Sander van Bussel makes it in Tilburg

Since 2012 artist and social-artistic entrepreneur Sander van Bussel travels around the world to have the 6773 letters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights tattooed on 6773 people. One letter per person. Human Rights Tattoo is therefore a living work of art without precedent and with a powerful message: we are all equal and connected. In the space of seven years, the project conceived and established in Tilburg has grown into a small social-artistic enterprise with a major impact. A company that, by the way, does not comply with the classic rules of entrepreneurship. Van Bussel: "Human Rights Tattoo is a lot like an awareness campaign. And of a social movement. And yes, also of an artistic enterprise. But for me it is and remains a work of art. There is a lot of entrepreneurship involved. Still, I make choices around the project on artistic, not economic grounds."


Human Rights Tattoo is not his first social art project. With the artists' collective Tilburg Cowboys, Van Bussel has been developing committed art projects for years. Nevertheless, Human Rights Tattoo is a different story because of its scale, duration and impact. Van Bussel: "In 2012, friend artist and social worker Steven Nyagah was murdered in Nairobi. I was astonished, but I also felt the urge to make a positive response. The idea suddenly came up: what if I were to form a chain of tattooed people, like a kind of talisman? All connected by the Universal Declaration that literally gets under the skin. I knew that this would be a lengthy process full of pioneers. A project without an example. Risky, too, and a strong commitment. I didn't doubt my own willingness, but what if I died suddenly myself? Then the project had to continue. Then I went to see people in Tilburg to help me. Erwin Schellekens and Niki van Rooij - at the time of Festival Mundial - but also a local tattoo artist, photographer and web builder wanted to participate immediately. It became a real Tilburg thing and the ball started rolling."


Human Rights Tattoo is now seven years old, with numerous tattoo events and 4119 tattooed letters on 4118 people in 72 countries. "I knew it was a good concept. But we have to wait and see what happens to it when you swing it into the world. At the moment there are more requests for a tattoo than there are letters left over. Bizarre. It doesn't happen to me very often that my idea doesn't have to be pushed forward anymore, but that it gets pulled," laughs Van Bussel. The practical goal of Human Rights Tattoo is clear: to set the last letter. But how to get there, that still had to be thought of in 2012. "In the first year there were people who said 'Sander, it's too slow'. Someone suggested to do it as an online service, independent of events. People register online, get a letter, go to a local tattoo artist and that's it. But where is the human factor? I want to physically connect people and ask for their commitment! So what if it takes ten years longer? I understand that this does not fit in with the idea of effectiveness in our society. Because 'fast' is synonymous with 'effective'. But for us, slowness is actually effective. The longer we work, the more people we can touch with our mission: to make people feel that together we are one universal humanity.


Van Bussel has two thoughts about his role as an artistic entrepreneur: "On the one hand, I have the privilege to do this. At the poker table of life, I have been assigned a kind of 'royal flush of humanity': male, white, healthy, highly educated and born in a country with many freedoms. I feel called upon to do something with that, it's as simple as that. On the other hand, I'm just the manager of my idea. And that costs time, money and energy. Make contacts, find partners, travel the world. Human Rights Tattoo has no business model. It could have done that, by selling the tattoos for a lot of money, but I never seriously considered that. For entrepreneurs this might be difficult to follow. I could have been rich by now, so to speak. Cashing in for a few years and then coming up with something new? No, I don't think there's anything legendary about that." Besides Human Rights Tattoo, Van Bussel works as a teacher at AKV St Joost, artistic director of Tilburg Cowboys, and programs Cape Town, a three-day art event in the city centre of Tilburg. So four 'jobs'. Nevertheless, Human Rights Tattoo always has priority. "Teaching is perhaps more financially attractive. But Human Rights Tattoo has to be."

Merel-Pics Photography


According to Van Bussel, the Impulse funding that Human Rights Tattoo received in 2019 from Kunstloc Brabant - located in the LocHal - is a wonderful new step. "It will now be even more relevant and justified. There is a demand for us and that represents a certain value. Also financially. We are given the opportunity to make a greater impact. To make different strategic choices and to look for more depth. Especially when it comes to the countries we visit with our events. We want to go to places where human rights are anything but self-evident or are violated on a daily basis. This requires financial and operational capacity. We continue to travel to the locations with a small team of two people and work with local tattoo artists and volunteers to set up events. Thanks to the subsidy, we will become even more visible in the coming years, also as an online community where members from all over the world can meet each other."


"Tilburg. Yes, that's a special place," says Van Bussel. "A city with the right breeding ground for creative people, entrepreneurs and social initiatives. It is large enough here to find 'partners in crime'. People with whom it clicks and works. At the same time, it's small enough for you to actually find each other, you know? You meet each other automatically and everyone is open and curious. In Tilburg, I got a lot of opportunities as a starting maker. People and their qualities are seen here and stand out without the need for elbow work. Sometimes it takes a while - in my case it has taken quite a long time to get started - but then the way is open to grab your moment."


The end of the Human Rights Tattoo is in sight. On 10 December 2023, the day that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights celebrates its 75th anniversary, Van Bussel wants to have the last tattoo put on. But according to him, the project is never really finished: "It is already slowly shifting from putting letters on people to telling a story, giving lectures, organizing exhibitions and building an online community. A transition from mapping the creative process to telling the story behind it. When we have finished tattooing, Human Rights Tattoo will be a living art project, a travelling work of art, a collection of books, lectures, films, meetings, conversations and more. That's the dream."


"With the idea of Human Rights Tattoo it has become clear that special things can happen if you look for what unites us as humanity. It creates connection and positive energy. My golden tip comes from this: look as an entrepreneur, artist or especially as a human being at what connects you with the other. Think about what you can do together. Where you can strengthen each other and how you can add something beautiful to this world together. I think that's networking in its purest form."

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Everything counts up, everyone participates

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