A centimetre of your skin for human rights

Currently, more than 4,100 letters have been tattooed on as many people. Together, letter for letter they will make up the entire text of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is 6,773 letters in total. Sander van Bussel, who came up with the Human Rights Tattoo project, has number 46: the R, on his forearm. Seven years after his first tattoo, there are still about 2,600 to go in the coming five years.

‘This one is for Steven Nyash. Murdered for serving the community he loved. The tattoo reminds me that we have to go on, to not let indifference catch up on us. Go for life and love.’ This is Sander van Bussel’s own personal statement under ‘his’ letter on the website www.humanrightstattoo.org. The photos of the letters are in rows next to one another, each with their own personal message beneath them. A random selection:

  • Tattoo number 0426, an N, from Laura Halonen from Finland: ‘Everyone should have the same rights. One should have his or hers individual freedom and right to decide what they want to do with their lives.’
  • Tattoo number 3006, an F, from Sein Lin from Myanmar: ‘I want to work freely to find justice for all with sympathy.’
  • Tattoo number 1817, an S, from Rufaro Chaniwa from Zimbabwe: ‘Everyone has a right to express themselves in any way.’

Art as the driving force of change

Social heart

Sander van Bussel is an artist with a social heart. He is the founder of the artists’ collective Tilburg Cowboys, lecturer at art academy AKV|St.Joost and curator of Kaapstad Festival. Many of his ambitions are culminated in Human Rights Tattoo. With this project, he uses art as the driving force of change, a way of making your talent effective. During CWF2019, van Bussel talks about how to become part of this idea and invites you to participate in this project. Not by presenting your arm to be tattooed but by contributing to it. “We need a lot of creativity and talent. We are always looking for organisations that want to become involved in this project, good ideas and  strong financial and media partners. It is and will remain a big challenge to get and keep all the ingredients for a tattoo event together. Each time, for every event.”

The idea of tattooing the entire text letter for letter on people all over the world just popped up

Worst case scenario

After the murder in Kenya of a friend who was an artist and human rights activist, Van Bussel wanted to draw attention to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights internationally. The idea of tattooing the entire text letter for letter on people all over the world just popped up. But how was he to organise this? And was there anybody at all who was willing to get a tattoo for this objective? He had no idea. Talking about urgency: “I asked myself what the worst-case scenario could be. It was that I had to learn to tattoo and that I would have to spend the rest of my life travelling the world to tattoo 6,773 letters. Is that impossible? No, it’s possible.”

But his idea was quickly picked up by an enthusiastic group of people and Van Bussel was able to get to work with a team. It soon became obvious that the number of people interested went way beyond the number of letters still to be tattooed. “Recently, in Denmark there was a queue of more than four hundred people, while three tattooers could only tattoo about seventy letters that day. It’s a pity when we have to disappoint people. Meanwhile, more than ten thousand people have registered for the newsletter, just so they know where the next tattoo events will be. We reach a lot of people that way.”

“You don’t have to be a human rights activist to embrace human rights”

For the moment, he has to say ‘no’ in the Netherlands as well, where many tattoo events have already taken place. Now it’s the turn of other countries on other continents. Meanwhile, Van Bussel has already been in every continent except Australia with this project. He has visited 20 countries and had letters tattooed on people of 72 different nationalities: from CEOs to factory workers. A cross-section of humanity. And that’s great because human rights are about everyone.


Van Bussel: “You don’t have to be a human rights activist to embrace human rights. In my opinion, rights also create obligations. If everyone would make conscious choices with human rights in mind, regardless of whether you have little or a lot of power, it would really help the world. Getting a tattoo is also a commitment. Because you won’t forget it, thanks to the mirror. Some have letters tattooed as confirmation of the work he or she already does in the area of human rights. Others see the tattoo more as an incentive, at the basis of his or her idealism. It can also serve as a reminder to pursue your ideals. Or people use a letter as a conversation starter about human rights. For instance, there was a cellist who wanted her letter in a strange place on her wrist, so it was visible to the audience while she was playing on stage. This way, everyone makes a contribution with his or her own letter.”

Meet Sander van Bussel at day 3 in Eindhoven >

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