Preserved human flesh at Amsterdam’s Tattoo Museum

preserved human flesh
This is exactly what it looks like–the preserved human flesh of a tattooed man. Judging from the style and subject, I’d say it’s from a nineteenth century American sailor. I spotted it sitting on the director’s desk at Amsterdam’s Tattoo Museum.

Ah, Amsterdam! I’ve visited you so many times and yet you always have new surprises for me.

Amsterdam is a great city for museums. There are two sex museums, a marijuana museum, and a heap of world-class art museums. In a city known for extremes, it’s hard to stand out, yet the Tattoo Museum manages to do just that.

The product of three decades of collecting by local eccentric and celebrity Henk Schiffmacher, the collection includes everything and anything related to tattooing that Henk has been able to gather up from God-knows-where.

I have dim memories of a previous visit to this museum back in 1993. Then it was in a small space crammed with odd artifacts. It’s been closed for the past several years and now it has just reopened in two rambling old mansions. When I visited they were still setting up and the exhibits were spread out in disarray. Henk was running around screaming at the contractors for being behind schedule while a local TV crew dogged his steps. I wandered off on my own to explore.

%Gallery-139057%It was fun to see this half-completed museum-in-the-making and while most of the collection was still in boxes, there was no shortage of curiosities to study. The Tattoo Museum covers the entire history of skin art and has artifacts from all over the world, including needles, old shop signs, photographs, flashes (ready-made designs), and freak show posters. Some of the items, like the statues from the South Seas and the stuffed monkey, show that like all true collectors, Henk can’t resist a cool item even if it doesn’t exactly fit in his collection. To my disappointment I didn’t see any shrunken heads. Maybe he hadn’t unpacked them yet.

The new space allows much more room for displays and the upper floor is being turned into a tattoo parlor where several expert skin artists can give you a memento of your visit. Henk is a tattoo artist himself and if you’re lucky you might even get him to pick up a needle and mark you. Much cooler than visiting the gift shop!

As a fan off all things macabre, I was attracted by the preserved human flesh, one of the few things I clearly remember from my previous visit. There are several of them in the museum’s collection. These pickled tattoos aren’t unique. London’s Wellcome Collection has 300 specimens of preserved human flesh bearing tattoos collected by a French military surgeon who cut them from the bodies of dead French soldiers. I’ve come across examples in other collections too.

A cynic might say they’re fake, and some of them undoubtedly are. Unscrupulous carnies or salesmen could produce them easily enough from animal skin. Yet I believe most are real, like those from the Wellcome Collection. Back around the turn of the last century there was a craze in collecting human remains, whether to study the shapes of skulls or preserving scalps or for various other reasons. It would have been easy enough to collect tattooed skin from cadavers. One hopes that the next-of-kin received compensation, but that probably didn’t happen most of the time.

Rather than see these human remains as something disgusting and demeaning, I find them rather life-affirming. The common working Joe is forgotten soon after he dies. How many nineteenth century sailors can you name who weren’t famous explorers? Yet their self-expression through body art lives on. We can look at these samples and catch a glimpse of someone who has long been dead.

Like the guy whose skin adorns the top of this post. There he is, with his patriotic wife and his ship. Do the letters “A.R.” stand for his name, or hers? Or do they stand for “American Republic” as the U.S. was sometimes referred to back then? We can’t know, but this man hasn’t been entirely lost to history. I know about him now, and thanks to Henk, you know about him too.

I wandered around for two hours and Henk was still bustling around with his contractors. I decided he was too busy to bother. When I go back to Amsterdam next year I’ll arrange an interview, because I’m dying to talk with the man behind such a unique collection.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Amsterdam’s booming Eastern Docklands!

This trip was partially funded by Amsterdam’s Tourism and Congress Bureau and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own. I have no idea what the Tourism Bureau thinks of preserved human flesh.