Henk Schiffmacher didn’t intend to become a tattoo historian, but it ended up happening anyway. The legendary Dutch tattoo artist wanted to be an artist or a painter when he was a kid, but his father insisted he had to go to school and learn a profession. He ended up moving to Amsterdam and starting out tattooing American GIs out of a basement owned by a former Hells Angels boss.
Over the years, Schiffmacher has tattooed everyone from Kurt Cobain to Lady Gaga, but today the 68-year-old is talking about his new TASCHEN book, TATTOO. 1730s-1970s. Henk Schiffmacher's Private Collection. It’s an impressive, exhaustive tour through the history of tattooing, including everything from the Indigenous traditions of Māori people and South Pacific Islanders to the roots of old-school Western tattooing in Europe and the US.
“When I started to make money from tattoos and from conventions etc,” he tells VICE UK, “I felt like I couldn’t use this money for myself and that it belonged to the tattoo community, so I would use it to buy tattoo memorabilia and put this in a collection so it could be preserved and made visible and accessible to the public.”
That archive eventually became the Schiffmacher Tattoo Heritage and is now one of the biggest collections of contemporary and historical tattoo ephemera in the world. He credits the work of photographer Diane Arbus as the source of his original inspiration for the book.
“[She] was a huge influence on me and I liked that she befriended and even lived with the people she took photos of, who were all types of people including circus people and tattoo people,” he explains. “I fell in love with these tattooed people whose tattoos were so open and honest. That’s different to what people are making today. They are making complicated tattoos which is not what I think they should be. This whole book is about the simplistic type of tattoos I’m interested in.”
You can check out some of the photos from the book below.
TATTOO. 1730s-1970s. Henk Schiffmacher's Private Collection is out on 21st December on TASCHEN.