Tattooing for Human Rights

May 27, 2014

The ‘Human Rights Tattoo‘ project aims to turn 6,773 people into lifelong human rights ambassadors by tattooing a letter from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) on a square centimetre of participants’ bodies. Recently, the project toured through Africa with support from Hivos. Initiator Sander van Bussel sat down with Hivos’ Lesley Arp to talk about the trip. 

Van Bussel, who is a member of the artist collective Tilburg Cowboys, started the Human Rights Tattoo project in 2012. His main reason was the assassination of Kenyan fellow artist and activist Steven ‘Nyash’ Nyagah. “Nyash came to Tilburg in 2010 for the Festival Mundial and worked for a week with me in the studio. He would put the spotlight on abuses of slum dwellers, and this is probably what cost him his life,” says Van Bussel. “Because of this tragedy, I really wanted to bring the ‘Human Rights Tattoo’ project to Kenya.

His wish came true in late 2013 when the Human Rights Tattoo team met friends of Nyash ??in the Korogocho slum of Nairobi and visited the spot where he had been killed. In April 2014, with support from Hivos, a second trip to Africa followed.

“Basically there is enough interest in the Netherlands to complete the project,” says Van Bussel, “but then Human Rights Tattoo would be a somewhat weak gesture. The more it spreads, the more powerful it becomes.”

During their recent tour of Malawi, Zimbabwe and South Africa, the project visited various cultural events. “We were at the Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA), which is comparable to larger festivals in the Netherlands.” What struck Van Bussel as the greatest difference between the African and Dutch tattoo days was how participants reacted.

“We ask them to post the reason why they got their tattoo on our website, but expressing an opinion in Zimbabwe doesn’t come as naturally as in the Netherlands. Some participants really didn’t feel at liberty to reveal their true motives, so I encouraged them to do so anyway under a false name, if necessary.” Often in these cases it had to do with feelings about gay rights.

Conversation piece

 Van Bussel noticed that people volunteering to get tattooed, regardless of nationality, often do so for similar reasons. “By taking part, people feel connected to others who share the same values. A Human Rights Tattoo reminds you every day that you have rights you have to keep fighting for. Moreover, a tattoo is a conversation piece par excellence; it encourages people to talk about human rights.”

So far more than 1,600 people have offered a square centimetre of their skin surface to the project. “We expect we’ll need another five years to finish the project”, says Van Bussen. Lately, more and more participants have expressed the desire to meet up with each other. “Unfortunately, it’s impossible to bring this group together physically – we’ve now registered participants from 45 different countries.”

If it is up to Van Bussen, the number of nationalities participating will increase even more in the coming years. In fact, his next objective is to take Human Rights Tattoo to South America. “This year in the Netherlands we’re going to the Lowlands Festival, but we’ll focus our attention as much as possible on foreign countries.”