Victorian era to keep a lock of their dead loved one's hair and incorporate it into a beautiful piece of jewelry, something that is not so far removed from keeping a beloved's hair in a locket or their ashes in an urn today. And if you're going to make a self-portrait, what better way to really put yourself into your work than by crafting it out of your own frozen blood, or with hair from every part of your body?
These works of art might be macabre, but some of these made-from-humans-by-humans objects are really quite incredible.
Artist Hananuma Masakichi believed that he was dying of tuberculosis. He decided that he would prepare for his death by creating an extremely lifelike sculpture of his own body to give to his lover. He used thousands of strips of wood, pegs, dovetail joints, glue, and his own nails and hair. He meticulously drilled a hole for each follicle, plucked that same hair from his own body, and placed it in the hole. He did this with his eyebrows, body hair, eyelashes, facial hair, and all the hair on his head.
As it turned out, Masakichi was not dying, however. He lived for another ten years before dying in 1895 at age 63. By that time, he was in poverty. Robert Ripley (of Ripley's Believe It or Not fame) bought the statue, and it is now in Amsterdam.
The Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic contains the bones of over 40,000 people. They are arranged into elaborate patterns that are quite breathtaking, if you can overlook the fact that they're human bones.
The town of Sedlec was a popular place to be buried because in the 1200s, Henry, a Cistercian abbot, brought back a sample of earth from Golgotha (the place where Jesus was supposedly crucified) and spread it around the abbey cemetery. That cemetery was later expanded due to the plague causing a large number of deaths. In 1400, a church was built and inside that church was a chapel, intended for use as an ossuary to store the skeletons unearthed during construction.
At one point, the bones were simply piled up in the ossuary by a blind monk. However, in 1870, a woodcarver named František Rint was asked to artfully arrange the bones, instead.
US artist Andrew Krasnow makes art out of human skin. The skin comes from folks who, prior to their deaths, donated their skin to medical science. Krasnow makes all sorts of things, including the walrus above, which he made in 2000 as a response to oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He’s also made maps, lampshades, shoes, and other objects.
There is a book one can find at the Boston Athaenaeum library. The book is full of tales regarding James Allen, a legendary thief in the 1800s. The book is bound in Allen’s own skin.
According to Atlas Obscura, it was somewhat common to flay criminals and use their hides for books, but in Allen’s case, it was by his own request. He said that as a show of respect, he wanted his memoir bound with his flesh and then delivered to John Fenno, Jr., who had accused him of attempted murder. A member of the Fenno family eventually donated it to the library.
You can read the book online here.