As a part of our review of the new Henk Schiffmacher book, published by TASCHEN, we were also offered the chance to interview Henk. Obviously, we accepted that offer. Since we did not just wanted to casually call Henk and ask a few questions about the new book, we prepared ourselves for the upcoming phone call to Amsterdam, together with tattoo artist Vera Ickler.
Since Vera has been living and working in England for a few years, she offered her support for the interview which would be held in English. We thankfully accepted her help and were really fond of the idea, that a young tattoo artist would get the chance to interview the tattoo legend Henk Schiffmacher.
Shortly before calling Henk, we went trough our neatly prepared questions. Little did we know that they would merely be a guideline since Henk speaks from his heart and has a lot to share.
A simple phone call, no Zoom or FaceTime, without any extra layers, but still intense and straight forward – pretty much like Henk himself. He was very open and blunt about his opinion on tattooing which has been a huge part of his life: 40 years. He saw things in the tattoo industry develop in real time and it was an honor to speak to him about his book and his experience with tattooing in general.
Hi, Henk! It’s lovely to meet you! First of all, thanks for your time and for speaking with us today and congratulations on this amazing book. It’s beautiful!
Henk Schiffmacher (HS): Thank you! It’s really big and heavy, isn’t it? I am busting my balls over signing these things, because each one weighs close to six kilograms. It’s hard work pulling them out of the box, signing them and putting them back again.
The book we’ve planned originally would have been even heavier, so this is a more handsome version. I am really happy with how it came out: the binding, the paintings and drawings. I really love it.
We would like to know how your love for collecting started and if there is any particular item shown in the book that means a lot to you?
HS: My love for collecting came from my father I think, it’s in my genes. My father was a local historian – he was a butcher, but he was also a local historian and he used to know everything about the local buildings and so on. So very early I developed an interest in history and also a very big interest in nature.
I would go into the woods and bring back feathers from birds, stones; and I would call these collections my museum when I was around five or six years old. Up to now I’m still collecting, but it’s a little bit harder – especially with tattooing being more popular than ever.
When I had my first museum it was just Lyle Tuttle and me. Now there are hundreds of people who call their shop a „tattoo museum“.
Could you name a special item that means the most to you in the book that you collected over the years?
HS: Well. (He pauses briefly and his tone of voice gets a bit heaver.) Some of the drawings. When I look at the drawings and when I see them all in the book now I realize how far tattooing is off track. How far tattoing is going the wrong way in terms of what people are trying to make.
Big companies jump into the tattoo world and are selling people dermographic markers and strange rubbery rotary machines that work only in the upper dermis. They do baby portraits with 40 different skin colors in them and all that stuff has nothing to do with tattooing. That doesn’t last too long, that only lives a few years despite how amazing it is. I call these tattooers „human photocopy machines“. There’s a lot of them. People who use the Cheyenne and all that stuff.
A tattoo is a simple thing that should communicate and at this moment there’s a lot of tattoos which don’t communicate at all – especially when you take a few steps back, you can’t see whats going on anymore. There’s too much black and too much drama in the tattoo and it becomes a strange art form in itself.
Most of these people should do their stuff on paper, because on paper it will stay nice. But the body is something which is alive: there is wind, water, sun, ice, gravity – the body changes. It becomes fat, it becomes thin. It doesn’t stay one way.
All the simple tattoos will last very nice. When you look at traditional japanese stuff on older guys, that becomes extremely wonderful with age. Most of the people who get modern tattoos now, when they’re in old folks home their tattoos will be strangely blurred.
On the other side, I see people who purposefully miscommunicate. I saw some guys in Berlin who think they’re action painters and put big black bullshit into people’s faces. Ruining people’s lives. As a tattooer you have a responsibilty towards your customers to not tattoo something ridiculous in their face on someone who is 17 or 18 years old and in the middle of developing into their own self.
Do you see and feel this split between traditional and modern ways of tattooing or do you think there are connections as well? You seem to see the „modern ways“ of tattooing quite critically. Are there also things that you like about the modern way of tattooing?
HS: I don’t mean to just be complaining about everything.
Listen to this, I want to give you something straight from my heart. Most of this older vision was murdered by the fact that the world opened up so much, like the magazines and even the conventions. At earlier conventions there were no awards given to young french tattooers who work like impressionists. These things never had a serious life as a tattoo. You cannot put a dark brown next to a dark red – these colors will start to disappear or will fade into each other. The magazines did promote the same thing. And now you have Pinterest.
People don’t want to exercise their brains anymore. They all want the same thing at the same time. They all want a compass or a pocket watch with two roses. They quickly jump into a certain style and quickly jump out of it again. Stuff comes up very fast and disappears again – the Unalome, the infinity sign. Actually, if you have a tattoo you should probably keep it under your clothes or someone will steal your good idea in a heartbeat.
And tattoo artists, there are a lot of different tattoo artists. When I started to tattoo there were only about 400 tattoo artists in the whole world – there were maybe 400 illegal ones so that’s 800 altogether. But we all knew each other and we would write letters and send pictures, but with the opening of the world, the TV and the internet things changed. The internet is not only destroying tattooing, it’s destroying a lot of things.
There are people now who buy a machine for a 100 euros or less and they tattoo everyone at a birthday party – tattooing is in a very difficult time at the moment. The government wants to control things and big companies come in with strong lobbies who all want a piece of pie, because they know it’s a business where there’s money to be made.
It’s very true. A lot of people have understood now that there is money to be made.
HS: There are a lot of people who get tattoos who shouldn’t get them and there’s a lot of people tattooing who should not be tattooers. Maybe the problem will slowly solve itself. The whole Covid thing brought a lot of people into trouble, because some of them opened their businesses in an A graded street or the middle of the high street where the rent is incredibly high.
You know, we used to be in basements in red light districts. In really small places, because nobody wanted us. When you wanted to be tattooed in those days it was pure excitement. You had to go to these strange and dark neighborhoods, into these little basements. There is a guy with one leg and a big scar on his face, staring at you – but you would remember this.
Now you go to some Barber Store to a woman with a beard who will tattoo you strange symbols or there will be a lady who doesn’t comb her hair who will handpoke you. It’s strange. Still after all, it all has to do with tattooing. There’s an amount of pigment under the skin.
Are you still working the way you did when you started 40 years ago or what has changed for you?
HS: Sometimes customers force you into an area where you actually should not go. If you want to see fucked up tattoos by me, they’re the kind of tattoos where the customer demanded something I didn’t want to do, but I didn’t want to be “not nice”. I want to be a nice man, but sometimes you should just be “not nice”. You can’t be nice the whole fucking day.
The body does not accept a straight line or a full circle. Remember that there is gravity. Everything starts to come down at some point. Except for the gums on your teeth: they go up. When you’re sixty years and you have a big line of script on the side of your body and you’re sitting in your camping chair it will look horrible. There’s a lot of misplacements: eagles flying the wrong way. Lower arm tattoos on upper arms and so on.
Can you remember if there were moments when someone came to you and you didn’t want to do what they asked for?
HS: Mostly it’s young women or men who are not getting a tattoo for somebody else but “only for themself” – they tattoo this thing upside down so they can read it themselves. Mostly it’s a very stupid message. Everything you do is communication. Your hair color, your jewelry – it’s all communication with your fellow citizens. And then all of a sudden you need a tattoo to communicate with yourself? It’s like „Are you talking to yourself? Are you masturbating?“ If you buy a house do you put your name sign on the inside of the door or on the outside?
We all have to laugh.
That’s a nice picture you painted – so that kind of tattoo is something you’d always say no to?
HS: Somebody once wanted to have „Breathe“ on his hands – that’s a stupid thing to put on yourself. In case you forget to breathe? I’d say no if „it’s not for someone else but for me personally“. There is no such thing. If you want to communicate something stupid – that’s what you just did.
That’s a fair stance to have to say „I’m not doing this for you“. Is there, on the other hand – apart from the negative sides…
Henk interrupts, laughing and says: “You want the positive things, right?” We all have to laugh and tell him he can say whatever he feels like saying.
…what is fascinating you up to this day about tattooing?
HS: What is actually fascinating to see is how old and forgotten forms of tattooing are coming back into the world. The Maori tattooing, Tahitian, the Berber tattooing it’s all coming back now. So that’s really fascinating. Quickly people jump to it and make it their own, so it ends up as a mix of old and new and doesn’t have much to do with the old work, but it’s interesting to see these forms becoming alive again.
What do you think is the future of tattooing going to look like?
HS: Right now it’s difficult, because our industry is like a milk cow and is currently being milked. There are tattooers out there without tattoos; they are like vegetarian butchers. The very hardcore tattoo people will always be there.
We did it ourselves – we wanted the old forms back and it’s being used. There are some interesting people who work in the classic styles, but mostly it’s people who become buddhist priests all of a sudden, generally taking on foreign religions and starting to act strange. They just smile at you and work with compassion and tell you they will help, because you’re lost, but I will guide you and build your Chakras up again.
If you think back to when you started is the whole kind of developement…
HS: I immediately thought I could do better than the old guys and started to use the single needle – I did the same thing myself. It’s like when you step into your own dog’s shit.
You made these mistakes yourself and that’s why you feel this way about it?
HS: Yes, I made the mistakes as well. My wife (who is in the room with him) tells me that I should give you a more happy interview.
(We all have to laugh).
She said I should say something nice as well. We live in a fantastic world, my wife had her birthday the day before yesterday and there were 1500 congratulations from all over the world. People from Borneo, New Zealand, Japan, Russia – that’s our world. We have friends everywhere. That is the real tattoo world. It’s fantastic.
That is lovely. Happy Birthday from us as well.
Henk corrects the number of congratulations to 1564.
Have you ever thought that tattoing would be a mainstream thing when you started?
HS: I think we slowly saw it happening when the music videos came out. The Stray Cats and the Chili Peppers. It was an image and you could see how the fans and followers started to adapt that image. For me it was very funny to see a couple of tattoos I’ve done in my life which I thought were for one person only would become a popular type of tattoo – for example the backpiece I did for Anthony (Singer of The Red Hot Chili Peppers). I’ve seen hundreds of copies now.
How does it feel to be a trendsetting artist?
HS: There is a big compliment in this sort of thing and it also made it possible for me make this book. If I would’ve stayed in my basement I would have never made this book, but I think it’s one of these books that the tattoo world deserves. It’s a monument for tattooing.
Coming back to the book. As your career began in graphic design, did you do any of the layout designs or decisions yourself? The book has a beautiful layout and appearance.
HS: That is a big compliment to the Taschen company. I did all the drawings and Noel Daniel is the one who picked all the pictures.
Henk tells us that he is handing the phone over to his wife Louise. There is something happening outside the tattoo studio and he has to go take a look.
Louise Schiffmacher (LS): If there is something you want to ask while Henk is out, now is the time to ask.
Personally again: Happy Birthday! We hope you had a nice birthday despite corona?
LS: It was actually really amazing, just like Henk said. We’re a little bit older folk, so we’ve been in this world for a long time and when social media came about we joined in really quickly. And then you have followers and it’s amazing how you’re so connected to amazing tattooers around the globe. Russia, Germany, France and Italy and that is something really special and warm in this world.
When we are traveling we always see tattoo shops, people would get us special gift, for example a drawing. It’s been an incredible world so far. Altough Henk sometimes gets a bit bitter here and there, because of all this overkill and people using things and images and not knowing what the hell they’re doing, yet every day the word „tattoo“ comes out of his mouth 3000 times.
She laughs and gives the phone back to Henk. We bring the topic back to the book and the span of around 200 years of tattooing it covers. Henk starts to explain the contents with passion in his voice. You can tell that history really has a special place in his heart.
HS: The book starts with old etchings and prints that were made around 1700; something starting with what we call the „reintroduction of tattooing in Europe“. Tattooing was never gone. There has always been tattooing, but during the reformation the likes of Luther, Zwingli and Calvin put an end to most of tattooing. People had to act “normal”, there were no more pilgrim or coptic tattoos.
It was then reintroduced by the old big explorers like Captain Cook who went into the Pacific and brought back tattooed people. Those people were put into the fairground and people would see these „wild wild savages“. Then it was a very small step for the people who were traveling to get tattoos themselves, so they did. And certain big tattooers like Wagner in the Bowery produced „Circus people“. Tattooed men and women, people who were unemployed, even children and they would then tour with the Circus. They went on tour in Amercia and also Europe – that is where the book starts. To collect stuff from before that time is very difficult.
There are so many things you collected – is there a second book that we can expect at some point?
HS: I would love to make a second. We digitalized so much, so we could make more, but the second book would probably be more about tools and machines. That would be nice, but less sellable. It is difficult to make a book to please the tattooers, but also please a bigger audience – which Taschen is aiming for as a big publishing house.
Talking about your collection and the museum – we are quite sad that the exhibition isn’t available to the public. Are there plans on changing that?
His museum sadly had to close after only being open for a year.
HS: Well, the problem in this world is that we are too many people and that every square meter is so expensive in this city that you have to be an extreme business man to keep a museum open and so it becomes less artistic. I am a hunter, a collector and I would love to open up the museum quickly – same with the book.
For a while I was worried whether I would see this book when Covid came across here in March. Because I am 68 and when I get sick, they have to take me to the hospital upside down and I could have never seen this book – i have to be careful. I also realized that for all the stuff I have (he has boxes full of collected items in his house) I also have a big responsibility.
Someone somewhere should take care of this stuff when I’m gone. If there is someone in Germany with a couple of millions you can give them my phone number.
We will keep that in mind! Over all the years did you ever doubt your work?
HS: If you’re an artist you should always doubt your work. You should be your own biggest critic. You should criticise whatever you do and you should never really be happy with what you do.
Sometimes it’s very funny, because a lot of things happened in my life. I forget a lot of stuff too – especially the stuff I don’t want to know anymore. I was out and saw a guy with a tattoo and I said: „That’s a nice tattoo. That stayed well. Who did that?“ and he said „You did that.“
There is always a development and you should always develop yourself.
How do you get new motivation and inspiration when you hit one of those less creative phases?
HS: I’ve got two lovely daughters and a fantastic wife and I have a dog and a pussy cat. I live in a great city and I live in a great world, I travel a little bit once in a while: I am very happy. In these moments, when I am a little bit in an off period, I have good hopes for the future. I hope we get our vaccine and we can come and see everybody again.
I should’ve been in Germany signing in a bookstore right now, but you cannot do this of course. Muesums are closed, bars are closed – I cannot even get a fucking Schnitzel in Germany. Then again my wife makes a great Schnitzel.
Our last question: Is there any advice or anything you learned you want tell young tattoo artists out there? Anything you’d like to pass on?
HS: There are a couple of words of advice and this is to those who want to hear it and to those who don’t. You should go to a hardware store, buy a hammer and destroy your tattoo machine.
Louise chimes in and says that Henk left out something and she is going to add it for him.
LS: There is a big difference between a tattooer and a tattoo artist. Huge difference. There are people in this business for the money and they are tattooers. But to be an artist, that is another story. That is literally committing your whole life to the art of tattooing. The skin, the collecting.
Henk adds that an untattooed tattooer is not a tattooer.
HS: It’s like a nun in a whorehouse. But in general, I hope that for example the tattoo conventions will become a bit smaller again and filled with more familiar faces. Nobody knows me and I know nobody these days.
Have a little bit of respect for your oldtimers. Even if they’re not the best tattooer, they will have stories and have the knowledge and how to handle people – preserve and embrace your past. These people paved your path.
We once again thanked Henk for taking his time. We wished each other well for the future course of events considering the pandemic and promised to visit him as soon as Corona would be “over”.
You can buy the book by Henk Schiffmacher here!
TATTOO. 1730s-1970s. Henk Schiffmacher’s Private Collection.
First printing of 10,000 numbered copies
Henk Schiffmacher, Noel Daniel
Hardcover, 29 x 38,8 cm, 5,56 kg, 440 pages