A new and lavishly illustrated book of tattoo art and memorabilia by legendary Dutch tattooist Henk Schiffmacher chronicles an ancient art form that has become a modern fashion statement – allowing us to delve deeper into mankind’s enduring fascination with “getting inked”.
Tattoos may fade but they never go away – and this holds true both literally and figuratively. For countless millennia, getting inked was a lifelong commitment and, before recent medical tattoo removal procedures were invented, your personal bit of body art would follow you to the grave. During these same countless millennia getting inked has gone in and out of fashion, being associated at times with heroes, royalty, and the upper classes, and at other times with slaves, convicts, and the worst riff-raff of society.
In a new art book from Taschen published earlier this year, renowned Dutch tattoo artist and archivist Henk Schiffmacher shares from his wealth of historic photos and drawings, culled from a 240-year period that saw this exotic craft develop into a worldwide phenomenon. Fittingly entitled TATTOO. 1730s-1970s. Henk Schiffmacher’s Private Collection, this stunningly illustrated volume – with text in English, German and French – takes readers on an exhaustive tour through the evolution of ink on skin.
The book contains over 700 images, and begins with a personal introduction from the author, detailing his humble upbringing, his early interest in art, and his lifelong fascination with all things tattoo-related. This is followed by a section focusing on tribal tattoos and, in particular, the facial markings of New Zealand’s indigenous Māori people.
“Everything was expressed in these symbols,” says Schiffmacher, describing the Māori body art tradition. “A person’s genealogy, status in the tribe, their whole story was pecked into these tattoos with a chisel and mallet. This is your ancestors, your family, your life, who you are. There is real meaning in this, and it endured generation after generation. To me, because of all of this, it’s the most beautiful tattoo ever.”
Māori tattoos, and those of Samoa and other South Pacific islands, were first introduced to most Europeans through illustrations made by artists like Sydney Parkinson, who sailed with Captain James Cook on his historic exploratory voyages (from 1768 to 1779). Sadly, the puritanical Christian colonisers who arrived in the decades that followed did their best to eradicate this unique cultural heritage, which makes these early visual records – many of which are reprinted in the book – so valuable.
Schiffmacher also reveals that when he was finally able to visit these exotic lands himself, he started getting tattooed by local artists in places like Samoa, Malaysia, and Indonesia – where they still used traditional chisels and mallets – in order to fully experience what generations before him had gone through.
The second chapter delves deep into how body art was brought to new heights in Japan. Referencing early artists such as Utagawa Kuniyoshi, the author chronicles the chain of events that led to, as he calls it, “the most intricate and sophisticated hand-tattooing in the world”. It’s fascinating to read how this imagery, full of dragons, demons, lions, and serpents, eventually worked its way onto the bodies of wealthy merchants, geishas, and even Western dignitaries (including future King George V of England and the future last emperor of Russia, Nicholas II). Of course, the author also acknowledges its association to the less savoury criminal underground of the yakuza.
As for Schiffmacher’s own adventures in Japan, he recounts how on his first trip there he visited several prominent tattoo masters and was eventually inked by none other than Horihide, the legendary tattooist who had greatly influenced ‘Sailor Jerry’ (American tattoo artist Norman Keith Collins, credited as the first Westerner to start incorporating Japanese imagery into his work).
The next chapter, entitled ‘An Age of Exhibitionism’, takes a peek into the bizarre world of circus sideshows and carnivals, namechecking such notables as the American tattooed lady Artoria Gibbons, who worked the travelling carny circuit up until 1981. Chapter four then explores “sailor” tattoos – rife with nautical imagery and tales of manly seafaring exploits – while chapter five looks at “pin-up” tattoos and brings the reader up to the 1970s, the very decade in which the author began his own career as a tattoo artist.
Like the many ‘colourful characters’ mentioned in his book, Schiffmacher – now 69 – is quite the maverick. He opened his first tattoo parlour in Amsterdam long before getting inked became hip, and his client list over the years has included the likes of rock stars Kurt Cobain and Lady Gaga. When fame and fortune came his way, he used much of his earnings to buy up old tattoo memorabilia so that it could be preserved and made accessible to the public.
That archive eventually became the Schiffmacher Tattoo Heritage, one of the world’s largest collections of contemporary and historical tattoo ephemera, and it’s these artefacts – many of which have never been before been published – that fill the 440 pages of this new hardcover book (with 10,000 numbered copies making up the first edition).
Early tattoo art pioneers such as Britain’s George Burchet and the American tattooists Bert Grimm, Charlie Wagner and Sailor Jerry were all artistic influences for Schiffmacher, as were the Japanese masters like Horihide. Coincidentally, as the book mentions, these same figures would greatly influence the life and work of Don Ed Hardy, the creative force behind the once wildly popular Ed Hardy brand and a key figure in the modern (post-1980s) tattoo renaissance.
It’s safe to say that Hardy – who, like Schiffmacher, began as an independent young tattoo artist in the 1970s – did more for bringing body art into the mainstream than any other artist alive. When he licensed his incredible designs to be used on fashion accessories – everything from T-shirts and ball caps to sneakers and fragrances – tattoo art became a worldwide fashion phenomenon. And while there’s no denying Hardy’s extraordinary talents and groundbreaking accomplishments, he himself admits that he’s just continuing a long tradition.
“Nobody started anything,” he stated emphatically in a 2017 Vice documentary. “It just keeps going.”
That continuous thread Hardy alludes to leads back to the earliest days of humankind. Historians believe that when early man saw how rubbing soot into minor wounds to sterilise them often left permanent marks on the skin, the inspiration for the first tattoo was born. Eventually these became, like other primitive forms of body modification, a ritual bit of magic used to mark rites of passage and navigate the complexities of the spirit world. The Iban people of Borneo even have a proverb that says, “a man without tattoos is invisible to the gods”.
Interestingly, this spiritual practice didn’t die out as tribal man became civilised. In fact, experts agree that virtually every major society has had some form of sacred tattoo culture at some point. In Southeast Asia, the neighbouring nations of Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand all share a similarly rooted tradition of sacred tattooing, but it’s Thailand – which escaped both colonisation and the atrocities of modern warfare – where the ancient art of sak yan has best been able to survive.
In his book Sacred Tattoos of Thailand: Exploring the Magic, Masters and Mystery of Sak Yan, published in 2011, author Joe Cummings traces the history and origin of these mystical markings, which are believed to bestow upon a person the benefits of power, protection, fortune, and charisma. Only a qualified Ajarn (master) can apply these designs, and although sak yan is primarily associated with Buddhism, Cummings explains in his book how it goes much deeper than that.
“Just as the artistic and iconographical elements of a Thai Buddhist monastery are not restricted to Buddhist origins,” he writes, “the art and iconography of sak yan are saturated from top to bottom with complex beliefs relating to all three historic systems – animism, Brahmanism and Buddhism – combining the magical, the theistic and the philosophical.
“Long before Buddhism and Brahmanism came to them from India and Sri Lanka, the inhabitants of Southeast Asia held the conviction that the world was occupied by nature spirits who, if properly placated or petitioned, might protect and serve, but who, if improperly treated or alienated, might harm them. Animism no doubt dominated most of the early tattoo traditions, and it remains an important element today.
“Indian traders and missionaries brought Brahmanism to mainland Southeast Asia during the first half of the first millennium, including devotion to Vishnu, Garuda, Hanuman and Ganesha, all common elements in present-day sak yan design. Brahmanism may have furthered the concept of magic tattoo designs as a means for changing an individual’s destiny with the introduction of the yantra (geometric designs imbued with spiritual power) to Southeast Asia cultures.”
As the 20th century progressed, and Thailand developed into a more modern nation, Cummings describes how the prevailing Western ideal of tattoos being associated with disreputable folk took hold, and sak yan fell out of favour with the middle and upper classes (although belief in its powers remained strong amongst rural communities, soldiers, and Buddhist monks). Ironically, he notes, it was a Westerner who would later change all that.
In 2003, Hollywood icon Angelina Jolie received what was to be the first of five sak yan from Ajarn Sompong “Noo” Kanpai, and these captivating designs, which now occupy most of the actress’s back, created a flood of interest in traditional tattooing from both Thais and non-Thais alike. Today, the practice is thriving once again.
Another centuries-old Southeast Asian tattoo tradition that has garnered Western interest involves the remote hilltribes of Myanmar’s northwestern Chin State. Historically, the women in these tribes would have their faces covered with intricate symmetrical designs that distinguished one tribe from another, and also indicated the woman’s marital status and social ranking. However, this practice is slowly dying out, partly because the government outlawed it in the 1960s but mainly because younger tribeswomen are more reluctant to undergo this long, painful procedure.
For artist Christian Develter, a Belgian-born painter living and working in Cambodia, these facial markings have inspired a whole series of fabulous canvasses in which he superimposes the tribal patterns onto the flawless faces of modern Asian women. Having once visited Develter in his Siem Reap studio, I’ve had the opportunity to see these beautiful works of art up close, and also to ask the artist if any of these hilltribe women have seen his paintings, and what they think about his appropriation of their cultural tradition.
“They loved the paintings,” he was quick to answer. “They told me they like that people are seeing them as they see themselves…. as beautiful!”
Of course, not everyone sees tattoos as beautiful or desirable, but whatever your stance it’s impossible to deny mankind’s enduring fascination with this ancient art form. Every tattoo tells a story, whether public or personal, and that is, perhaps, where the true magic lies.