Haughty monarchs, drunken sailors part of Denmark's tattoo culture

08:32, April 20, 2011      

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by Justin Cremer, Devapriyo Das

The Danish capital has a colorful past as the former center of the art of tattooing in Scandinavia.

Today, tourists throng the city's waterside quarter of Nyhavn, photographing the gleaming sailing boats and brightly painted houses lining its quays and walkways, while others enjoy the old-fashioned bistros and beer houses.

But very few stop at the distinct yellow storefront of Nyhavn 17, unaware that the building's lower level houses the origins of a story full of drunken sailors, colorful characters, rough living and even a tattooed monarch.

To descend those steps is to visit the birthplace of the tattoo in Denmark, because Nyhavn 17 is home to Tattoo-Ole, the oldest functioning tattoo shop in the world.

"This is where it all started," said Jon Nordstroem, photographer and author of the 2009 book, "Danish Tattooing."

Though tattoos can be traced backed some 5,000 years, the modern history of tattooing in Denmark began in the late 19th century, when sailors poured into Nyhavn sporting tattoos they had gathered on their journeys.

"The old cliche about tattoos and sailors is waterproof," Nordstroem said. "It was all inspired by sailors who would come from the United States and other places. The sailors really started it."

At the time, Nyhavn was the only place in all of Scandinavia where one could get tattooed, although tattoo booths were rudimentary: a box to sit on, hand-held tools and some ink.

"Denmark, and Nyhavn in particular, was the headquarters for tattooing in Scandinavia for nearly 100 years, from the 1890s to 1975," Nordstroem said.

"Aside from a few 'sailor shops' that popped up in Sweden in the 1940s, where tattoos were done in a backroom, there was no tattooing in Sweden or Norway," he said.


In 1902, the first authentic tattoo shop, complete with tattooing machines, was established in Nyhavn 17 by Hans J. Hansen, also known as "Ink Hans." Typically, Hans offered customers a selection of pre-designed tattoos, or flash drawings to choose from.

"Ninety-five percent of all tattoos were simple. 'What do you want? That one? OK, sit down' and then they were done in 45 minutes," Nordstroem said, adding that type of tattooing persisted until the 1960s.

In the 1970s, styles would change again as the hippie psychedelic movement encouraged experimentation with original designs.

Through the early decades of the 1900s, tattoo artists spread throughout Nyhavn, sharing shop space with bars, tobacconists, barbers and firewood dealers.

Artists like Niels Fischer gave tattoos out of his boat as he travelled from harbor to harbor across the country, while a certain Tattoo Jack was as famous for his portraits of women as his fondness for local prostitutes.


Although colors and machines improved, there was little development of techniques until the arrival of Tattoo Ole, who acquired Nyhavn 17 in the late 1940s, and remained famous for his sailing ship designs, self-blended red ink and self-assembled tattoo machines.

In 1951, a Life magazine article featured a shirtless King Frederik IX, a sailor and former King of Denmark, showing off his powerful physique and his extensive collection of tattoos, including the handiwork of Tattoo Ole.

Given such royal endorsement, tattoo culture gained popularity in Denmark, while bringing awareness of Danish tattooing to a world audience.

However, popularity brought its own problems: Copenhagen's notorious motorcycle gangs became regular customers at tattoo parlors, which expanded into the city's roughest neighborhoods. Over time, tattooing became associated with criminality and lawlessness.

In response, the Danish government passed regulations in 1965 that banned the giving of tattoos to children under 18 and outlawed tattoos on the hands, feet, neck and face.

Eventually, Copenhagen lost its preeminence as a regional tattoo hub.

"I don't see it as Scandinavia's tattoo capital any more," Nordstroem said. "I think in Denmark it is the place to be, but there are now a lot of really good tattoo artists in Stockholm and other places."

However, a new generation of tattoo artists can be found in Copenhagen today, with Nordstroem identifying up to 14 current artists with unique styles.

Copenhagen's tattoo parlors now mostly keep regular hours and are run like any other business. Instead of serving drunken sailors with flash drawings, these parlors also allow customers to make appointments to receive customized designs.

Tattooing remains popular in Denmark, and Copenhagen this month hosted an international tattoo festival.

Source: Xinhua
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