For more than 130 years, Tattoo Ole, a famous tattoo parlor in the heart of Copenhagen’s waterfront district, has inked all sorts of customers, including sailors, prostitutes and the country’s royalty. The storied shop, founded in 1884, purports to be the oldest still-running tattoo parlor in the world.
But all that history is in jeopardy. According to the shop’s owner, Majbritt Petersen, her landlord wants to shut the parlor down and use the space to expand the kitchen of the restaurant next door. Now Petersen is planning to head to court, believing that the shop’s ink-stained history should make it a historical landmark.
“For me, it has such a long history,” she said. “If you close this one down, you can never get it back.”
Petersen began working at the shop as an artist in 2007 and took over when its previous owner, known as Bimbo, died of a heart attack in 2010. Its first female owner, she joins a list of colorful characters who have run Tattoo Ole, originally known as Nyhavn 17.
The founder, Hans J. Hansen, saw an opportunity to make money inking the sailors docking at the Nyhavn waterfront district in the 19th century. The sailors sought tattoos to tell the stories of their journeys overseas, said Jon Nordstrom, a photographer who has published a book on Danish tattoo history.
Nyhavn is now a quaint and pricey tourist destination, but the area used to be a seedy spot full of soused sailors and prostitutes. The sailors would sometimes pay women to tattoo the men’s names on their bodies. Hansen and the local prostitutes had an arrangement, Nordstrom said: He would secretly use a different inking method on them that would wash off the next day.
There was also the artist known as Tattoo Jack, a man Nordstrom wrote “[drank] triple strength lager as if it were lemonade.” Famed for his portraits and use of color, Jack ran the shop starting in the 1940s before opening a bigger one a few doors down. He sold Tattoo Ole to his apprentice, Ole Hansen, the man who gave the parlor its current name.
Hansen, an orphan who fell into the tattoo business after a brief stint as a sailor, was known for his designs of ships, his use of red ink — and for hosting Denmark’s King Frederick IX at his shop. In 1951, the king appeared in Life Magazine sporting a collection of tattoos across his upper body. Tattoo Ole claims it is responsible for both the anchor and dragon designs on the monarch’s left arm.
Petersen said the shop now boasts a more family-oriented vibe. She recalled a grandfather who recently came in with his granddaughter to get her first tattoo — he picked Tattoo Ole, he told Petersen, because it was where he had gotten his first, too. “We have a time capsule here” she said.
Nordstrom said the stigma of a tattoo shop doesn’t help in a neighborhood that has shaken off its gritty past. “If it had been something more snooty, like hand-painted plates” he said, it might have attracted the attention and money to help save it. But to many people, Nordstrom said, “tattooing is a little bit working-class.”
The global tattoo community is rallying behind Tattoo Ole. Tattoodo, an online tattoo community with 20 million users, has launched a petition to help Petersen save the studio. It currently has almost 10,000 signatures.
“Tattooing is an art form that is very much defined by its history and legends,” said Mik Thobo-Carlsen, Tattoodo’s co-founder, in a statement. “Tattoo Ole is a rare diamond that we all need to stand up for, to protect our cultural history, and to avoid that our society loses something that is truly unique.”