An old man named Drioli shuffles along the sidewalk of the rue de Rivoli in April of 1946. Dressed in a filthy black coat, he looks cold and miserable, and is obviously hungry as he passes by a cafe with the faint smell of roasting chicken. As he passes by a gallery, he stops when he sees a painting by Chaim Soutine. He thinks back, and eventually remembers that Chaim is his "little Kalmuck" (164). Drioli begins to recall 1913, when he first met Soutine, whom he loved exclusively because Chaim could paint.
Drioli begins to remember Cite Falguiere, the street where Chaim lives, and the drunken parties, cheap wine, furious quarrels and "the bitter sullen face of the boy brooding over his work" (165). During one meeting with Chaim, Drioli enters the apartment with several bottles of wine and catches Chaim painting a portrait of Drioli's wife. Drioli wants to celebrate, and Chaim asks whether they are celebrating Drioli divorcing his wife so he can marry her. Drioli retorts by saying he has made a good deal of money after tattooing nine clients in one day. Drioli compliments Chaim's work, but his paintings do not make enough money for him to live on. The artist is from Smilovichi, and has small, white hands like a lady's, a very broad, high-cheeked face with a wide coarse nose, ears that stick out sharply from his face, narrow eyes, black hair, a thick sullen mouth, and a constantly gloomy disposition.
Drioli keeps buying wine as they celebrate, and Drioli's wife, Josie, rejects Chaim's marriage proposal. Drioli progresses through drunkenness, eventually feeling that his feet do not belong to him as he begins to float. After a while, Drioli rises from the ground, turns out the light, and asks Chaim to tattoo his back with one of his pictures. As a tattoo artist, Drioli trusts himself to know what he is talking about, recounting the difficult clients he has previously tattooed as evidence of his competence.
Drioli asks for a picture of his wife to be tattooed on his back, and Chaim agrees. The artist asks to do a nude study of Josie, but refuses to tattoo the picture on Drioli's back. Chaim suggests that he paint a picture on Drioli's back, and Drioli can refuse to bathe as a testament to Chaim's art. Drioli insists that he can teach Chaim to tattoo in a few minutes, and he brings out his electric needles and coloured inks. After turning on the needle, Drioli demonstrates how to tattoo on a small portion of his arm, and the artist agrees to paint with the needle as if with a paintbrush.
Josie reluctantly poses with a hairbrush by the dressing table, as Drioli steps out of his trousers and takes off his shirt. Chaim asks Drioli to sit at the easel, and eventually settles for Drioli sitting back to front on a chair. The artist paints his design onto Drioli's back, and then begins to tattoo. The final product is a tremendous, darkly filled-in tattoo with gold, green, blue, black, and scarlet elements. The tattoo seems to move and twist magnificently, and after Drioli shows his approval, Soutine signs the final product.
The old man's memory of Chaim ends, and he remembers that after World War I, he lost contact with the boy, who was likely taken up by an art dealer. Drioli then moved to Le Havre, where he constantly received work from soldiers. After World War II, Josie dies and the tattoo business slows, and Drioli returns to Paris hoping to find clients, to no avail.
Drioli then pushes his way into the art gallery and is asked to leave by the host. But Drioli pulls away from the guards trying to hold him back, and takes off his shirt to reveal the tattoo that Chaim gave him. The gallery patrons stare in wonder at the wonderful tattoo, and someone offers to buy it. But, until the man's death, the tattoo is worth nothing because it is still part of his body. The owner of the Hotel Bristol in Cannes tempts Drioli by promising him beautiful women, food, and wine. Another dealer offers to take Drioli to a surgeon to have his skin removed and replaced by a skin graft, but another person explains that this procedure would likely kill Drioli.
Drioli finally agrees to go with the supposed owner of the Hotel Bristol, and a few weeks later a picture by Soutine, with a woman's head painted in an unusual manner, turns up for sale in Buenos Aires. The narrator finishes the story with hope that Drioli is still alright, especially since there is no Hotel Bristol in Cannes.
In "Skin," Roald Dahl uses a flashback, and a famous historical figure, to underscore the depravity and exclusivity of the art world. By including Chaim Soutine, a famous Russian-French expressionist painter from the early 20th century, Dahl adds gravity to his piece, as his main character describes (fictional) interactions with a real historical figure. Soutine's bizarre and macabre paintings also complement the story, as the sinister ending of the piece reflects the odd quality of Soutine's canvases.
"Skin" contends with Drioli's life and his progression from an in-demand but financially insecure young tattoo artist to an impoverished and hungry old man. When Drioli meets Soutine, he is still a young man who asks his poor artist friend to tattoo a portrait onto his back. Drioli appreciates Soutine's work purely for its artistic value, as Soutine cannot successfully sell his works in 1913. He asks for a tattoo of Soutine's painting as a sign of respect for his friend's craft. This directly contrasts with the gallery patrons at the end of the story. When the gallery patrons see Drioli's tattoo, their immediate thought is to buy the piece, rather than to truly appreciate the artwork. While Drioli values his friend enough to put his art on his body, the people in the gallery only value art as a material possession.
The context of World War II also informs this story, as this hunger for possessions is directly in conversation with the greed and contemptuousness of the post-war period. When Drioli recalls his 1913 tattoo, he also remembers WWI. After the first world war, Drioli leaves his home for Le Havre, and is able to find constant work as the sailors come in and out of the ports. After World War II, these sailors no longer come to get tattoos.
Drioli travels to Paris to try to restart his business, but after WWII there is little interest in tattoos, and Drioli is forced to live on the streets after many years of putting art directly on people's bodies, as the story suggests people value physical art objects more. After the German occupation, France seems to become colder and more brutal, as Drioli's hunger and poverty in his old age come to the forefront. But, though Drioli does not have many possessions, he has a wonderful piece of artwork that is a part of his body, and that cannot simply be bought and sold. But, the gallery patrons value money, and artwork, more than Drioli's life, especially since he is a poor man that wanders into the gallery off of the street.
Drioli's status as a poor man also informs the meaning of "Skin." Drioli is almost kicked out of the gallery because he tries to see the paintings of his old friend. Due to Drioli's disheveled look, he is treated like an animal, and only proves his worth by displaying his tattoo. Still, the patrons do not see him as human, but rather as a walking canvas, a vehicle for wealth and prosperity. Drioli's tattoo is the only thing that gives Drioli any value in the eyes of the wealthy art buyers.
After several of the buyers barter with Drioli, Drioli decides to leave with a man who claims to own the Hotel Bristol in Cannes. The narrator reveals that there is no Hotel Bristol, and that Drioli was likely murdered. This murder is also a metaphor for Drioli's disposability in the eyes of the wealthy, and for the tragedy of selling the art that his friend made, a genuine remnant of his friend's hospitality and care that is completely separate from any monetary gain, in a corrupt art market and greedy post-war world.