The 6773-letter journey

3.30pm. The last question.

I: Isn’t it a bit ironic that this universal idea of the human rights tattoo is supposed to be accessed by each and every one, yet we saw so many disappointed people who felt excluded from your project? Undoubtedly, I see the obstacles, the practical constraints of the project’s realization. But still, how do you feel about this?

It took several days to reflect on the answer Sander van Bussel, ambassador of the Human Rights Tattoo Project gave to the last question of our interview.

The reason for this is that the idea of spreading such universal and timeless principles regarding human rights across countries and continents is still limited to an exclusive amount of people.

To 6773 people in particular. This means: “to tattoo the complete Declaration of Universal Human Rights with the full 6773 characters on 6773 human beings around the world.”

What fascinates so many people around the world about this project is that by breaking down a discourse so abstract, political and bureaucratic into something as simple as a one-letter tattoo, the broader public feels included in a worldwide, engaging community. Thanks to Sander’s innovative idea, the UN Declaration of Human Rights becomes less anonymous and formal by the inclusion of all those vivid and inspirational, real-life stories behind the tattoos.

Nevertheless, 6773 is 6773 is 6773: the rest is excluded by this unique project, and no matter how passionate you are about the rights to human integrity and dignity, the 6774th person will never be part of this international community.

And it is a unique community too, since the Declaration is planned to be tattooed only once in total. Does this uniqueness not contradict the universality of human rights? Would it be fairer to go through the Declaration over and over again?

On the other hand, the feasibility of the idea reaches its limits where the dependence on local partners and tattoo-artists, the tight time schedule, the anticipating crowd begin: the Human Rights Tattoo Project faces more obstacles than expected. In addition, the idea is accompanied by the attempt to distribute the tattoos equally around the world. Because the HRTP is not supposed to run out of letters on a continent alone. This is the reason why for each stop, approximately 50 tattoos can be scheduled.

Some messages are universal and eternal in theory. But in practice, their actual distribution meets inevitable barriers.

And inclusion always requires exclusion.

8am. The journey

From Vienna to Prague. Four hours of curiosity, wondering which letter you will be randomly assigned to. The excitement of soon becoming part of an idea so big and yet so private, that it will get under your skin. The curiosity about which particle of the 6773-letter journey you will be.

The Human Rights Tattoo Project: In 2014, visual artist Sander van Bussel introduced his idea to ink the UN Human Rights Declaration, letter by letter, paragraph by paragraph, onto people wishing to wear human rights on their skin.

6773 letters for 6773 different people. A concept so elegant and simple, it can be wrapped up in a 3:35 -minute TEDTalk.


Captivated by the simplicity and yet the strength of the message, TEDxVienna travelled to the One World Human Rights Film Festival in the Lucerna Gallery in Prague, the HRTP Team‘s next stop.


12. The arrival.

Before even getting inside the building, we literally bumped into a group of people leaving it. We were informed that no more letters were left, people had even been standing outside the Gallery for four hours to guarantee they would get in first. Confusion and disappointment among the crowd.

Therefore we were already inked with a big question mark before even getting close to the tattoo-equipment.

Once in the Gallery, the situation became clearer: The HRTP’s time schedule was open only for a very limited amount of people. Seven hours for 50 letters in particular.

Not an easy fact to digest for the hundreds of tattoo and human rights enthusiasts who had gathered from all over the Czech Republic (let aside the German, Austrian and Slovak crowd) to spare a centimeter of their skin. Not an easy fact to digest when those in their late fifties, despite their full-hearted engagement with human rights, were bound by practical restrictions and could not camp outside the Lucerna Gallery four hours in advance. Not an easy fact to digest when there was no public information about the exclusive 50-letter rate beforehand.

3pm. The interview

In spite of the busy timetable, HRTP ambassador Sander van Bussel was so kind as to discuss his 6773-letter journey with the TEDxVienna Team, the road that still lies ahead of him and a specific tattoo he will never be able to forget.


S: There are always people waiting, and we always have to disappoint people. That definitely is not the nicest part of the project, he clarified in the beginning of our talk.

Yet, the suitcase he and his team have been carrying around throughout their travels, is filled with priceless inspirational stories.

S: One of those moments that I will always remember happened during our last stop in Geneva. I met a man who had been sentenced to a death penalty, sitting in prison for 28 years in the US. But he was wrongly convicted. Being condemned to death, knowing it is impossible that you will survive this…and then being released. That’s the hardest thing you can do to a human being. And he was at the festival, and asked for a tattoo. This was a very special moment for us. Especially because it was his first tattoo, even though he drew so many tattoos for other people in prison. But there are more. There are other 2900 spectacular stories in our suitcase. Each person carries his own motivation, each person carries his own commitment…People want those tattoos for a reason.

Regarding his personal story, Sander explained that the rights he feels closer to are those which are often taken for granted in every day life.

The right to your own sexual orientation.

The right to education.

And there are so many stories yet to come, since Turkey and Ecuador are next on the list.

But what comes after the 6773d letter? (How) does this story end?

S: It will take five to six years to end it. But I would like it not to end. The connection we make here today is eternal, people shall still engage in human rights, attend or organize events, enjoy exhibitions, discussions, and never stop spreading the message. In the end, there will be a living Declaration of Human Rights walking around this planet. That is the power of the project: that as soon as it ends…it starts.

Interview with Sander van Bussel

3.30pm. The last answer.

S: If people feel excluded, then this would be a wrong feeling. It is just physically impossible to do more letters in such a time frame. There are seven billion people on this planet who have the right to be part of our project, but only around 7000 letters we can tattoo. I think it is nice to spread those letters around the world as widely as we can. If we make people feel excluded, then it would be such a shame. Because you do not need a tattoo to commit to human rights anyway. There is so much more that you can do.


Special thanks to Jana Bernhard for the lovely support. All photo credits belong to the author.

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