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.

Brooklyn Bridge celebrates 128th anniversary

Brooklyn Bridge
If you are in New York today, consider paying homage to one of the city’s most venerable landmarks: the Brooklyn Bridge, which turns 128 today. The iconic bridge opened in 1883 after 13 years of construction. As is common with mid-week birthdays, the main celebrations happened over the weekend, including a special offer to get a $28 tattoo of the Brooklyn Bridge from a local tattoo parlor. Brooklyn Tattoo illustrated 60-70 proud Brooklynites in 2010, and inks another dozen or so each month. That’s a lot of bridge enthusiasts!

Should you not want such a permanent souvenir, you can always celebrate with a walk across the bridge and a picnic at the newly-expanded Brooklyn Bridge Park (where yours truly got married 7 years ago), but forget the Champagne – no alcohol is allowed on the bridge or in the park.

Photo of Langley aircraft carrier under the Brooklyn Bridge courtesy San Diego Air & Space Museum archives.

Get inked: Tattoo artist in residence at The Marcel at Gramercy

Who said luxury hotels can’t be a little edgy? Renowned LA-based tattoo artist to the stars, Mister Cartoon, is coming to New York City and will be inking New Yorkers as part of the “Tattoo Artist in Residence” series hosted by The Marcel at Gramercy.

Seat yourself in the artist’s chair through Nov. 24 and let Mister Cartoon ink you. The boutique hotel, located on the border of New York City’s Gramercy Park and Murray Hill neighborhoods, will feature a pop-up Ink Suite so you can get tattooed in private.

Not sure what you want? Consult some of his famous clients including various members of the New York Yankees, and celebrities such as Beyonce, Christina Aguilera, Eminem, Mena Suvari and Ryan Phillippe.

As part of his time at The Marcel, Mister Cartoon will unveil a one of a kind artwork to be displayed in the hotel lobby, in addition to acting as The Marcel at Gramercy’s “Tattoo Artist in Residence.”

Need some inspiration? Our own Mike Barish offers a list of travel-inspired tattoos and resident globe-trotter Aaron Hotfeider put together a list of travel tattoos you won’t regret when you’re old and wrinkly.

As an added bonus: Hotel guests will have the unique privilege of skipping the one-year waiting list to get “inked” by the master himself.

Jesus Christ Made Seattle Under Protest


Unexpectedly, I ended up in Seattle.

My bags were packed for a nice New York City summer weekend (shorts, t-shirts, flip flops) but instead I took off for Seattle. Wrong clothes, wrong place, though last-minute travel still carries a thrill of spontaneity, even when you’re flying cross-country for a funeral.

Everybody has at least one friend in Seattle. It’s that kind of city where you’re bound to find that personal connection. And yet I never realized so many people lived out there–enough to fill up every cubicle on every floor of every earthquake-proof skyscraper. Back on the East Coast we like to think we invented all of America’s big cities, but no . . .

I come from the other Washington–DC–where it gets unbearably hot and sticky in the summer; where men sweat through three-piece suits and women wear impractical shoes; where any day you might pick up the Post and know somebody who’s in it and everyday there’s some kind of vigilant protest brewing on the Mall.

West coast Washington is a little less uptight but a whole lot damper. The stereotype about Seattle’s drizzled, overcast skies held true for me and in spite of summer, the day’s “high” was a shoulder-shaking 52 degrees. Dark, unorganized clouds greeted me in the morning and I started to understand the whole coffee thing–how this one city had unleashed Starbucks on the rest of us like a misunderstood gift of the heart.

The day after the funeral, another friend I was crashing with whipped out a yellow legal pad and began making a list of things to see and do in Seattle. Mostly, he suggested I do a lot eating. We made plans to meet up for lunch at a popular Russian café; my friend slipped me the address as we walked downtown. I had no map and no idea how I would find him.“Just remember,” he panted, “Jesus Christ Made Seattle Under Protest.” He ran all the words together as one and it didn’t make any sense at all.

“Huh?”

“It’s a way to remember the streets: Jesus is for Jefferson/James. Christ–Cherry and Columbia. Made–Marion/Madison . . . and so on, you’ll see. It’s easy–just follow the streets in that order. Be at Cherry and Third at one o’clock.”

Jesus! Christ! Made! Seattle! Under! Protest!” he shouted out each word as he spun around the corner and marched uphill. Every street in Seattle goes up or down.

I didn’t expect to find him again, ever. Normally, I take pride in my sense of direction. I never get lost in new cities and if I do, I just pretend that I’m exploring. But Seattle was a little confusing for me–no matter how many American cities claim to be laid out in a grid pattern, they all have their idiosyncratic exceptions to the rules, like Germanic languages. In the other Washington, we take pride in our many exceptions to the rules–in naming streets and in running the country.

I found Pike Place Market all by myself–not so hard. I just followed the street until I could see the sea, or “the Sound” rather. The sun was thinking about maybe coming out–there was a bit of backlight that made the sky look less grey and bit more like a faded watercolor. I began to wander through the stimulus of the market, comforted by the colors or neon signs and bright vegetables. I bought English tea packed in happy little tea tins–the kind you keep even after the tea is gone. I sampled Rainier cherries and dried apples from Wenatchee. I waited alongside a pack of tourists for the handsome bearded fishmongers to fling some twelve-pound salmon through the air, shifting back and forth on my two feet and hugging myself from the cold.

When I was a teenager, Seattle was so cool–it was this whole abstract fashion concept from a faraway foreign city. Now suddenly, having finally made it to Seattle, all those grunge styles sported by midwestern mall mannequins in the 90s made perfect sense. Here I stood, in July, shivering in a T-shirt-longing for facial hair or at least a thick flannel over long underwear or a groovy knit beanie on my head.

Seattle was still cool, I realized. All the people looked so damn cool, all dressed and ready for battle. The guy selling cherries had giant black plastic horns pushed through holes in his ears and his hair cut like a vicious pixie. The bikers and skaters wore helmets with dancing flames on the sides. The girl scooping organic ice cream for tourists had a pair of matching red devil faces tattooed into her inner elbows, two evil grins flashing poisonous fangs back at me through the frosted glass. Such a pretty girl, I thought. Why devils?

And then I remembered: “Jesus Christ made Seattle under protest.” The premise was ridiculous–“What does that even mean?” I wondered. God loves everyone. I mean, He did hate a few cities in the Old Testament, too, as I recall, but I’ve read the Bible from cover to cover and Seattle is not listed once, anywhere. Also, there are actual things that Jesus Christ did protest in real life, like common hypocrisy and the gaudy merchandising outside the temple in Jerusalem.

A city built against God’s best wishes, belligerent to the core–a kind of unholy city whose streets spelled out this almost anti-Christian agenda. I wondered as I wandered back into the square-cut grid of downtown, trying to navigate myself through the streets: Jefferson, James, Cherry, Columbia, Marion, Madison, Spring, Seneca, University, Union, Pike, Pine. Jesus Christ Made Seattle Under Protest. I kept walking south, ticking backwards through my friend’s mnemonic device: Pike–Protest . . . Under . . . Seattle . . . Made . . . checking each street sign until finally I came to “C”, Christ–Columbia–Another block and there it was, Cherry Street, and there was my friend and a window filled with hot piroshky.
That same afternoon I napped on a bench near the waterfront and when I woke up, there was sunshine-not warmth, but light, yes. Seattle is like so many northern places–one may moan about the lousy weather, but if and when the sun does shine, it’s simply glorious. Suddenly there were pretty pine trees everywhere, quiet silver waves slapping the shores of the Puget Sound, and snowy pyramid mountains in the background. If God ever did protest Seattle, it’s only because the city occupies some pretty divine real estate.

Not that God could actually have anything against Seattle. Some of His best friends live in Seattle, I thought, just like me. My friend’s funeral was still fresh in my mind, as were the lyrics of Nirvana’s song “Francis Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle“–the song whose chorus moans, “I miss the comfort of being sad.” It’s a backhanded slogan for the city that gave us grunge and caffeine addictions but also a common feeling among all travelers.

As I travel here, there, and everywhere in the world, I still wonder: Are sad places just sad on their own or do we make them sad by arriving with our own carry-on sadness? Do we ever let the destination just be the destination or do we turn to our own ideas about what it should be, based on a lifetime of prejudice and teenage notions?

My own teenage notion was to go visit Kurt Cobain’s house on Lake Washington–the one the rock star died in. It’s become a sort of insider’s drive-by tourist attraction that overlooks beautiful Lake Washington. “It’s a nice drive,” my friend kept reassuring me, promising to take me. But then we never went: too little time, too many other things to do. After 36 hours in the Emerald City, I found myself waiting in line at Sea-Tac, boarding a red-eye home, neck pillow in hand.

Perhaps Seattle was better that way. Yeah, I liked Kurt Cobain like everybody else but I was still unsure about seeing that pretty place where the icon had died–I was still coping with the pretty city where my friend had lived. And that was enough.

[All photos by Andrew Evans]

Are hotels ready for tattoos and piercings?

Maybe it’s time to expect a little ink at the front desk. Hotel employee policies have traditionally been pretty strict when it comes to appearance. Suits are the norm, beards aren’t seen often and creases are always easy to spot. Notably absent, for the most part, are a few extra body piercings (at least the visible kind) and generous tattooing. It looks like the world might (finally) be loosening up a bit, though.

A decade ago, when I worked for a software company in the hospitality business, we generally had to mirror our clients’ wardrobe and grooming policies (at a minimum). Sporting a mustache was permissible only if you’d been with the company for a while and knew your stuff cold. And, it wasn’t allowed so much as tolerated. The reason for the company’s standards, of course, was salient as soon as you walked up to the front desk to check in: the employees needed to be able to relate to you quickly.
With attitudes toward tattoos and piercings easing up a bit, it seems as though hotels might be able to relax the standards a bit. According to USA Today’s “Hotel Check-in” column:

Piercings have become a fairly acceptable form of body decoration, at least outside the workplace, and some hotels have grown more comfortable with letting employees show a bit of personality. So I decided to reach out to my Facebook and Twitter friends to ask what they think about pierced hotel workers today, and found people on both sides of the question.

An informal poll found that guests have a wide range of attitudes on metal and ink on hotel employees, some of which include a bit of nuance. A few think it depends on the property, with those of the staid variety needing employees to dress the part, while fashion-forward properties can give their employees a bit more latitude.

The prevailing perspective, it appears, is that hotels need to adapt to the world around them. According to Michael Juell, a hotel consultant and former Four Seasons manager, employees should be presentable and clean … and not go to crazy with the adornments.

[photo by Just Jefa via Flickr]