GUARDIAN Pretty nineteenth century Plantage Middenlaan is the unlikely setting for one of Amsterdam’s newest museums. The Amsterdam Tattoo Museum is incongruously housed in two Belle Époque mansions; bourgeois painted flowers and fancy plasterwork interiors provide an unlikely counterpoint to the frankly fetishistic nature of the exhibitions.
Henk Schiffmacher, creator of the venture, is big and avuncular like a heavy metal farmer, gob full of gold and covered in ink. It’s his dogged – perhaps obsessive – compulsion for collecting all that’s tattoo-related which forms the museum’s core.
The collection is far reaching; on the ground floor there’s tribal and ethnographic tattooing paraphernalia, some of which is disconcertingly beautiful. The early pictures of scarification, taken throughout Africa and the Pacific from early colonial days to the middle of last century show polished, scabrous skins with sophisticated and abstract patterns that have both tribal and religious significance. The sticks and metal picks used to create them look brutal.
Other items include macabre flesh exhibits in pickling jars. Some are pig skin, others, human – like the skin taken from the under-arm of a nineteenth century whaler daubed with crude images of Christ and his sweetheart. Previous generations were less squeamish about exhibiting human remains; it seems likely this example was collected at the turn of the last century.
Upstairs, rooms redolent of funfairs are wonderfully garish – photographic images of painted ladies, sailors and folk-art items form a riot of colour. A collection of miniature circus banners displaying tattooed ladies and other politically-incorrect (read freak-show) characters are exceptionally vibrant.
The strangest exhibit is a complete mahogany pub bar that once belonged to the Bristol Tattooing Club – an organisation, and a relic, that is now revered. Started by Les Skuse in the late 1920’s it reached its zenith in the 1950’s when Les became the UK’s champion tattoo artist. His bold, graphic work is still much admired, and seen as something of a golden period of inking.
Henk, from Harderwijk in the Easter Netherland is esteemed as a tattooist himself, inking the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Pearl Jam and Kurt Cobain. But he’s unlikely to be found with a tattoo gun now. He has big ideas for the project instead; the museum houses a library, café, research and education centre and dermagraphic society to compliment the permanent collections.
Although his biggest passion is the cataloguing and preservation of the tattooist’s ephemeral art. Ironically for something inherently permanent, the art form’s longevity is fleeting. When the owner dies, so does the image. Or at least it did – several people are leaving their decorated skins to the museum, and will be flayed after death to preserve physical examples of the tattooists’ skill.
But it’s not all morbidity; this is a living, working place. On the top floor a coven of resident inkers work in a variety of styles; religious iconography seems particularly popular. I was taken by the work of Yushi Takei who made his mark on a girl pinned to a futon in an oriental side room during my visit. Only the constant cicada-like chatter of the tattoo gun and the occasional moan broke the Zen silence.
Guest tattooists visit regularly. LA’s Robert Atkinson arrives for a limited season on August 7th and 8th (and again in September). Atkinson usually works privately out of his Studio City base; so his short Amsterdam residence is a big deal for those in the know. His idiosyncratic western-oriental style, including large scale Japanese-influenced work, is a hit among the Californian cognoscenti. Prices, starting at 100 euros for a small 15 minute design, vary depending on the size and complication; a full arm will easily set you back 2000 euros. He’ll also have a small exhibition of his tattooed shoes – extraordinary and deeply covetable works of art.
Amsterdam Tattoo Museum
Plantage Middenlaan 62
1018 DH Amsterdam
+31 (0) 20 700 9320
5 MORE SPECIALIST MUSEUMS IN AMSTERDAM…
The Hendrikje Museum of Bags and Purses is like an exquisite cake shop full of fabulous and covetable trifles. 500 years of bag history is beautifully traced through the vast private collection amassed by the Ivo family. Highlights include a 16th century goatskin man-bag, a superb collection of twentieth century items including a snakeskin and ivory clutch and important contemporary design by McQueen, Fendi and Bottega Veneta.
The Bril Museum has an extraordinary array of spectacles dating back 700 years covering all aspects of design, fashion and history. Situated in a cramped 17th century town house, the museum lacks information about specific items – however its eclectic collection (I liked the 16th century iron-rimmed sunglasses) is worth muddling through. The street level shop sells excellent vintage frames.
Vincent Van Loon, a man crazy for houseboats opened his one-man Museum on Prinsengracht canal in 1997. It’s a charming assemblage of 19th and 20th century domestic artefacts, photographs and social-history, charting the boats through their industrial heyday to trendy contemporary living space. The personal, tiny space feels just like someone’s home.
Inevitably there’s a drug museum in Amsterdam. But unlike the various rip-off sex museums that are worth avoiding, this place has serious pretensions. 6000 hash and drug related exhibits chart ancient and ethnographic ritual, through to modern medicine and cultural consumption. Hemp products (from rope through to trainers and even a guitar) feature widely as does smoking paraphernalia, paintings and models.
The diamond industry has been integral to Amsterdam’s economy for hundreds of years and is celebrated with a museum. Other than specimen stones, which frankly aren’t that interesting unless you’re a gemmologist, there’s a wonderful permanent exhibition of blinging jewellery, a temporary show of crowns and royal regalia and the bizarre Katana sword, a Japanese Murano glass weapon studded with diamonds and rubies.