Tattoo Icon Henk Schiffmacher has teamed up with Royal Delft to transfer his tattoo designs onto traditional Dutch earthenware. “It was always about an exchange of designs.”

It’s a little after 11 o’clock on a rainy Friday morning when tattoo legend Henk Schiffmacher walks into the tattoo shop he opened for his daughter, on a boulevard in Amsterdam. People are already lining up for the young artists that are about to set to work on various body parts. Schiffmacher is just back from a trip along the coast of Taiwan, where he was for the opening of an exhibition about his work. The same exhibition attracted 250.000 visitors in Paris earlier this year. “I travelled to Hong Kong and Macao in the seventies, when tattoos were still something underground. Nowadays, there’s a great tattoo club in Beijing, with over 30.000 members. There, the artists are great at drawing, often with a classical education,” he tells hiEurope.

Tattoos were once body art for sailors, who brought designs from around the world back to Europe. Nowadays, it has become so mainstream that one in five people have one. It’s a sign of the times, where everyone wants to be an individual and a star, Schiffmacher says. “This shift happened in my lifetime. We went from working in little attics to opening shops everywhere. In the beginning, we had a sign in our shop that said ‘We don’t care how much you paid in Hong Kong.’ People used to come and discuss the price of a tattoo, saying they had gotten it cheaper in Asia.”

Schiffmacher set his first tattoo to “an annoying girl who sat behind me in third grade. I pricked her with my fountain pen.” The first real drawing was not much later, on ‘a policeman who wanted a lionhead.” Since then, he has tattooed a long list of celebrities, including Lady Gaga, Rita Ora, Lemmy Kilmister, Willy DeVille, Kurt Cobain, Robbie Williams and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

In the eighties, when people in the city started to become ill with AIDS, Schiffmacher made sure that tattoo shops were safe and hygienic. “I thought, if we don’t do anything now, we will all be closed down in 5 years’ time. So I worked together with the local health authorities. We visited all the tattoo shops in the city – there were 30 at the time – and made sure that tattoos were safe.” Schiffmacher was recognized for his work to improve hygiene and safety standards, and was royally decorated as Officer in the Order of Orange-Nassau.

In those times, there were about 400 professional artists in the world, Schiffmacher says. There was the famous Hong Kong artists Pinky Yun, who could draw right and left-handed. “We worked together and exchanged designs and methods. Nowadays, there are 400 artists in every city and everybody can just start a tattoo shop tomorrow, without any knowledge about hygiene and how to work on skin. In a way, I contributed to this success, but it is regrettable also.”

Two Traditional Crafts

Even though tattoos were something for adventurous rebels, Schiffmacher also thinks that his designs fit perfectly on Royal Delft, the famous blue and white dishes that were once inspired by Chinese porcelain. So until March 2020, the tattoo designs can be seen on all kinds of Royal Delftware in a unique exhibition. Both are art forms that are applied manually, with a needle on the skin or with a brush on earthenware. Schiffmacher points at the wall of his tattoo shop, where he has a hall of fame of tattoo artists, portraits painted on Delftware. “These plates were all painted by hand, and that’s important. These designs shouldn’t be done by computer. It’s all about human imperfections. Designs that are not done by hand are boring.”

Royal Delft calls the exchange a unique collaboration between two traditional crafts from the old world, brought to the Netherlands from the East, and rich with culture, tradition and symbolism. Sailors in the 17th century brought both porcelain and tattoos, and the designs influenced each other. So the flower vases also had an image of a frigate bird, the first birds sailors would see when coming close to an island. “Tattoos are full of symbols, and so are the Delft designs. There is a lot of Feng Shui,” Schiffmacher says. In the designs he made for Royal Delft, the artist incorporated the stormy seas and the historical ships of the sailor tattoos.

Chinese characters are another favorite tattoo design in the West. “Although I do recommend that people show them first to someone who can read them,” Schiffmacher laughs. “I have heard stories of people who had parts of the menu of the Chinese restaurant tattooed onto them, believing they were symbols for strength and longevity. People come here and tell me they want their name in Chinese characters. They seem to think that I know how to do that.”

Now that Schiffmacher is 67 years old, he is trying to find a way to safeguard his collection of 40.000 books, drawings, films and photographs, connected to the world of tattoo art. The collection famously includes Maori-art, rare tattoo machines, a part of a sailor’s arm dating from 1850 and a woman’s arm from Peru that is 2500 years old. The foundation ‘Schiffmacher Tattoo Heritage’ is trying to set up an archive of all these objects, “And to get them out of my cellar where they reside with the dogs and cats,” the artist says. Part of this art collection is now on show at Royal Delft and Schiffmacher himself recorded the audio tour. An earlier attempt to set up his own museum didn’t work out, but that’s ok, Schiffmacher says. “My work is people’s art. When I sit outside on a terrace in summertime, I see my art coming by on bicycles. I don’t really belong in a museum, it’s the street that is my gallery.”

Schiffmacher Royal Blue Tattoo

On show until 15 March at Royal Delft. Interested in a Tattoo tile workshop? Under the supervision of a workshop supervisor a unique workshop takes place every day at 2.30 p.m. Costs for participation € 29 per person.

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