Preserved human flesh at Amsterdam’s Tattoo Museum

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.

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.

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]

Get a souvenir that will last forever – Souvenir tip

Although it isn’t for everyone, a favorite souvenir to bring back with you could be one that will last forever: a tattoo!

When I was 18 I visited a friend in Chicago and we went to get our first tattoos. After that, every time I travel to a new city, I am completely tempted to get inked.

Getting different tattoos was already on my to-do list and now, not only does the tattoo itself tell a story, there is always the story of the places I’ve been and the things I’ve done.

Roanoke’s new art museum opens today and the collection is fabulous

Today people in Roanoke, Virginia are having a fine time of festivities. To celebrate the completion of its brand new building and name change to the Taubman Museum of Art, the museum is putting on an all day shindig. There are: “circus performers, jazz bands, jugglers, puppets, ballet, rock ‘n’ roll, a blues guitar legend named Guitar Shorty, ” and oodles of kids’ activities, according to this blurb in the Roanoke Times.

Even though going to the opening isn’t probably going to happen for you–or me, unless you live close and your timing is so impeccable that you happen to be reading this and say, “Well, I’ll be, that’s just around the corner,” the museum looks as if it will be one more terrific reason to head to Roanoke.

As I browsed the museum’s former Web site, the breadth of the collection and exhibits popped out. Two in particular caught my attention because of their unusual quality. One, Earthly Delights: Judith Leiber Handbags showcases Leiber’s 50-year work as a handbag artist. Her handbags have been carried by First Ladies at presidential inaugurations which made me wonder if Michelle Obama will get one for Obama’s inauguration. The museum has 100 pieces of Leiber’s work.

The exhibit Pens and Needles: Drawings for Tattoos highlights the intricacies of tattoo art. We’ve written posts on the subject. The focus of this exhibit is tattoo artistry, though–not tattoo language snafus.

Rachael Dunlap at Intelligent Travel was in Roanoke a couple of months ago and was impressed with the museum’s architecture and offers an overview of what makes it special. She also gives its permanent collection kudos.