Herbert Hoffmann, 90 legendary years

25 October 2010

Year 2010.

Herbert Hoffmann, the oldest tattoo artist in the world, has passed away.

IdeaTattoo.com remembers him in this page.

Herbert Hoffmann Idea Tattoo Convention 2004 Herbert Hoffmann, 90 legendary years« Anyone who is unfamiliar with tattooing often just sees bodies which are disfigured or, rarely, embellished by permanent tattoos, which cause physical pain and carry the risk of infection, but people with tattoos see them differently.
Nobody gets a tattoo so they can look ugly or because they’re masochistic!

Someone who gets a tattoo, does it in order to give themselves something more:
to be more beautiful, to feel and look stronger or sexier, to express pain, grief, joy or love, to overcome a fear or danger, or just for fun…
People get tattoos to express deep, serious feelings as well as more superficial, frivolous ones
and – why not? – to assert their right to enjoy themselves.
I’ve never met anyone who got a tattoo because they wanted to hurt themselves!
We often see people in the street with tattoos that aren’t particularly beautiful to look at but that’s because of misinformation and widespread bad taste, not because of a desire for self-mutilation.

These days you see ugly clothes, fashion, cars, houses, paintings… and a lot of ugly tattoos. Only correct information, which is free from prejudice and clichés can teach people to distinguish between beautiful and ugly tattoos
and help them understand that a beautiful tattoo is one which makes you more beautiful. »
Herbert Hoffmann

These are the words of Herbert Hoffmann and have been posted on many websites and blogs. They provide a succinct description of the tattoo world, condensing its most genuine spirit, feeling and philosophy.

In Germany Herbert Hoffmann represents a piece of the country’s tattoo history, but in the tattoo world Herbert was known and admired everywhere, and was considered a “living legend”. A legend which continues to live on even though Herbert is no longer among us.

Perhaps not all the friends of Tattoo Ideas know about this great tattoo artist, so we’d like to tell you some more about his story.

Born on 30 December 1919 in Freienwalde, Germany, in the most rural part of Pomerania, Herbert Hoffmann grew up in a middle class family (his father was a butcher).

Although he was brought up with strict moral principles, Herbert became passionate about tattoos when he was a child, observing the skin of factory workers, agricultural labourers and chimney sweeps, in other words working class people, the so-called “proletariat”.

« I was intrigued by those blue drawings on their arms and hands. I’ve always been attracted to ordinary folk, they have been my inspiration » Herbert Hoffmann stated in an interview.

At the time – the 1920sthe rich did not display any tattoos and, if they did have any, they weren’t letting on. That is because at the beginning of the 20th century tattoos were a mark of social exclusion and a sign of deviance.

Everywhere considered tramps, alternatives and freaks, people with tattoos were the subject of criminal anthropology studies, which defined them as born criminals or degenerates.

Herbert Hoffmann wrote: «Despite all that, my consideration for the working class, who were poor but had tattoos, grew considerably. I admired them and found them brave for expressing their attitude and their beliefs through tattoos which everybody could see, imprinted on their arms and hands. »

In 1949, after more than five years as a prisoner of war in Russia, Herbert Hoffmann returned to Germany and started to work as a salesman. He loved his job and being able to meet different people.

Soon after that he produced his first tattoo on himself, it was a design he had seen on an old friend’s arm: a cross, an anchor, a heart and the words Faith, Hope and Charity. He was 30 years old and discovered that tattooing was his life’s calling.

According to a proverb, everyone forges their own destiny.
After tattooing himself, Herbert started to tattoo others.

« At first I tattooed hundreds of people free of charge. That way I made other people happy and at the same time I was practising the art of tattooing » he remembered.
In 1955 Herbert Hoffmann obtained his tattoo artist licence and in the 1960s he took over a tattoo studio in Hamburg, in the St. Pauli area.

It was the oldest tattoo studio in Germany and years later, in a unique instance of symmetry, the same Herbert would become “the oldest tattoo artist in the world”.

It is estimated that from 1950 to 1990 Herbert Hoffmann tattooed between 40 and 50 thousand people. « I never took any money from pensioners or older people » he said.
« Anyone who grows old and is still a tattoo enthusiast deserves to be respected and honoured by the younger generations. »

In 1981 Herbert left his studio in the hands of a nephew and moved to Heiden, a small city in the Appenzell Canton in western Switzerland.

After his retirement to Switzerland Herbert Hoffmann gave up tattooing. «I’m old and my hands shake» he explained calmly.
Nonetheless, various admirers still sought him out, wanting to wear a permanent reminder of him on their skin and only on those occasions did he agree to tattoo them.

He led a very quiet life until the publication of his book Motivtafeln, which featured tattoo designs by Herbert Hoffmann from the 1950s. From then on he began to travel a great deal.

He always dressed very simply, like a working man, with cotton trousers, a white T-shirt, waistcoat, cap and a small rucksack on his back and went from one tattoo convention to another all over Europe. He was always welcomed with open arms wherever he went.

A characteristic of modern tattoo photography is that it tends to concentrate on details, on the tattoo itself, forgetting that there is also a person beneath it.
Herbert Hoffmann
didn’t like it. He said:
« Why should I only see one part of a body? Tattooed arms or legs? Where is the person that tattoo belongs to? Why can’t I see their face? »

In 2002 Herbert Hoffmann and Memoria Pulp, a Berlin publisher, brought out his second book Living Picture Books – Portrait of a Tattooing Passion 1878-1952, a project he had worked on for more than thirty years.

From the 1950s onwards in fact, Herbert Hoffmann had used his Rolleiflex to photograph about 400 people including men and women, all born between 1878 and 1952 and all with tattoos. Each photo portrait is accompanied by the person’s story, as they told it to Herbert when he met them in the street or his Hamburg studio.

Herbert Hoffmann died on 30 June 2010 aged 90.

The Idea Tattoo.com team met him in San Marino in 2004, when he was a guest at the Idea Tattoo Convention organised to celebrate ten years of the Tattoo Ideas magazine. Herbert was one of the competition judges at the event, a role he played at every convention he attended in recent years.

In 2008, at the Ti-Tattoo Convention in Lugano (Switzerland) Herbert Hoffmann participated as the guest of honour in the last episode of the tattoo sitcom produced by Tattoo Ideas mag.