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Ask me about my new tattoo

Noticed a tattooed alphabet soup running around Berlin yet? It's part of the Declaration of Human Rights, which one Dutch artist is tattooing letter by letter, on 6773 people across the world... including 48 Berliners.

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Photo by Veronica Jonsson

Alina Mae got inked for a cause when the Human Rights Tattoo project came to Berlin on March 26.

“One square centimetre of skin for human rights,” reads the slogan of the Human Rights Tattoo campaign. The proposal: to tattoo the Declaration of Human Rights in its entirety – one letter at a time – on 6773 individuals across the world.

It couldn’t be a more fitting sentiment in the wake of the media outcry following Australian Attorney General George Brandis’ blunder in the Senate on Monday, when he claimed that he had “the right to be bigoted”. Now seems like the perfect time to re-emphasise the message laid out by the Declaration of Human Rights – in which, it turns out, the word ‘bigotry’ doesn’t make a single appearance.

The movement was conceived by Dutch artist Sander van Bussel, a member of the art collective Tilburg Cowboys since its foundation in 2001. After meeting the Kenyan activist Steven Nyash, who campaigned for equal rights for slum dwellers in his home country, Van Bussel was inspired to incorporate Nyash’s practice into his own artwork.

Originally popping up at music festivals and cultural events in the Netherlands, the Tilburg Cowboys inked the first letter of the Declaration in June 2012. After Nyash’s assassination that same year, Van Bussel himself was tattooed with the 46th letter of the declaration – an R – dedicated to his friend’s memory.

In May 2013, the project went international with an appearance at the Human Rights Film Festival in Barcelona. Since then the organisers have also visited Kenya and South Africa, and have plans to travel further. Before Wednesday, 1438 letters of the Human Rights bill had been tattooed, up to Article 11: “Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.”

Sidestepping a TV crew, a live band and several Amnesty International volunteers, I hurried past the crowds into No Pain No Brain tattoo studio beneath White Trash Fast Food, having been given strict instructions to run if I wanted to get a place in the queue.

Once there, I was immediately assigned a number and its corresponding letter (#1517, R) and a postcard with a space to write a statement describing what this project meant to me. Rock ‘n’ roll blared through the walls and staff members bustled through the crowds, hastily gathering people’s forms and postcards.

Any misgivings I might’ve had about lining up to receive a number and a tattoo in Germany vanished when I saw the chipper, diverse crowd in the waiting area: everyone from tattoo addicts proudly displaying their new Human Rights letter on their chin, to quiet, dreadlocked activists awaiting their first ink. The atmosphere was buzzing even louder than the tattoo guns, and a sense of community was tangible.

The recipient of letter #1534 (an ’A’) was Claudia, a journalist from France. “Living art makes a bigger statement, it gets people talking,” she smiled. Her friend Eugenie (#1532 ‘S’) chimed in, “Tattooing the Declaration of Human Rights is the perfect way to symbolise freedom of expression. It can’t be erased or censored. Vive la liberté!”

While most people’s reasons for taking part in the project centred on the ideas of community and tolerance, others had more spurious motives: “I’d wanted a tattoo for ages, but I couldn’t decide what,” said Matthias (#1516, ‘T’). “Now the decision’s been made for me.”

“This project is ultimately a social artwork,” Van Bussel says to me calmly, as he photographs all the finished tattoos. “It’s all about interaction. Getting the tattoo itself does not directly help human rights, but it does open up a dialogue. If 100 people are asked 10 times a week, ‘What does your tattoo mean?’ that’s 1000 discussions a week about human rights. It’s not so much an act of helping, more like a symbol of what you stand for, like wearing a crucifix.”

With 48 participants taking part in Berlin yesterday, progress is slow. Van Bussel estimates it will take at least five more years to complete the project, but they’re in no rush. “The longer we take, the more momentum the project will gather, through word of mouth, through organising events, through the internet,” he says.

I sat down in the chair to receive a lower-case ‘r’ on my inner elbow. Tattooing me was the bubbly British artist Toni Lou. “It’s really interesting to hear everyone’s story. Actually, for a lot of people here today it’s their first tattoo,” she chatters brightly as she dabs at my arm. “Will you get a letter after you’ve finished drawing them for other people?” I ask.

“No. I think it’s an amazing cause, and it’s great to share this bond with people all over the world, but I already have a lot of random letters tattooed on me that mean different things, so it wouldn’t really stand out. Besides, we’ve only got four hours to get through 48 tattoos… I wanna be home in time for tea. Or a glass of wine.”