In the beginning there was the Red Light…
In 1998, I took my first trip to Amsterdam to try and sit-in at the infamous Hanky Panky Tattoo. I was told by others that had worked for Hanky (Henk Schiffmacher) that it was not possible to get someone to vouch for you, or to call ahead to test the waters. You just had to meet Henk face-to-face, and hope he liked what you were doing. Not just artistically, but most importantly personality-wise…
I’d heard more crazy stories about Hanky Panky than I had seen tattoos he’d done. After three days of hanging out in the waiting area of his basement tattoo shop and hoping that Henk wouldn’t throw me out the door, up the stairs and into the canal over some small infraction of his tattoo etiquette, he finally arrived.
Henk came down the stairs through the waiting room, and rolled right past me into the work area before I could even fire off one word. He barked some orders at the apprentice in Dutch, and then he took over his station from whoever was unfortunate enough to be working there at that moment. I watched in silence, holding my portfolio in my hand, suddenly feeling out of place and totally un-cool as the work area was broken down and reset in a matter of minutes. I kept looking for a moment to work my way into the conversation. There was no moment.
A young blond guy that had been sitting next to me in the waiting area was called back into the work area. After much heated deliberation in another dialect, an agreement was made. As Henk took a stencil for a Leo Zulueta tribal armband and laid it across the customer’s abdomen, he looked up at me for the first time that afternoon. The look he gave me was one of a man who understood entirely the craft he was plying, but also knew that sometimes you have to give the customer what he wants.
I chose this moment to introduce myself, and throw down my well rehearsed “why you should let me work here” pitch. I believe it went something like this:
Me: “W-w-w-what’s up Henk? My name is…”
Henk: “I know who the fuck you are! You should have told me you were coming! There is no place in the shop right now. You can work at the museum until next week, then you can sit-in here while we go to the Madrid convention.”
After I witnessed the fastest tribal armband ever to be put on someone’s belly, Henk stood up and announced that we were going to the museum. I hadn’t had a chance to see the museum, even though it was right around the corner from the shop. I’d been so focused on waiting for Henk to arrive that I neglected to check it out.
Keeping up with this man turned out to be quite a task. He is deceivingly quick on his feet for a man of such large stature. I found myself almost out of breath on the short walk from one canal to the next. Upon entering the museum accompanied by its creator, I was instantly overcome with a feeling of “home” that I’d never felt before. Everywhere I looked, in all directions, were museum quality display cases filled with tattoo stuff.
Unlike other museums that had a small, usually temporary, display of tattoo related items; this one was all tattoo artifacts from around the world. Equipped with a research library and a small tattoo station behind the front desk, it was perfect.
Although it was only a modest 800 square foot space on the first floor of a building in the Red Light District (where tattooing was done at the time), it was ours –a place to call our own! A center for tattoo culture. A physical point on the map that you could put your finger on, literally.
The six weeks I worked in Amsterdam for Henk were pivotal in changing my approach to tattooing as an art form, a craft, a business and a lifetime commitment. It was at the museum that the concept of tattooing as its own “world culture” was explained to me in depth. When I left Holland, I was already planning my return. I figured the museum would be there forever. It wasn’t.
Perplexed, but not in despair, I decided to take to the road on a permanent basis in 1999. The first Tokyo convention would be my starting point, followed by a month in Thailand with Chris Garver, then off to Australia to wait out the winter. I would be in Amsterdam by the start of summer. Everything was ready to go. I had sent Henk a detailed fax explaining my travel plans, indicating I would be staying in Amsterdam and working for him as long has he would have me.
I received a faxed reply a few days later, “I’ll talk to you in Tokyo” was all it said. Apparently, due to problems with the landlords, the shop had to close its doors. With no support from the local government or the tattoo community, the museum would soon follow suit.
I continued on the road, and would visit whenever I could. Henk took to painting with the same veracity that had gotten him so far in tattooing. So much so, that he was able to jump from the “niche tattoo art market” to the “fine art market.” This was an accomplishment that few of us as tattooists have ever attained. However, the concept of another tattoo museum always lingered in the background. His presence in the tattoo world was sorely missed for far too many years.
The Second Coming
Joe Vegas once told me that to be a great tattooist, one must have a priest-like devotion. Filip Leu once asked me if I was a religious man, to which I replied, “Yes, I’m a tattooer.
That is my religion.” References to the “Tattoo Gods” have permeated my belief system since the beginning of my career. It always struck me as odd that we tattooers of the world all seemed to share this same vague idea of tattoo culture as religion. It seems now more than ever that our culture is in need of roots, or proof to the new generation of artists that we are still members of the same church… tangible evidence of our connection to the history of this, the earliest art form.
Once again, it was Hanky “Fucking” Panky that took the reins to establish a bigger and better world center for all of us to enjoy. “This time it’s fucking for real!” was the greeting I got from Henk as I arrived on the Tuesday before the opening. I wanted to show up early to help out as much as I could.
I was in shock at the sheer size of the project at hand. Two buildings, both standing three stories tall; auxiliary single level buildings that were being used as workshops dotting the huge back courtyard. Once used as storage for the zoo located across the street, the buildings had been lost to time, filled with taxidermy specimens that were unfit for display, damaged or otherwise discarded.
Henk, in partnership with an amazing social welfare program, found the location and began the arduous process of giving birth to the new dream. Armed with over 150 workers, countless volunteers and one of the largest personal collections of tattoo information in the world, the ball was rolling. Finally supported by the city government, the opening of the museum would coincide with Amsterdam’s Museum Nights (www.n8.nl).
Amsterdam’s Museum Nights is an amazing event in and of itself. Selected museums around the city open their doors to the public from 7:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. the following morning. By the time I hit the scene, the excitement was palpable, and it was only the Friday before I got in that the core construction was finished. Filling that enormous space with a museum was next on the list. After trying to process all of the activities going on around me, and failing miserably, I made my way up the stairs to the new shop. “Home Again” was all I could think of when I got behind the dummy rail.
Although only a little over halfway done, I felt completely comfortable in the new work area. Long time friend and infamous character Tattoo Molly was the first to welcome me to the new spot. Chris Danley, Danny Boy Sawyer, and Danny Dringenberg, (the permanent crew) all arrived shortly after, along with Yushi Tekai, who is sitting in on a semi-permanent basis.
It quickly became apparent that if I was going to hang out, I was going to help out. Danny Boy asked if I wanted to hang flash or paint flash. Within a couple of hours, the place was a beehive of activity. Dan Sinnes from Luxembourg and Tommy the Truth from Dublin, as well as Martin Robson were helping out by painting designs for the walls, while Danny Boy and I were hanging the seemingly endless supply of hand painted originals donated from around the globe.
I would occasionally take a walk around the museum to watch the progress. Of course, this was not a spectator sport, and I would often get drafted into something unexpected by The Boss. Henk would round-up a few tattooers to help the “intellectual museum types” identify artifacts or place items in the cases. I was a kid in a candy store.
Over the next three days, tattooers started to trickle in. There were representatives from all four corners of the world. With each day, a new wave of artists would arrive, and a new adventure would begin. Nearly every day would end with an amazing dinner hosted by Henk and Louise.
The Promised Land
I arrived at the museum around 11:00 a.m. on the Saturday morning of the Grand Opening. I knew it was going to happen, but I have to admit that I was not ready to share my playground with the public. A feeling of panic washed over me. The urge to protect the place from the hordes of press and foreign speaking squares. I took to checking all of the locks on the displays. Just the day before, everything was open, and we were all free to make adjustments as needed. Today there were no more adjustments. It was all frozen in time, ready to be seen by generations of museum-goers.
At noon, the doors to the main exhibit wings were still locked and the courtyard was filling up. A temporary tent had been set up for the opening ceremony. Prompted by the moving of the elbow-to-elbow crowd, I was squeezed inside to hear the opening words and congratulatory speeches. The term “Tattican” or the Dutch spelling “Tatticaan” had been used by the local papers for some time, but it was really put into perspective when people who had no tattoos used the term. References to the Tattican archives, Tattican library, and Hanky as presiding pope were sprinkled throughout the opening statements. The final speaker was Henk, who chose to keep his remarks short, and instead donned a headset microphone for the first official tour of the new grounds. Henk led the mob of onlookers through his collection, shouting his way from the primitive hand tools of the Borneo headhunters to the most modern of the machines in the upstairs display.
As the day progressed, rock bands took the stage, shamans blessed people in what will be the Memorial Garden, and plenty of drinking and smoking went on all around.
Taking it to the next level has always been Hanky Panky’s strong suit, and he did not disappoint. In order to raise money for the museum’s library, Henk created a Coptic Catholic- inspire design to be done only on those who attended the opening –the first pilgrims. New designs will be created for future pilgrims, and for future events at the museum.
When it was time to christen the studio, Henk received the first tattoo in the new shop. Returning the favor, he placed the second one on Danny Boy. They in turn gave them to all of us who were working at the shop. That’s when shit got really fun! Everybody who got one was then allowed to give one. Somewhere between 150 and 200 tattoos were done that night.
All in all, it was a complete success, with over 4,000 people through the door that day. Upon entering the work area of the studio the next morning, Henk remarked, “It only took one night of tattooing to give this place a soul.” He was right. The place felt different, more alive than the day before the first mark was made. I spent the next 10 days working in the museum by day, and entertaining the slowly dwindling amount of guests at night before they took to their respective trains or planes.
The Clarion Call
The world of tattooing has changed a lot since the 1990s, when the first incarnation of the Amsterdam Tattoo Museum was around. The landscape of our little subculture has been mainlined into the mainstream. Acceptance of tattooing is being enjoyed all across the planet. The timing of this project could not be better. With so many tattooers out there at this point in our history, we have been in dire need of a place like this. We have been a split culture of nomadic tribes with no real homeland.
The center of the tattoo universe is now firmly established in one of Amsterdam’s oldest museum areas, surrounded by other centers for history. It is across from one of Europe’s oldest zoos, and down the street from one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world. Of course this place will only survive with everybody’s help. Thousands of people have to go through the door of the museum every year, so tell your clients, your friends and your mom to check it out if they go to Amsterdam.
Another way that we can all make a contribution is by donating artifacts that would usually only be seen by a few people, but can now be enjoyed by thousands. Tattooers all over the globe are sitting on amazing little pieces of history. Now, take that old machine out of the drawer. That old piece of flash that is sitting under your old power supply and a few of the old business cards you keep laying around the shop. Put all of that shit in a box and send it to the museum. Then go visit.
I was a witness to the birth and death of the first temple of tattooing. My heart can’t stand to watch this one die. Without continual support from the tattoo community, this place will close down. It is the largest undertaking in the history of tattooing, and should be treated as such. The institution will need to be kept up to the highest standards, and new acquisitions will need to be made. All of this costs ungodly amounts of money. So “break bread” and make the pilgrimage.
Lucky Bastard Papal Nuncio to the Tatticaan Under Pope Hanky Panky the First
Amsterdam Tattoo Museum Plantage Middenlaan 62, 1018 DH Amsterdam www.amsterdamtattoomuseum.com
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(This article is featured in Tattoo Artist Magazine #29)