Before I visited it for the first time, I had half-expected the Amsterdam Tattoo Museum (ATM) to be a dinky little exhibition space with snapshots from artists' portfolios and some flash art; how far I was from the truth. The tattoo museum, the brainchild of Dutch tattoo hero Henk Schiffmacher, is a spectacular introduction to tattoo culture worldwide; it reminded me instantly of the Tropics Museum (Tropenmuseum), only focused entirely on body art. With the vibe of an old-fashioned but spunky (not to mention massive) curiosity cabinet, visitors learn about tattoos across time and cultures: from the scarification practices of some West African tribes (the precursor to the tattoo), to the tattoos of the Dayak peoples of Borneo, famed for their tribal motifs, and beyond. No stone is left unturned by the museum's expansive scope, which takes its cue from Schiffmacher's personal collection of tattoo-related artifacts, collected over the course of 30 years of world travel.
The word "museum" is perhaps an understatement for the Amsterdam Tattoo Museum, which struck me as more of a a funhouse of tattoo-related art and activity. The museum's Prinzhorn Gallery, for example, featured woodcut portraits from British tattoo artist Alex Binnie, who depicted 32 fellow artists and tattoo enthusiasts in his vibrantly textured works. As we browsed the portraits, a live percussion ensembled practiced in the exhibition room, and cheerful staff bobbed in and out of the music-filled room. Beside this serendipitous encounter, the museum frequently hosts concerts with international artists, as well as other arts-related events. The top-floor cafe was wallpapered with memorabilia from Schiffmacher's many musician pals, some of whom - like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam - he also tattooed. The fact that the museum shop contained the whole oeuvre of one of my heroes, the erudite literary scholar, natural historian and modern-day explorer Dr. Redmond O'Hanlon, instantly upped its already-considerable coolness quotient.
The cherry on top was, naturally, a live performance by museum owner and chief collector Henk Schiffmann himself, whom we were allowed to watch ("from a safe distance," as the ticket salesman put it) as he tattooed the knuckles of a lucky client in the "Tattican", the museum's permanent tattoo parlor. For any curious mind, this would be a pleasure to watch, but for anyone sensitive to the beauty of finely done tattoos, it's a joy and an inspiration. For the ultimate souvenir, visitors can have a tattoo done by Schiffmacher or one of the resident tattoo artists at the studio.
The Amsterdam Tattoo Museum immediately became one of my favorite city museums, and the only one I've seen do justice to tattoos as a vehicle of human culture. It does full justice to its status as the world's first full-scale tattoo museum; while smaller ventures, such as Triangle Tattoo & Museum in Fort Bragg, California and Luckys Tattoo Museum in Largo, Florida, do exist, the immense, multi-storey premises of the museum, its nearly every surface bedecked with tattoo memorabilia, is a tattoo museum on an unprecedented scale.
Amsterdam Tattoo Museum Visitor Information:
Amsterdam Tattoo Museum Location
Plantage Middenlaan 62
Directions: From Amsterdam Central Station, take tram 9 (direction: Diemen (Sniep)) to the Plantage Badland stop. Follow the street about another hundred meters to reach number 62.
- Open daily, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
- Adults: € 10
- Children under 12: € 5
- Students: € 7.50
- "I amsterdam" card holders: € 7.50
Call +31 (0)20 700 9320 or visit the Amsterdam Tattoo Museum web site.