Tattooing letters to spread the message of human rights all over the globe: “It ties in to a greater cause””

Tattooing letters to spread the message of human rights all over the globe: “It ties in to a greater cause””

The freshly applied tattoo of a participant is being taped at the corona-proof event last December in Den Bosch, the Netherlands.

Tattooing all 6.773 letters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on the skin of the same amount of people is the big goal of the Human Rights Foundation.  According to founder and frontman Sander van Bussel, everyone has their own personal motivation to promote human rights. He shares where his motivation to start the project came from and the deeper meaning behind inking letters.

The Human Rights Tattoo foundation profiles itself as a visual work of art, a living community, viral campaign and digital platform. It aims to spark and encourage conversations about human rights in an inclusive, universal and accessible way.

Last year, the Human Rights Tattoo foundation won the Reddot Design Award in the section of Brands & Communication Design. The jury called it an “extraordinary project” which sees itself as a “committed defender of human rights” which gets “straight to the heart of the issue and the reality of the message”.

Extremely privileged
Founder and artist Sander van Bussel was already working on social artistic projects. However, the shocking reality and meaning of human rights suddenly arose to him when his dear friend and fellow artist Steven Nyash, who lived in Nairobi, was murdered in 2012. “I just got home from Nairobi when I heard the news. It really hit me, because I realized how much it matters where you are born and which privileges you have. That was a massive reality check for me.” Using your talent is a privilege, he concluded.  “I am extremely privileged to do this. Using human rights as a guideline in your work creates an opportunity for others to benefit from.”

In response to the murder of his friend and fellow artist, he wanted to outset positive and powerful action. “The idea soon occurred to me: as if a light bulb above my head suddenly lit up. The combination of human rights and tattoos seemed like a perfect fit, as a way of signing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with ink on your body.”

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Photo by: Marleen Swaans

As founder and frontman, Sander is closely involved in setting up the global events. “In my role as an artist, I have invented and set up the concept. However, Human Rights Tattoo has grown into so much more than just an art project. The artwork comes together by the community itself: by the tattoo artists who ink the letters, the organizations who set up events and of course the community members who carry a letter. This transcends my role as an artist: it’s basically a work of art that is unsigned.”

“Everyone has their own personal motivation to promote human rights. Normally I don’t even share my personal motive anymore, because it’s only the story behind my tattoo, number 46”, he explains. His own Human Rights Tattoo serves as a tribute for Steven. “The tattoo is on my heel to remind me that we have to go on, to not let indifference catch upon us.”

The number of tattooed letters currently counts 4370 letters: 2403 letters left before the Declaration will be completed. Participants are assigned a letter, which they can only reject if they have a negative association with it. However, they can choose from a number of fonts and where exactly they want the assigned letter permanently inked on their body. The universal project spreads over as many countries as possible wherein diversity is of paramount importance. From CEOs to residents of slums and from human rights lawyers to LGBT-activists: if you’re a human being you have what it takes to become part of the Human Rights Tattoo movement, according to their approach statement. Collectively, all participants form a global movement and a living artwork carrying an individual letter which forms the full text together.

The website of the Human Rights Tattoo foundation includes the collection of all individual motivations and photographs of the tattooed community. “I meet all the participants very briefly, but whenever I view the portraits I really get to soak in their stories. Behind every tattoo is a truly special person.” What’s one unforgettable story that comes to his mind? “Last year, we went to the Russian Queerfest festival and made a documentary about Ilya: a young non-binary student from St. Petersburg. By zooming in a little closer into someone’s personal life, you get the opportunity to get more insights into someone’s story. Listening to other people’s stories is one of the most important things we can do to create more and more understanding of each other.”

Most translated document
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) forms the base for the protection and compliance of human rights globally. It was proclaimed by the United Nations in Paris on 10 December 1948 right after World War II. The aim was set out to provide a common standard for fundamental human rights which should be universally protected. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights holds the Guinness World Record as the most translated document: it has been translated into 370 languages and dialects.

The document consists of 30 articles which record all the economic, social, political, cultural and civic rights for all human beings regardless of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. The articles include the right to life, liberty and security, the right to freedom of movement, the right to a nationality, the right to marry and start a family, the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, the right to work, the right to rest and leisure, and the right to education.

Corona-proof events
Participants are assigned a letter, which they can only reject if they have a negative association with it. However, they can choose from a number of fonts and where exactly they want the assigned letter permanently inked on their body. The universal project spreads over as many countries as possible wherein diversity is of paramount importance. From CEOs to residents of slums and from human rights lawyers to LGBT-activists: if you’re a human being you have what it takes to become part of the Human Rights Tattoo movement, according to their approach statement.  Their donation model enables them to organize events around the world. “Unfortunately, the current coronavirus has put a stop to that”, says Niki van Rooijen, general director of the Human Rights Foundation. However, they were able to host two corona-proof events in Dutch cities Den Bosch and The Hague in December, shortly before the second lockdown was proclaimed in the country.

One of the people who recently got a Human Rights Tattoo, is the 23-year-old Snigdha Bansal. She has been working as a journalist in India and currently lives in Amsterdam for her master studies. “The situation in my home country is getting worse: there are a lot of human rights violations. The office of Amnesty International in India even had to shut down. This has brought a sense of helplessness upon me”, Snigdha says. “Back home I read about injustices every day. As a journalist, you tend to become cynical about all the bad news. It becomes easy to think no real change is happening. However, an initiative like this can contribute to a fairer world”, she foresees.

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Photo by: Sander van Bussel

Even though this is not her first tattoo, she proclaims this one as the most meaningful one. She carries the letter W, number 4284 from Article 23: the right to equal pay for equal work. “I often get asked about my tattoos and the meaning behind it. All my other tattoos are just for myself personally, whereas this one is so unique and truly ties into a greater cause which connects me to thousands of other people. It motivates me to commit myself to human rights.”

Symbolic meaning
Laura Lundahl (26) shares this vision of commitment. “Human rights are not some far-off principles,” the Belgian human rights lawyer says. Specialized in migration and asylum, she works with human rights on a daily basis. “This initiative shows that we are all a small part of a bigger collective.”

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Photo by: Sander van Bussel

Unlike Snigdha, this is her first ever tattoo which lead up to quite some nerves. “Luckily I was quickly convinced to participate because the permanent ink of the tattoo carries a tremendous symbolic meaning to me.” She is inked with the 4274th letter, the letter N,  from the first line of Article 23 about the right to work and free choice of employment.

“A tattoo ties in with the idea behind human rights, because both of them are permanent and cannot be undone. The permanent ink of this tattoo symbolizes that for me”, she explains. “I am very proud to be a part of this project, which made it necessarily to get my tattoo in a visible place. In this way, I hope it will create connection and conversation.”

About The Author

Ilham Oukhiar

Ilham is a freelance journalist and journalism student based in Utrecht, the Netherlands. She has an immense passion for human interest and enjoys writing about topics that spark her interest such as gender, politics, sustainability and culture.

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