Henk Schiffmacher is a famous Amsterdam-based tattoo artist and historian; TATTOO: 1730s-1970s. Henk Schiffmacher’s Private Collection, an enormous, luxurious coffee table book, presents more than 700 of his photographs of tattooed bodies and of the colorful designs employed by tattoo artists the world over.
Chapters on such topics as Maori and other indigenous tattoos, tattoos from Japan, and exhibitions of American and European designs up to the present day detail global histories of tattoos, both abstract and figurative. Maori tattoos, Schiffmacher tells us, signified “who you are, where you came from, and what you’ve done.” Tattoos still do that.
Sometimes tattoos, those from Thailand, for example, collected in the 1980s, the original dates unknown, have sacred significance; they were meant to protect you from accidents. In North America, indigenous people historically had a thriving tattoo culture. Japanese tattoos, as the book shows, are often elaborate, incorporating imagery such as fish, geishas with brilliant garments, or fantastical animals like a garishly hued dragon that does battle with an eagle. There are also drop-dead gorgeous images of butterflies.
In a most extraordinary image, one tattoo artist, Ralph Johnstone, has drawn a portrait of another, Milton Zeis, whose body is completely covered in tattoos, including his bald head, which is adorned with an image of Christ.
Some religious cultures forbid tattoos. Leviticus 19:28 states: “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord.” Yet Pope Francis, according to the Jesuit publication America, has recently taken a different tack, saying, “Don’t be afraid of tattoos.” A tattoo, he suggested, “is a sign of belonging”; ” asking people about their tattoos can be a way to begin a dialogue through which “you can approach the culture of the young.”
TATTOO is strong on the presentation of examples, many of them extremely colorful and intricately designed. But the book says very little about the meaning or changing significance of these artworks. And because it is a record of one man’s very large collection, we perhaps don’t get a full account of all cultures. Schiffmacher’s Private Collection focuses on recent tattoos, while we are left wondering why certain cultures foster the practice of tattooing, while others do not. Kant, in his treatise on aesthetics, rejects tattoos on the grounds that they add superfluous decorations to the body. That analysis fails to address their role, as discussed in Schiffmacher, in a variety of cultures: in Burma in the 1930s, rebels thought that tattoos would make them bulletproof; in late 19th-century Bosnia, women wore tattooed crosses to thwart religious conversions and fend off witchcraft; and in mid-20th-century Japan, gang members wore them as identification.
People of my generation didn’t usually think of getting a tattoo, but of course they are now commonplace for among a great many people, including my daughter. When men who are now my age grew their long hair as adolescents and young adults, they were rejecting the grooming standards of the military in protest of the Vietnam War. Does today’s desire to permanently brand oneself have a political dimension?
Tattoos can’t be associated with youthful rebellion when almost everyone has one. And they are suspect as an assertion of individuality if most of their designs are drawn from a readymade selection of patterns. Tattoos are a form of fashion, and when fashion changes, it is useful to understand why. And their function as visual signifiers also make them works of art, which increases the imperative to understand their social significance. Even though most are copied from cliched stock images, they are the most democratic form of art ownership and display, a development that raises fresh questions about the class divisions in visual culture.
TATTOO provides a splendid array of examples, but doesn’t theorize — a missed opportunity when the subject involves so many challenging views about the body and holds the potential for a diverse range of racial, gender, and LGBTQIA+ perspectives.
The abstract painter Sean Scully, in the book Inner: The Collected Writings and Selected Interviews of Sean Scully (Hatje Cantz, 2016) tells the story of one of his students in Munich who was covered with tattoos that others could understand only if she explained them. I expect that she would not want to make paintings that also were meaningful only to friends.
By dramatic contrast, the meanings of almost all of the recent tattoos in TATTOO are accessible to virtually anyone. In this way, they are akin to successful rock’n’roll songs — brief and intense.
TATTOO: 1730s-1970s. Henk Schiffmacher’s Private Collection (2021) by Henk Schiffmacher and Noel Daniel is published by Taschen.