Want to show you care about human rights? Get tattooed at this SA festival

13 October 2019 - 00:00 By
The Human Rights Tattoo project has travelled to 72 different countries tattooing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, letter by letter, on over 4,000 individuals.
The Human Rights Tattoo project has travelled to 72 different countries tattooing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, letter by letter, on over 4,000 individuals.
Image: Supplied

Human Rights Tattoo (HRT), an innovative global project that has united thousands of people via series of meaningful tattoos, is coming to Cape Town in October courtesy of the Open Design Afrika festival.

HRT was started in 2012 by Dutch artist Sander van Bussel. Together with his team, Van Bussel has travelled to 72 different countries with the aim of tattooing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, letter by letter, on 6,773 individuals. That's one letter of the declaration for each person who has agreed to participate — and over 4,000 have so far.

Together, these people make a living work of art, a chain of letters and people who believe in the principles set out in the declaration.

HRT is one of a series of projects that Van Bussel has made with his collective, Tilburg Cowboys, since 2001, each aiming to create social impact.

We chatted to him to find out more:

What's the idea behind HRT?

Making social and participatory art is my way of contributing to society. But this particular idea was a direct response to the murder of my friend Steven Nyash in Nairobi. I felt the need to react as an artist, to do something to transform my anger into something positive. 

One of the 4,000 participants in the worldwide human rights tattoo project.
One of the 4,000 participants in the worldwide human rights tattoo project.
Image: Supplied

Human rights can and should unite us. Carrying these rights together, as a worldwide group of individuals, on our skin, is a way of making them personal again, feeling personal responsibility.

And the tattoo is a commitment for life. At the same time, it connects us, carrying this text together.

What's the aim of this project?

In the past seven years over 4,000 people in 72 countries have joined the project, getting tattooed, one letter each.

People want to unite, want to commit themselves to human rights.

People of all ages who have never thought about getting a tattoo, from CEOs to activists, lawyers, teachers, factory workers are joining the project.

Tell us more about the declaration itself.

This declaration was issued by the UN in 1948, just after the horrors of World War 2, to protect human dignity.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights defines the moral principles of humanity in 30 articles; starting with "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights."

It contains 30 articles like the freedom of religion, the right to life, freedom from discrimination, right to equality before the law, freedom of opinion, right to education. Everyone should know these rights. How can you protect them if you don't know what they are?

Why tattoos?

A tattoo is for life. With a tattoo, human rights become a part of you. The tattoo can be a reminder, a commitment to stay true to your principles.

Each person gets one letter - you can choose the style and where the tattoo will be placed but not the letter.
Each person gets one letter - you can choose the style and where the tattoo will be placed but not the letter.
Image: Supplied

Tattoos are great conversation starters; if all participants talk about their tattoo once a week, that would be thousands of conversations about human rights every day.

How do we find out about those who have had themselves tattooed?

You can read where, who and why people commit themselves to these rights on our website humanrightstattoo.org

Why Open Design Afrika?

Local partners in the project are essential - tattoo artists, communications, translators and volunteers make these events possible.

In Open Design Afrika we found a great partner in the project, with a focus on social innovation through arts and culture.

In SA we'll collaborate with the Cape Town studio Sins of Style.

Other HRT events?

People have adopted the project everywhere. Sometimes it attracts several hundreds of people, and sometimes the events are under the radar, like the LGBT+ events we held in Russia and Uganda, or recently a feminist event in Morocco. The tattoos make people feel supported, heard, empowered and connected.

How to get involved?

All tattoos are done at our tattoo events - that's where the local tattoo artists, the translators and the HRT team come together to make this happen.

You cannot choose which letter - it will be the next letter that's needed to complete writing the Declaration of Human Rights - but you can choose between different styles and the place that it will be tattooed on your body.

Our next event is in Langa, Cape Town at Guga S'Thebe on October 18. There, you can either sign up for a tattoo on a first come, first served basis, or, to secure your spot and get pre-selected, follow the application process on the Open Design Afrika Facebook page.

And of course you don't need this tattoo to commit yourself to human rights. The commitment is in you, and this tattoo is just one way of expressing it.

The Human Rights Tattoo event will form part of the Open Design Afrika festival in Cape Town, October 18-27. Participants are invited to pay what they can afford, with proceeds going to the Human Rights Foundation. See opendesignafrika.org

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