Belgian artist Wim Delvoye’s ‘human canvas’ piece inspired new body tattoo movie

‘The Man Who Sold His Skin’ is about a Syrian refugee who gets inked and exhibited in a Brussels museum

Tim Steiner—the human canvas—was live-streamed from The Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) in Hobart, Tasmania courtesy Wim Delvoye

Belgian artist Wim Delvoye’s human canvas work—an all-over body tattoo inked on the torso of former Zurich tattoo parlour owner Tim Steiner—has inspired a new blockbuster movie called The Man Who Sold His Skin. The film’s director, Kaouther Ben Hania of Tunisia, told Variety magazine that she got the idea for the new movie after seeing Steiner’s dramatic body art in an exhibition. Delvoye makes a cameo appearance in the new movie.

In 2007, Steiner met Delvoye who was looking for a human canvas on which he could ink tattoos. Delvoye covered Steiner’s back with a tattoo of the Madonna crowned in a halo, topped with a Mexican skull (the piece is entitled Tim). In 2008, Steiner’s skin masterpiece was sold to the German collector Rik Reinking for €150,000. When Steiner dies, the skin on his back daubed with the elaborate tattoo will enter Reinking’s collection.

The Man Who Sold His Skin is likewise about a young Syrian refugee, played by Yahya Mahayni, who agrees to have a Schengen border zone visa tattooed on his back; the body tattoo becomes his passport to Europe as the youth agrees to be exhibited in a Brussels museum. The film, which also stars Monica Bellucci as an “icy art world operator” according to Variety—is due to be released in France on 13 January.

Delvoye tells The Art Newspaper: “Originally I had the option to play the artist, but I would be constantly worried about my real life image and that would stand in the way of really playing an artist. I would be so confused between playing one and being one. Then the filmmaker thought I could play the insurer—a meeting that also happened with real life Tim.”

UPDATE: The Man Who Sold His Skin has been nominated for Best International Feature at the 2021 Oscars.