movie review: heart in flames;

The tattoo (sub)culture is a strange one! Eternally associated with the youth, rebellion and anger, it also tries to remind us that its roots go deep in the past and that tattooing was always around. For the tattoo enthusiasts elements of the history, tradition, deeper meaning of this form of body art are an important part of their own experiences; for the pop culture this traditional part does not matter much and it’s more about ‘touching’ stories and ‘moving’ experiences to give people out there something to watch and wonder at.

No surprise then that the popular form of body art, as seen on the TV screen, seems rootless, stuffed with fake meanings up to the brim and focused not so much on the real people and real life but rather on a faked rock&roll lifestyle. Amy James rocks his shop, Chris Nunez is partying hard again and Kat Von D gets another of her (or rather her TV producers?) wonderful ideas how to make her look even better and cooler. The tattoos are a hot stuff now but they were around waaay before Miami/ LA Ink and they will also be waaay after these shows. And yeah, what all of us, the tattooed, will look like in a few decades? Faded tattoos, regrets about having wasted our money, skin and potential, inability to present ourselves decently at the church?

If you decide to watch the documentary I’m going to write about in this review, you’ll soon find out that all these warnings of the well-minded people and your own fears about your future as a tattooed person are pointless and you will be able to enjoy your life no matter what.

The English title of this documentary is ‘Blue Skin’ (which probably refers to the fact that the old black tattoos used to turn blue after some time) but the original, German title fits better – ‘Heart In Flames.’ The authors of this film take us for a wonderful ride in the past and they couldn’t have chosen a better tour guide than Herbert Hoffmann himself!

Hoffmann is a well-known German tattooist who used to run ‘the oldest tattoo shop in Germany’ in the *in*famous St. Pauli area of Hamburg, a photographer and an enthusiastic historian of the tattoo culture. His trade mark is an anchor tattoo and many people would love to get such a tattoo done by him (one of such people is featured in the documentary and even though his statement about ‘every tattoo he’s had done is connected to a memory’ is quite cheesy, the way this particular tattoo experience is shown makes it ring true).

Hoffmann is not the only main character here, though. The whole documentary focuses on the history of Hoffmann’s friendship with two other old tattooists, Karlmann Richter and Albert Cornellis, its ups and downs and the different roads all three of them took to fulfill their dreams about being heavily tattooed and brave enough to live their lives the way they wanted.

The opening scenes are close-ups of Hoffmann’s tattoos. His body is old now and his tattoos faded but his heart is still as fiery as ever and his eyes light up whenever he discusses tattoos and what they mean to him. There are many other close-ups here and they are both scary and fascinating – it’s not usual in the modern world to show old bodies and we are made to think that the old age is something negative. For these three old tattooists there’s nothing to be ashamed of and they show off their tattoos and their bodies with pride and dignity. Here are the decades of their lives, experiences, memories. Who needs a photo album if you can trace your life on your body?

The main thread of the documentary seems to be staged and very TV-like – Hoffmann, Richter and Cornellis, after decades of the fast friendship, grew apart and stopped talking to each other. As it seems, there was too much between them to remain friends but thanks to the crew filming the stories of their lives and the story of their friendship they have an opportunity to meet again and try to solve their issues. It’s something we can forgive, however, as thanks to this documentary we can gain a great insight into the history of German tattooing (Christian Warlich is mentioned here more than once and there’s also ‘Tattoo Theo’ appearing in one of the old pictures), how the first shops appeared and how they were received by people, how the first tattooists lived (and Hoffmann’s little ‘family’ was definitely unusual back then). All of this is illustrated not by the voice behind the camera but by the three old men themselves – they share their memories, old pictures and letters and, above all, their undying passion for tattoos!

There’s a very intimate atmosphere here – slow pace, frequent close-ups of the old, faded tattoos, old people sharing stories behind their tattoos and their lives. It’s not this fast-paced, American way to show glorious life of the modern tattoo ‘artists’ with a serious ambition to become ‘stars.’ This seems real, not plastic!

Now we hear it so often that it’s almost boring, meaningless and definitely a cliché: ‘cool ink, man!’ ‘I love tattoos!’ ‘it’s a lifestyle, you know!’ but when you see three old men who started modifying their bodies back in the days when there was no mass TV, when the social conventions were very constricting and when it actually mattered what other people had to say about you, one must feel that their words truly are their own and that they are not a mass product wearing an Ed Hardy t-shirt and addicted to Kat Von D’s TV show.

As Hoffmann said, ‘people without tattoos don’t know this feeling of pride and freedom [of being tattooed]’ and I know he’s right! There is more to it than stories sold on TV, published in newspaper articles and spread all over the virtual land. The real trick is to find it, embrace it and know it’s really something you want to experience and enjoy. Maybe then you won’t have any regrets and you won’t mind saggy skin and faded tattoo ‘blobs’ because in your eyes they will look as fresh and great as ever.


Flammend Herz, dir. by Andrea Schuler, Oliver Ruts, 2004