Katendrecht - Historical Tattoo Quarter in the Harbour of Rotterdam - Part One

Published: 24 July, 2010 - Featured in Skin Deep 120, April, 2005

Katendrecht, is a quarter in Rotterdam near the harbour, this has been the tattoo quarter of Holland since 1950. Up until about 1980 this was a vivid place with many tattoo shops, Chinese restaurants and prostitutes. The small peninsula in the harbour area was known locally as ‘De Kaap’. Normal people lived and existed alongside pimps and hookers. The Chinese who lived there, owned shops and restaurants or were busy working within the opium trade. Seven tattooists had their shops in Katendrecht. The first tattooist in the Netherlands and in Katendrecht after the Second World War was Albert Cornelissen. Today the 90-year old Cornelissen lives in Hamburg. The tattooists after him were Tattoo Dick, Tattoo Jack, Tattoo Willy, Tattoo Cannon, Tattoo Ramon and Tattoo Bob. Apart from Cornelissen, the only other surviving artists from this period are Tattoo Ramon, now 70-years old, and Tattoo Bob. After 1980 he was the only practising tattooist in Katendrecht. Today his sons, daughter and daughter-in-law are keeping the tattoo tradition alive by working in his studio.



The tattoo history of Katendrecht starts with Albert Cornelissen. In the fifties he used to wait for the visiting sailors at the gangplank of visiting ships, together with his 9-year old nephew Kees (who now runs a tattoo studio of his own in Veendam, in the north of the country). They were not allowed to go aboard to work, and were only permitted to give the sailors their business cards. The tattooists earned a lot of money by tattooing these seamen. Albert Cornelissen was born into a family of sailors and was for 20 years a sailor himself, where he used to tattoo his fellow sailors whilst on board ship. After his many wanderings all over the world, which included a long stay in Chile, he arrived at the beginning of the fifties in Katendrecht, and started to tattoo there from 1953 and stayed there until the beginning of the sixties.



‘The shop wasn’t much bigger than 4 by 3 meters’ his nephew Kees tells me. ‘In the window was a hand written sign saying ‘Cornelissen’. That was the only way you could tell that a tattooist was working there. But every taxi driver knew the address and they drove customers from the arriving boats directly to his shop. Such was the demand for Albert’s work, that from eight o’clock in the morning visiting sailors were already banging on the window shouting ‘we want a tattoo!’ ‘Uncle Albert was often working ‘till 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. He had a small number of designs that certainly wasn’t more than 700’. 


Cornelissen had made a card index for all his designs. The ‘Flash’ was hanging on the wall, and was numbered, Kees remembers. ‘Uncle Albert could do a tattoo in 20 minutes. He regularly used seven colours, he used to mix them all by hand. He used various powders, diluted with East-Indian ink, which was either black or blue. He also had a little jar that he called ‘blacker than black’. And the needles he used in his machines were borrowed from sewing machines.’ 



According to Tattoo Bob, all tattoo shops looked a bit funny and old-fashioned. Bob: ‘They were all painted brown inside, including my own shop. It didn’t look very sterile like the studios of today. But for the period, they looked nice, but it wouldn’t be suitable nowadays. But for the sailors that came for some work, it wasn’t important. They didn’t care about sterility, just as long as the bathroom was clean. If you walked into the studio of Tattoo Dick, you entered into a kind of museum, with cages with parrots in and old shotguns hanging on the wall. Most tattoo artists at the time didn’t work with sterility in mind. Needles were not changed regularly and used for different customers, along with the same inks. Tattoo Bob: ‘We put new ink in a jar and used it until it was empty, which could have been over a period of over a few months. We received the ink in the form of a powder, which we prepared with all kinds of ingredients. But nobody became ill, luckily’. When the GGD (Dutch Health Department) were notified about a disease, they took pictures and examined the premises where the sick person had their tattoos done. 



One of the most popular designs at the time were sailing ships. Lots of sailors wanted their ships on their skin. ‘It was the time of the Old School style as it is known nowadays. The motifs were of sailor’s graves, daggers, knives, roses and big hearts’ Tattoo Bob tells me. ‘ The main outlines were made using East-Indian ink. Nobody had his own unique style like they do today. Some had their specialties like Tattoo Jack, who was well known for his use of beautiful and vibrant colours. The colours of Tattoo Dick however, were not so bright, but he was well known for his thick lines’. Tattoo Bob and Ramon learned a lot from watching Dick who is the father of Ramon, just like Tattoo Willy. ‘But my father threw Willy out of the studio because he couldn’t tattoo’. Willy was more a manager of a tattoo shop than a tattooist. 



When Cornelissen left the Katendrecht studio, his brother Jack took over the shop. ‘He used to tattoo in a white coat, like a butcher’ Kees remembers. ‘That was very impressive and ground breaking for the time. He worked within a very clean environment in contrary to my uncle. He was tattooing with no top on exposing his bare chest’. Tattoo Jack tattooed his customers while they were sitting in a hairdresser’s chair. A Rotterdam magazine from 1967 wrote. ‘You can lay that chair totally flat. Making it easy for tattooing on the breast’ Tattoo Jack said in the article. 


Jack also used to build all his own machines, with the smallest machine having three needles. These were used for the outlines. The biggest machines were for the colours and had up to ten needles. In the hall of his shop Jack had hung up flash cards with hundreds of images. The prices of the tattoos varied from 10 guilders for a heart or another small tattoo, to 200 guilders for a beautiful sailing ship. He said this about his customers to the magazine: ‘the majority were mainly sailors. About 30 percent are normal people. Women want tattoos from me too and they are women of good class’. All the customers coming into the studio were English, Germans and Americans, and all had to pay before hand. The most difficult customers were the Americans. ‘The Yanks were very cautious, for them the shop had to be clean. They were always looking around for a while and then they would say: ‘Yeah, here you can do it’.’


There were also customers who thought that Jack’s place was a hairdresser’s shop. And on one occasion, Jack used the scissors and cut someone’s hair in stead of using a tattoo machine.’  



Tattoo Cannon was also one of the tattoo artists in Katendrecht. ‘He learnt his trade by working with Jack’ Ramon tells me. ‘When Jack was laid up in the hospital for a while, his son Cockie asked Cannon if he wanted some help. Cannon said: yes, I will tattoo a little bit for you to help you out. But Jack should know nothing about this. Cannon started to copy everything from Jack, including the setting up of the machines. Within two months he had his own shop: ‘Tattoo Cannon.’ It eventually ended up in a lawsuit but Jack couldn’t do anything about this ‘impostor’ because his own son had invited Cannon into the shop. In theory, everybody copied from each other anyway’.


‘Mutually we didn’t associate with each other as rivalries were high’ Ramon adds. ‘There was a lot of envy between the artists. I only regularly spoke to Jack and Cannon, but even then there was a bit jealousy because I had a very busy shop at the time.’ 



The local prostitutes would often sit outside. ‘They made themselves look attractive for their customers who liked to come to Katendrecht, not only for the women but also for the tattoos’ Ramon remembers.


‘The sailors also visited the many pubs in Katendrecht. The inhabitants of the quarter were shopping for the hookers and tattoos. Some of the landlords rented out rooms to pimps, some even rented out their beds. Everybody profited by the prostitution in the area. Katendrecht was an extremely vibrant place during those years.’ 


During the seventies the cosiness disappeared from Katendrecht. It wasn’t always so peaceful and easygoing. The drugs trade was coming up. Also with the prostitution, problems arose. During the years the sex business became harder and some of the inhabitants wanted to get rid of the brothels and there were riots and demonstrations. Also there were problems with the Chinese. Ramon told me about this: ‘it happened once that an artist tattooed a Chinese man and made a bit of a mess of it. The Chinese came back to the shop to cause trouble. In the shop was a Doberman pincher but the Chinese were trained in martial arts, and they knocked the dog unconscious.’


The cosy prostitution trade disappeared from Katendrecht soon after. The ladies who worked traditionally in the area had to make room for an influx of young foreign girls and in the beginning of the eighties, the last brothel closed. The Chinese had already gone. The hookers and the pimps also left. And with them, the tattooists. 


Today only Tattoo Bob is left tattooing in Katendrecht. It’s a quiet quarter now. Cannon, Dick, Jack and Willy have all sadly passed away. The last thing I heard is that most of the apartments will be refurbished for many well-to-do business people.  



Everywhere in Rotterdam you can see the yellow signs of Tattoo Bob in the streets. He still has his studio in Katendrecht at the Deliplein. He works there with his two sons, daughter and daughter-in-law. When we visited him in his studio, he invited us to take a walk through Katendrecht and to the place where he started tattooing.


In the past it was a very vivid place, but today it’s deadly quiet. ‘This was a beautiful quarter’ Bob tells us when we walk from the Deliplein to the Brede Hilledijk where he had his first shop. ‘They messed it all up. It had been better when the municipality concentrated the prostitution here. Now it is spread over the town and out of control.’ He points to the place where Albert Cornelissen tattooed in his mobile studio in the beginning of the sixties.



When we walk over the Brede Hilledijk, Bob greets an acquaintance, the now 60-year old karate expert Joop Verschoof. He was four times Dutch champion and tattooed by Bob. He has a Japanese sign on his arm. It means ‘Extreme truth, cooperation’ he explains. Together we go further along the Brede Hilledijk 211. ‘Here I started in 1970’ Bob says.  ‘You can’t see it anymore, but this was a cellar. It was ten meters deep and a meter or three wide. On what is now a brown wall, hung a sign with Tattoo Bob. You entered the studio by two swing doors, behind which were stairs. Everybody bumped their heads. When I started, I had not many customers. Some days nobody came in at all.’


Walking through the streets of Katendrecht, Bob tells us which tattoo artists worked at which studio. Many of the old tattoo shops are gone. The sign above his own studio is remarkable. ‘The sign is about 35 years old, it is still my first sign. I keep it there, although it is nearly falling from the wall. It brings me luck.’



Standing in front of the window of his studio, Bob tells me how he started.


‘Originally I didn’t come from Katendrecht, but from Rotterdam-South. I do not come from a tattoo family but was always fascinated by drawing. I always liked the whole culture around tattooing, including the warmth of the quarter Katendrecht. I felt at home there. My father had a friend: Tattoo Dick who used to work for a company of my fathers in the harbour. Dick taught me to tattoo. He was the one who took me into the business. I was 21 when I started. I learned the technique of tattooing very quickly. I have always made my own Tattoo machines or I alter existing machines. I have a separate room here. There we also do piercings. I don’t pierce. That’s done by Ralph and Deborah, the piercing queen of the shop.’


His real background is masseur. Therefore Bob knows a great deal about the medical side of tattooing. He was the first one in Katendrecht who saw the importance of good hygiene. ‘I was the first tattooist in the Netherlands who banned smoking in the shop. That was 20 years ago. Nicotine is harmful to the process of sterilisation. I also forbade alcohol. Customers had to enter the shop clean. Dogs were not allowed too.’



It could be rough in the old days, Bob tells us. ‘Once some people entered the shop shooting. That was a settlement between pimps. And I could hear the bullets fly!’  When we enter the studio, the flash on the wall catch the eye. ‘We have never changed the studio. The flash has always hung on the wall, it’s old fashioned. It’s pure nostalgia, I don’t want to change it.’


Behind the counter Michael and Ralph, the two sons of Bob, are working next to Deborah and daughter-in-law Esther. Bob: ‘Actually we are a tattoo family because Tattoo Jan from Needle Art Breda is my brother-in-law and his son Brian is tattooing too’.


Bob always tattooed freehand. ‘I started to do that after a year’ he says. ‘I also tattooed from the old flash card.’ Michael and Ralph started to tattoo in the shop about 10 years ago. Both have their own customers. Michael does big pieces and cover-ups. Ralph is good at tattooing big tribal pieces but also in cover-ups. Esther is likes tattooing tribal designs on the lower part of the back. She tattoos them using real fine lines, that’s unique. I tattoo mainly Old School and tribal. Many customers ask for that. I like to tattoo Old School but basically I tattoo everything, including Japanese. Because the shop is becoming too small, we are going to expand over the whole Deliplein. We are busy with that now and we have bought three other stores’.



Up until 1980, the customers were mainly sailors and caravan-dwellers. ‘The tattoos they had were of ships, anchors, a globe, a sailor’s grave, the name of their sweetheart’ Bob says. ‘Most motives were Old School: daggers, knives, roses, and big hearts. I tattooed geishas at the request of customers who were not sailors. In the summer during the holiday period of the construction workers, many of them visited the shop for a tattoo. For us it was good business. It was so busy that we almost couldn’t handle it.’


All tattooists on Katendrecht bought their equipment from Spaulding & Rogers. Bob: ‘You could order whatever you wanted: machines, drawings, and colours. I still have drawings from them. I also bought them from the Picture Machine, a tattooist in the USA. He drew a lot and sold his designs over here in Europe. Spaulding did the distribution. I was drawing a lot too. Drawing a heart wasn’t so difficult, and a sailor was quickly satisfied.’


A BIG CHANGE IN 1980          

In the beginning of the eighties a lot changed on Katendrecht. The atmosphere became harder and the inhabitants wanted to get rid of the prostitution.


Bob: ‘Then came our turn. The prostitution was chased away from Katendrecht. And the tattooists left too. The interest in tattooing wasn’t very big during those years.’ Bob moved from the Brede Hilledijk to the Deliplein where he still works. ‘I had the advantage as six of the seven tattooists left the area. Tattoo Bob kept up his good reputation for tattooing. It was the tattoo quarter of the Netherlands. After 1980 I didn’t notice that the interest was decreasing. I only noticed a rising interest in people wanting to be tattooed by me.’  



After 1980 the clientele changed. Bob: ‘The amount of people who want to be tattooed increased. Criminals and sailors used to get a tattoo. But after 1980 educated people started to discover the tattoo world. At the end of the sixties, beginning of the seventies the hippies wanted to be tattooed. The formation of the population changed too. Many people of the Dutch Antilles came to live in the quarter. I don’t have problems with that. At this moment in time, they are 60 percent of my clientele. Ralph speaks Papiamento, which is the language of the Dutch Antilles.’



Also the way tattooing was done changed, Bob says. ‘Years ago, tattoos had thicker lines. During the eighties came the fine line style from the USA. Tattooing evolved into an art form. As a tattooist, I started to search for a thinner outline. So I decreased the amount of needles in the machine. I went from six to three needles. I made them myself just like the machines. I have been busy for a number of years, trying to improve the technique of tattooing and to find a technique that is acceptable. Nowadays it’s possible to buy everything but we don’t do that, we develop and make everything ourselves.’

Sources: Photographs from the archives of Albert Cornelissen, Herbert Hoffman, Tattoo Ramon, Tattoo Bob, Tattoo Bimbo/Ole Hansen (Copenhagen).

-Oliver Ruts & Andrea Schuler. Living Picture Books. Portraits of a Tattooing Passion 1878-1952. Remembered and photographed by Herbert Hoffmann. Published by Memoria Pulp. Berlin

-Magazine of the Tattoo Club Holland. Nr. 55

-Interviews with Tattoo Bob, Albert Cornelissen, Tattoo Ramon and Tattoo Kees. 

-Hans Soeters: ‘De Kaap. Het woelige leven op het Rotterdams schiereiland.’

(The turbulent life at the Rotterdam peninsula).
Published by the Rotterdam’s Nieuwsblad.

-Different articles found in newspapers in the Gemeentearchief Rotterdam (the archives of the municipality of Rotterdam).


Many thanks to the Rotterdam tattoo artist Jan Born.


Text: Rik van Boeckel Photos: Rob Webster


Skin Deep 120 1 April 2005 120