Herbert Hoffmann was born in Freienwalde in Pommern, on December 19, 1919. He was a tattoo artist and a photographer. His photographs of tattooed people across Germany resulted in a book and a documentary film and were displayed at the Gebr. Lehmann Gallery. Hoffmann had his tattoo shop in Hamburg, Germany, on the ground floor of a fine, old-fashioned building, and he was considered “the friendly tattooist who always wears a smile”.
From an early age, Herbert Hoffmann was drawn to people with tattoos. He was educated in Berlin and as a German schoolboy he watched with fascination workers, coachmen, sailors or anyone with tattoos. During the Third Reich, tattooed people were seen as criminals and consequently, the tattoo culture diminished. In 1940, Hoffman signed up for basic military service with the German army. From 1945-49, Hoffmann was held prisoner of war by the Russians: he was not released until he was 30, but even then his determination to become a tattooist was as strong as ever. He immediately set out for extensive travel through Europe to finish his education and also to acquire a good collection of skin masterpieces.
When he returned to Germany he worked as a traveling salesman, and encountered many persons who were tattooed despite the old Nazi ban. While working Hoffmann always took along his camera and photographed the people he met. In 1961, he opened his own tattoo studio, the “Älteste Tätowierstube Deutschlands“, in Hamburg-St. Pauli, Germany. In 1981 he passed his tattoo business on to his nephew and began to travel the world.
Hoffman distinguishes himself from photographers who look in at the tattoo culture from the outside. He defined the culture and then adopted the lion’s share of documenting it. Hoffman’s DIY method is like that of graffiti artists who return with a camera to make images of the surfaces which they have earlier decorated. (Notably, Hoffman’s tattooing preceded the rise of graffiti and its recognition as art/culture in the 1970s/80s.)
Aged 91, Hoffman passed away on June 30, 2010. Despite the indisputable novelty of his photographs and his central position to German tattoo culture, Hoffman only received mainstream recognition very late in life. No surprise really; Hoffman was working with the maligned, “lowly vernacular” medium of photography, to record the re-emerging tattoo subculture. Flammend Herz (Blue Skin, in English) is a film on Herbert Hoffmann and his friends directed by O. Ruts and A. Schuler. He has also published two photographic books for Memoria Pulp, Motivtafeln in 2000 and BilderbuchMenschen – Tätowierte Passionen 1878-1952 in 2002.