ABOUT THIS SMALL PROJECT
For many years at Rutgers I taught a graduate course in Qualitative Methods. Each student had to find a place to study, and it had to be a place about which s/he knew little or nothing. They were also instructed to avoid reading anything that would give them insights, and to rely fully on observations and interviewing. In the last year that I offered the course one student elected to study a local tattoo parlor. It was owned by a man my age (then late 50’s), who divided his time between the shop in the local mall, and a much larger shop in Vermont, where he preferred to be. When he was not present, his son and daughter-in-law ran the small New Jersey shop. My student, Nicky Isaacson, related well with the young people. She was somewhat intimidated by the older man who had a gruff manner. Her final paper was excellent.
As the class was ending and summer break was about to start, I said I would love to visit the shop and maybe make a few photos to put into my bank of images. Nicky was delighted and arranged a meeting with the two young people for a Saturday morning. I drove from my home in Manhattan and arrived 60 minutes later to find Nicky pacing around outside, looking and sounding nervous. She explained that the young people were not present but the father was and he knew nothing about me or why I my coming. I urged her not to worry, and said I would handle the situation.
It worked smoothly. He asked at the outset “So what is this book you want to write about tattooing?” I replied “I don’t know yet what I might contribute but I am eager to learn more and I appreciate your helping me to do that.” He agreed. I photographed we spoke at length for the next 2-3 hours. He then proposed that I would do much better by coming to his LARGE studio in Vermont. By coincidence, it was only about a 15 minute drive from the home of a good friend who I was going to visit in a week. I accepted his invitation and asked Nicky if she wanted to join me. She was enthused and agreed.
The photos in this small series begin from those two experiences. At the end of the Vermont time I knew much more than I had anticipated learning. I mentioned in passing that I was going to a VIsual Sociology conference in Amsterdam in two weeks and would share my photos with colleagues there. He exclaimed with great enthusiasm “AMSTERDAM! Then you can meet Hanky Panky!” “Who is that?” I replied. He was horrified that I didn’t know the name of this most famous tattoo artist, one who had tattooed Red Hot Chili Peppers and other rock stars. “Well you better learn who he is and see him… you can’t have a project without him!” Nicky laughed and said “That’s right… remember you have to go where the things you learn take you! That’s what you taught us!!!”
If Reuben’s New Jersey and Vermont studios were like dental offices —- clean, orderly, flash displayed in an organized fashion, etc. —- the studio of Henk Schiffmacher aka Hanky Panky in the red light district of Amsterdam was the complete opposite! Chaos reigned. Things were thrown around, cursing was constant. Henk challenged me from the start. Fortunately, I had gone to the NY Public Library and read the 10 books in their collection on the subject. After a few hours I passed his “test” and he agreed to let me hang out for a few days in the spare time I had around the conference I was attending down the street.
I also had his permission to photograph the place and the staff freely and to ask clients for permission to photograph them
Henk was pleased that I was very impressed by the bookcase that held more than 50 books about tattooing in different languages. He explained that everywhere he went he sought books and other information about tattooing and had a “huge” collection of these materials at his home. He convinced me to come to The Hague on Sunday to look at what he had and to advise him of how to make a data bank of his holdings. In exchange, he proposed to bring me with his wife and daughter to the Red Hot Chili Peppers concert that afternoon where he had front row places in the park where more than a million people would gather.
Henk’s collection of books was HUGE and in complete disarray. Eventually he persuaded me to return with Nicky during a school break and spend a week with a data management program making a record of what he had. It must be the best collection anywhere of material about tattooing . We did that a week before the annual tattooing convention he organized. The cover of our report shows what we encountered when we began!
The photos I have on this subject are the result of these unplanned experiences. They have been used to illustrate a few articles. I have never expanded the set and I don’t intend to do so but I had a great time doing the work!