Essential Amsterdammers: Henk Schiffmacher
Essential Amsterdammers every expat should know: Henk Schiffmacher - Tattooist to the Stars
If there is one guy who captures the true essence of Amsterdam, it is Henk Schiffmacher. Amsterdammer since 1972, tattoo artist and writer, his favourite Amsterdam location is Amsteldijk, along the Amstel river. Schiffmacher, also known as "Hanky Panky," is a burly guy who looks like a cross between a Hell’s Angel and a yeti - and man, can he talk!
Golden teeth glinting, Schiffmacher booms out his opinions and Amsterdam stories in the middle of his tattoo parlour at Ceintuurbaan 416, surrounded by his work and a bunch of buzzing young artists hanging on his every word:
"This city is incredible; we live in an open-air museum. They should just take all the cars out of the city and make it accessible for pedestrians.
My first experiences of Amsterdam? That was aged 14. I was working in a sandwich shop in my hometown of Harderwijk, often 'til one or two in the morning. The guys I worked with would take me to Amsterdam in an old Pontiac Firebird and get me drunk in this one café called Jan Heuvel.
Amsterdam shapes you
There was a round table full of characters from all kinds of backgrounds - art dealers, pimps, tax men, musicians. They were storytellers; they wouldn't hesitate to stand on the table or stick their head in a sink of water, just to make sure their story was good. I was fascinated and fell in love with the Amsterdam ability to communicate. I felt I'd found my home, a place where my character belonged.
When you're young, Amsterdam completely shapes you. I wanted to be an artistic person, that's why I came to the city. For me, it was a development, an escape from Harderwijk, and I worked on anything that was even a little bit creative - window design, sign painting, anything I could find.
This developed into tattooing when I was able to use a basement owned by Willem, the former president of the Hells Angels. Once, 12.000 G.I.'s came to the city and I can tell you, I did a lot of tattoos that weekend. It convinced me to go ahead and make a proper business out of it. I did pretty much everything in life like this, with no real plan - things just sort of happened - and you can do that in Amsterdam.
Luck played its part. Firstly, I set up in a world-famous city - we probably under-estimate how powerful the word "Amsterdam" is outside of the Netherlands, everyone round the world thinks it's cool to live here. My real big break came when I tattooed the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who used the tattoos as part of their image-building - and it certainly helped that they were doing every video butt-naked! Mine were the rock and roll tattoos with the most TV coverage ever.
The Chilis would tell their friends, "You gotta go see Henk in Amsterdam," and that's what they did. The shop looked like the dressing room of Paradiso music hall, and to be honest, I didn't know half of these musicians - I had no idea who the hell Kurt Cobain was when he came in.
Tattoo has come a long way, and I hope I had a small part to play in changing its image. My new Tattoo Museum opened recently over in the East of the city, amongst a lot of other great museums like the Hermitage, Artis and Hortus Botanicus.
Criminals and the Queen
Nowadays I go to these charity functions and the Queen sits on one side, Prince Willem-Alexander on the other. Think of it - I’m there next to the goddamn Queen, arms covered in tattoos. That was impossible 30 years ago. We took this art somewhere, you know; it’s not only for criminals, prostitutes and sailors - although I love tattooing criminals, prostitutes and sailors! They're some of the best customers…
Am I quiet with the Queen? Sorry, I really don't know any other way to be! I’m just me, like me or hate me."
Part of this interview with Henk Schiffmacher has previously been published in "Amsterdam... The Essence," by David Beckett.
Photos by Joost van Manen