As tourists stroll up and down Nyhavn snapping photos of the ships and the architecture, most walk past 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 tattooing in Denmark.
At the turn of the 20th century, Nyhavn was the only place in all of Denmark – indeed in all of Scandinavia – where those inclined could get tattooed. It was a distinction the area held for nearly a century.
The first to establish a “real” tattoo shop in Nyhavn was Hans J. Hansen – better known as “Tusch –Hans”, or “Ink-Hans” in English – who, getting his first tattoo before shipping off to sea as a 17-year-old sailor, taught himself how to tattoo on the drunks at his mother’s Copenhagen bar. Shortly thereafter, Ink Hans approached the owner of the basement bar at Nyhavn 17 and asked if he could tattoo there. Granted permission, he placed a hand-drawn cardboard sign in the window and set to work. Through the early decades of the 1900s, tattoo artists spread throughout Nyhavn, sharing shop space with bars, tobacconists, barbers, and even firewood dealers.
In the late 1940s came Tattoo Jack, who became so well known for his tattoos – particularly his portraits of women–- that the Swedes, who accounted for around half the customer base at the time, all asked for him by name. As a result, all the tattoo artists in the area were happy to tell any drunk Sweden that came into their shop that they were, indeed, the famous Tattoo Jack. The real Jack probably didn’t mind, as he was too busy trying to have sex with prostitutes in the back room whenever he could escape the watchful eye of his wife Bodil. Tattoo Jack later came to own the famous Nyhavn 17 location, but when facing a prison sentence on drug charges, he was forced to sell the shop to Tattoo Ole, who would come to be viewed as Denmark’s most famous tattoo artist ever. He used to tattoo in a white coat, like a butcher, tattooing his customers while they were sitting in a hairdresser’s chair.
There were also customers who thought that Jack’s place was a hairdresser’s shop, and on one occasion, Jack actually improvised himself as a hairdresser instead of using his tattoo machine.
This is where it all started and today, Nyhavn 17, is the oldest functioning tattoo shop in the world.