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Inside the world's oldest tattoo shop

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Inside the world's oldest tattoo shop
Majbritt Petersen has owned Tattoo Ole since 2010, the first female owner in its storied history. Photo: Davut Çolak
15:31 CEST+02:00
Imagine Copenhagen, and perhaps the very first thing that comes to mind is Nyhavn. Virtually anytime the Danish capital is highlighted in the international media, it’s a good bet that the story will be anchored by a beautiful shot of the harbour’s colourful buildings and bustling crowds.
But what many may not realize is that tucked into the basement of the iconic Nyhavn 17 building, with its orange facade and red letters, is a piece of cultural history that is in danger of disappearing. 
 
The modest underground locale has hosted a tattoo artist since 1884, making it the world’s oldest still functioning tattoo parlour. For nearly a century, the shop was the only place in all of Scandinavia to get tattooed. Its initial clientele was primarily sailors and prostitutes and today the shop is one of the last vestiges of Nyhavn’s seedy past. 
 
Over the years, the shop was owned by a number of colourful characters including ‘Tattoo Ole’ Hansen, who became renowned the world over for his ship tattoos and hand-made tattoo machines. Tattoo Ole’s name has graced the shop since 1947 and inside you will still find a proudly-displayed photo of his most famous client, King Frederik IX. 
 
Tattoo aficionados from around the world make the pilgrimage to Denmark just to get inked at Tattoo Ole, where current owner Majbritt ‘Lille Ole’ Petersen and Michael Ramsø Thomsen continue the tradition established before them. 
 
 
But Tattoo Ole’s days may be numbered. The owner of the building has declined to renew the tattoo parlour’s lease and has plans to convert the historic location into extra kitchen space for the restaurant that operates on the other levels. 
 
Petersen, who has owned the shop since 2010, said that she desperately wants to keep Tattoo Ole’s rich tradition alive and doesn’t want its 133-year history to end on her watch. 
 
“It’s not just my shop, even if it is my shop today. It is also all the other guys’ shop who had it before,” she told me when I visited the parlour to get an old-school ‘Ole ship’ tattoo.  
 
“Everyone who has had this shop is not family related, but everyone has worked together. We have a commitment to keep the shop in the old spirit. Before I took over the shop I was learning from the guy who had the shop before me and so on and so on,” Petersen added. 
 
The owner of the Nyhavn 17 wants to convert the tattoo shop into kitchen space. Photo: Davut Çolak
The owner of the Nyhavn 17 wants to convert the tattoo shop into kitchen space. Photo: Davut Çolak“
 
"People have come here for generations to get tattoos. We’ve tattooed grandparents and then the parents and then the kids when they get old. They want to come back here because it is familiar and it is very special to come here,” she said. 
 
According to Petersen, it is not just the global history of tattooing that would suffer a blow if Tattoo Ole is forced out. She says an important piece of Copenhagen will be lost forever if Nyhavn is further sanitized into a tourist destination.
 
“[Nyhavn] has a very dark past. There used to be only hookers and thieves and the scum of the scum. Nobody wanted to live in Nyhavn. Danes used to say that you’d know you reached Nyhavn when you got a knife stuck in your back,” she said. “This fancy area is very young, it started in the 1980s. This is one of the only old places left of Nyhavn – what Nyhavn was once.”
 
Both Petersen and fans of the tattoo parlour from around the world are putting up a last-ditch effort to save Tattoo Ole. Petersen, who is the first female owner in the shop’s long history, is contesting the owner’s decision to terminate her lease, arguing that its historical value is worth preserving. She will present her case in court on September 14th. 
 
Likewise, a petition has been started to try to sway the building’s owners into reversing course. It has attracted nearly 7,000 signatures from within Denmark and countries including Brazil, Mexico, Germany, Sweden, the UK and the US. 

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