Geoff Ostling - The Illustrated Man

Published: 23 March, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 196, March, 2011

With his clothes on Geoff Ostling doesn’t stand out. His grayish, thin hair, grey beard and impressive beer gut makes him look exactly like what he is, a 63 year old retired high school teacher from Sydney. It’s not until the clothes come off that you realize he’s just a little bit different from everyone else.

From head to toe, including his genitals, he’s covered in tattoos of mostly native Australian flowers - and when he dies, he’s donating his skin to the National Museum of Australia. There’s even a whole film about that.  

When The National Museum of Australia asked Geoff Ostling to donate his skin after his death a whole bunch of judicial and moral questions were raised. Who owns the right to his skin after his death? Is it legal and even do-able at all? Is it morally correct?

All these questions awoke the interest of the Australian film company Big Little Films, and the documentary 'Skin' became the first out of four in their series about anatomy. 

The film is built around these questions, Geoff explains:

“I was showing my tattoos at this seminar at the museum and afterwards one of the curators asked me if I wanted to donate my skin. I said I had to talk to my partner first, but he agreed to it, so that was one of the main hurdles over. 

In the documentary they interview a doctor about how to go through with it, the curators about the moral aspects and the mortician about how to treat a body without skin. We also go to Japan to look at some preserved Samurai skins…” 

The film became a hit and it’s won prizes at a couple of international film festivals, like Sydney, Amsterdam and Toronto. It was also screened three times at the Tribeca film festival where it was ‘strongly recommended’, and it’s about to be sold to both American and European networks to be aired on TV.”

Geoff started getting tattoos at the age of 42, after having met a corporate executive with a full body suit he’d never shown to his colleagues or clients. 

The interest was already there, but this made him realize his long awaited dream of a body suit actually could come true. 

“Ever since my parents told me I couldn’t have one, I’ve wanted one, but I didn’t know anyone who had tattoos. Meeting the executive was the starting point.”  

He refers to himself as “a heavily tattooed bear”, and that pretty much sums it up. He’s a gentle, kind and laid back person with a grayish beard, glasses, and an “unusual” hobby, and I feel nothing but relaxed when I talk to him. He’s at ease with himself and his life choices and he’s still planning new tattoos. There is still some space on his body, mainly on his right arm, but the next project is his neck and scalp. As with the majority of Geoff’s body, they will probably be covered in flowers:

“A lot of people like to put symbols of death, like skulls, on their body. Instead I have symbols of life. Why flowers? It’s simple, they’re the body’s sex organs, and I just like plants and things that grow!”

His tattoos have been inked all over the world, but most of them have been created by one of the biggest artists in Australia. She calls herself eX de Medici. 

“Her dad was a highly appointed politician in Canberra and he made her use a different name if she was to become a tattoo artist. When I saw her work I was speechless. Sadly she’s not tattooing anymore since her paintings are now sold for 120,000 dollars…”

The film also follows Geoff around for a couple of months after he decided to go through with the donation. He himself didn’t have any moral issues with the donation and medically speaking it was doable, but there were other elements that made him hesitate, if only for a second or two. 

“Since the parents of all my former students would see it, I was a bit worried over the outcome. A lot of them would probably think: ‘No wonder my kid’s in jail!’

It was no secret though, I just didn’t say anything. I could have lost my job if they found out. I’m also gay. I would probably not have lost my job if that came out, but that’s another thing you just don’t tell people. At the end of the day it wasn’t that hard though. I just kept my private life and my job separated. Of course there was always the risk of the shirt coming up a bit and revealing the tattoos, but that never happened and since the film came out I’ve received almost nothing but positive comments, except the occasional asshole of course!”

Many of the positive comments came from his own colleagues: “One teacher came up to me and told me about his tattoos. He’d never shown his either, and some of them were really big.” 

The documentary has made Geoff into something of a celebrity. He got invited to the international tattoo convention in Berlin, he gets recognized in his everyday life in Australia and the photos The Sydney Morning Herald took of him didn’t just make the paper’s own Top 100 Photos of the year. One of them also made it into the LA Times equivalent. 

“It’s incredible how many people have seen the movie, so we’ll see, maybe there will be a sequel. They have 80 hours material altogether and I’ve already been asked once about it, but they didn’t have the 60,000 dollars they needed for it then!”


Text & Photography: Simon Lundh