A Spy in the House of Love - Amsterdam Tattoo Museum

Published: 05 January, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 207, January, 2012

The Amsterdam Tattoo Museum is surely the greatest shrine to the culture of tattooing there could ever be. Walk with us through the labyrinth...

The Curator: Hank Schiffmacher

For Hank Schiffmacher, a legend in the tattoo scene in Europe, it’s a big achievement. After decades of smaller museums displayed in his tattoo studios in Amsterdam, this long term project finally found a home for his obsession with this beautiful 14th century building, complete with 2,000sqm dedicated to what he likes to call ‘the mother of all arts’. Close to the centre of the city and the flow of tourists, the museum is a journey in world history since the birth of mankind that explores the different cultures that can be found in tattooing traditions. Pictures, sculptures, mummies, weapons, idols; all of these items are part of Hank’s personal collection or were donations. All reflect the diversity of mankind and its association with tattoo history in luminous spaces over two floors – what Hank likes to call ‘The Tattiican’.

“I’m very happy with it, but I’m not completely satisfied – I think you should never be, because when you’re satisfied, then you die. At the opening there was so many fucking people, it is easy to say ‘I’m a genius’. I had a lot of compliments, but that’s dangerous. I don’t like compliments. I’d rather people told me I’m an asshole so that it makes me mad, then I’ll do whatever I have to do. I’m not an emotional person, but once or twice the opening nearly left me in tears. I got some wonderful presents from Horiyoshi III and we were on the phone during the opening. Loretta Leu, Filip and Luke Atkinson came here, Petelo Suluape’s brother was here… it was a really emotional moment.

“There are many of us in the tattoo world who have a small section in our shops dedicated to the history of tattoo, which are often referred to as ‘the museum’. The last one I had was about 200sqm, and it was successful – it brought us about 23,000 people a year. But until now, nobody had created an official museum and that was always on my mind, I always wanted to create something that the tattoo world deserved. We are the mother of all arts! The first art man ever made was probably on his own body, and makes tattoo the oldest profession. They always say prostitution is the oldest profession, but the first hooker had a tattoo!”


“I lost my shop before 2000 due to all kinds of circumstances that are not really important anymore, because we are ahead of that already. I also had to close down the museum because I lost the support for it. I brought everything to the house and I put it in boxes, which is worthless, because nobody sees it and you don’t see it and at a certain point I had to pay the bills and I couldn’t. So, officials came in and they wanted to confiscate stuff and the conversation went something like: ‘I have to confiscate everything, I need to register everything you have.’ ‘Send me five of your people that will stay for a couple of months so they can write down what I have.’

“Then, some people from university wanted to investigate all the stuff and I said, ‘OK, take it out from the boxes, describe it, and then call some museum and ask them about it. If you come with a good plan for what you would do with this collection, I would give it to you.’

The museums came back saying: ‘We would rather see this collection stay together, because there’s the character of the curator in that. We would rather see you open your own museum.’

“And from that moment, a group of Dutch museum people helped me to set up a system in which I could create a museum – I got money from a donor too. We didn’t buy the building, but we made the building fit the museum; we have plans to buy the building in ten years.

Giving Something Back

“The idea is to help people who are long-term unemployed to get back in society. Some come from jail, and have had some alcohol or drug problems… they go into a training program, work here for one or two years and get paid by the government. That puts them back in society where they are considered normal again. It’s a social project and the older I get, I get involved in all kinds of social projects – maybe because I have to clear my own past too. We all have a little dirt on our shirts from long ago, so I need to clean a little bit off me before I meet my maker.

“Otherwise, my big plan is actually to make a yearly expedition to somewhere in the world to register a dying or vanishing part of tattoo, to get primitive tattooing from the world list of culture and heritage registered with Unesco; that’s what we’re working on now. So I’m not done yet.”

The Museum Itself

“On the ground floor, you walk into this world and you see most of the primitive tattoo collection; the second floor sort of starts in 1891. It’s a very big collection. There is contemporary art in the shape of doors, stencils, flash, sketches, toys, dolls, clothing from old artists, circus banners, big posters on the walls…

“People gave me a lot. This is the beginning and we called this the Tattican. You have the Vatican and this is the Tattican! We are in 2011 ad. That will change, from now on we will start counting from the year 1891. This will be year zero for us – the year the electric tattoo machine was invented, so it will be ‘Before Reilly’ and ‘After Reilly’, and now we live in the year 119 A.R., and after December 8 we will be in 120.

“I’m turning 60 next year, on March 22 – people can send me presents – but I’d like people to help me by keeping their eyes open. If they see something for sale from an antique dealer or in an auction house which is important for the museum, I will always find the money I need to buy something if I think I need to have it. That’s my job now. I’m the curator, the collector, the caretaker, the exposer…

“It will surely take another couple of years to make it exactly the way I want it. I don’t like to have stuff in boxes, I like to show people what we have. Also, I want it to be like a 19th century-style museum. So far we digitised about 30,000 items and I think there are about another 30,000 items still to do.

“Right now, I’m trying to find a Coptic tattoo shop folder from Egypt. The Coptic people are in a lot of trouble at this moment, it’s very unstable in the world of Africa. I’m looking for early criminology stuff, jail-art, old flash… everything. Out of everything, I like the jailhouse tattoos best, because I like the circumstances in which it has been made – it’s also very inventive in terms of finding needles, pigments, burning clothing, paper, mixing with urine, semen or whatever. It’s very primitive and very provocative. I’m not afraid to show anything that was in tattoo history, especially the dark stuff. If you have something, come see me!”


“I started years ago – in 1971 I think. I started as a photographer when I visited Tattoo Peter in Amsterdam to take pictures of tattooed people. I met an old sailor called Cadaver – he was a notorious drunk, but had these beautiful tattoos and I kinda fell in love with it.

“I started collecting stuff as I wanted to make a book, but a that time a whole line of books came out – especially the Wroblewski’s – but I thought they were all bullshit. They were just photography books with hardly any decent writing in there and I wanted a book to tell me something, to teach me something, and bring me into a world I don’t know. I wanted these arts to be treated seriously and not to be the art of drunken idiots.

“I’m pretty sure that it is the communication of the tattoo that interested me. You can communicate with your face, your hair, your outfit, but the tattoos help me explain who the guy is. Tattoo is a very strong message that is often made of symbols, and these symbols quickly tell you the theme – almost like an alphabet for people that cannot read. It’s a very strong language.

“Personally, I’m a mess! I got stuff from everywhere, but at a certain point my collection is also on my skin. I think I waited till 1974 to get my first tattoo, after I visited a tattoo convention in Hamburg and realised I was the only un-tattooed person in the place. I felt like a spy in the house of love, like a vegetarian butcher. And I believe you have to practice what you preach!”


“You can compare tattoo to the evolution of book printing in the last five years or so, there is a rich history before it. I think the big things have happenned already; the invention of the electric machine was a revolution. I think the evolution probably means the disappearance of whole types of tattoo and the rebirth of a lot of old ones.

“At this moment, tattoo is so accessible for everybody, the Chinese sell you machines now and you order machines the same way you order Chinese food. In the old days, you had to work to get in on the secret, and so you had a big respect for your master or teacher. If you go to a convention nowadays, well, Paul Jeffries from Canada told me ‘I ain’t got to go to a convention. I have no idea who these people are, and these people have no idea who I am.’ I like to see this museum as a monument for the old world of tattoo, and I hope that we are able to give the new world, at least the respect for the old world that it deserves.

“A lot of these young guys, if they’re still there in 20 years, then they’ll know. A lot of them will have disappeared though. They think it’s really cool, really hip, but once they are married, they will need a more stable situation. It’s too rock ‘n’ roll – a lot of their wives will not like it if they’re tattooing somebody’s pussy… it’s not a job for just anybody. There’re a lot of good artists at this moment. And that’s a bit of a problem because, if you think you’re already there, then it’s over.

“A good photographer will always try to produce his best picture before he dies. In two years you cannot be the world’s best artist. The world’s most promising artist? That you can be. This thing has an easy access to the rock ‘n’ roll world, where all of a sudden you feel like the hippest, the strongest, and women are around you – I know, I’ve been married five times.

I know!”

The Last Word

“I hope the museum gives people what I call ‘pride in the hide’. I like people to realise that what they have is not fashion, they are not the dog tattoo on Paris Hilton’s back – they belong to the tribe of the marks. We have a lifestyle, we should rule our own world, we kept our own culture on the heritage line. If you have a couple of tattoos, you belong to a group of tattooed people. And in a group of tattoo people, these things are passports. It will take you into worlds nobody else has ever been; it will give you access and respect in these worlds.

“Your life will change when you get a bunch of tattoos. We are a family, a world-wide family.”

Amsterdam Tattoo Museum

Plantage Middenlaan 62,
DH Amsterdam

31 (0)20-700 9320
KvK: 02056569
BTW: NL 8087.29.937.B.01



Text & Photography: Pascal Bagot