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human rights tattoo
via humanrightstattoo.org / courtesy the artist

The artist turning tattoos into an act of protest

Sander van Bussel’s latest project is promoting the Human Rights Act, one letter at a time

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” proclaims the first line of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

Given all the doom and division that’s dominating the world, it doesn’t take long before you start noticing all the dust that’s gathered on that statement. Despite existing for over 68 years, the basic principals of the Human Rights Act have proven to be very easily forgotten – which is why, for Dutch artist Sander van Bussel, we need a make a more permanent reminder.

For his latest project, aptly titled ‘Human Rights Tattoo’, the Tilburg Cowboys founder has pledged to do exactly that. Taking one letter at a time from the official declaration, Van Bussel is now travelling around the world; tattooing all 6773 characters onto 6773 people. “The size, place or colour of the tattoo is not important,” he explains. “It is a way of putting your signature under the Declaration of Human Rights, only this time a piece of the document is signed on you.”

The project – which has already tattooed 3321 volunteers – has also attracted more influential names. Last weekend, Pussy Riot’s Sasha Adler turned up to show her support for the campaign, and ended up getting the letter ‘S’ added to her shoulder. “More Tattoos. More Pussies. More Riots,” she said after it was completed. “It's extremely important for people all over the world to know their rights and fight for them.”

We spoke to Human Rights Tattoo founder, Sander van Bussel, to find out his inspiration behind the project, and why he thinks tattoos are so effective.

“What better way to connect yourself to the moral principles of humanity then with a small piece of your human skin?” – Sander van Bussel

What gave you the idea to start such an epic project? How did it first come about?

Sander van Bussel: I had the idea in February 2012, a week after my collegue Steven Nyash was murdered in the slums of Korogocho. Advocating human rights cost him his life. For me, Steven was an example of somebody who really used his talent to make a change. He stood up for the rights of the people in his community. His death shocked me, and at the same time it made me reflect on my own situation. What could I do with my talents? I felt I could do better. Being an artist doesn’t give me a whole lot of tools to change the world, but my idea of tattooing the Human Rights Act – uniting people in what they stand for – seemed like a good next step.

Why tattoos?

Sander van Bussel: A tattoo is close to yourself and what you believe in; it becomes a part of you. For me, Human Rights tattoos are a good way to make this declaration come alive, away from the courtrooms, committees and politics. They are something that are part of you, rights you inheritly have just because you are human. What better way to connect yourself to the moral principles of humanity then with a small piece of your human skin?

But as a protest tool, how effective can they really be?

Sander van Bussel: A tattoo means long term commitment, for life. It’s not something people take lightly. That’s why tattoos are good conversation starters. A lot of the people who join us get their tattoo on their lower arms or their hands, so that they are able to tell their story, and to spread awareness of human rights. If, in the end, all 6773 people talk about their tattoo once a week, that will be a 1000 conversations a day, for as long as they live. A Human Rights Tattoo is personal reminder as well. It motivates you to do your best every day to live up to these principles, knowing that you are not alone in this struggle, knowing that your letter is only one link in a chain of 6773 people around the world.

Of all the texts to choose, why did you opt for the Human Rights act?

Sander van Bussel: To me, this text gives us the moral principles we need to fight for as humanity. To this day, it is still the one text that aims to be universal for mankind. No religion, ideology or political system ever got that far as to really unite and define what it means to be human. 

Do you feel like it is under threat? What are your concerns for the future?

Sander van Bussel: Of course I have concerns. Human Rights are violated every day and everywhere. This is not something new, but what concerns me most is that I’m not sure we still agree on the principle that we are all born free and equal in dignity and rights. If the first sentence of this declaration is still violated after 68 years, then that is not a violation, that is ignoring it’s existence.

What is the ultimate goal, for you?

Sander van Bussel: That is the big question. To make my project unneccesary and redundant? To make everyone know their rights, and ensure that nobody’s rights are violated? Besides that, and on a tiny scale, I hope this project will get people thinking. I hope it will empower people, will bring even the tiniest little bit of positive thinking and hope for humanity.

Read more about the Human Rights Project, including the campaign’s next tattooing events, on the official website here. 

The interview has been edited and condensed for length.