Katendrecht - Part 2

Published: 19 August, 2010 - Featured in Skin Deep 121, May, 2005


Tattoo Bob moved from the Brede, Hilledijk to the nearby town of Deliplein. He has a good memory and remembers where the tattooists on Katendrecht had their shops. Where for example, Albert Cornelissen had his shop and who later tattooed from his caravan. We visited the 90-year old Cornelissen and his Chilean wife Virginia in Bambeck in the northeast of Hamburg. He has lived in Germany for so long that his Dutch is now mixed with German words. While he was telling us about the past, his memories come flooding back. Memories of the old days when tattoos were worn only by sailors, soldiers and criminals.  



Albert Cornelissen was born in Rotterdam in 1913. At the age of 14 he left home, worked as a helper in a bakery until he had to do his military service. After the army, he became a sailor and for twenty years, he sailed all around the world up until 1953.


In his family there were many sailors. A lot of whom were also tattooed. ‘My grandfather had tattoos on both of his arms’ Cornelissen tells me. ‘My parents continued the tradition. On their wedding day they went to Hermann de Boer, a tattooist who worked in Rotterdam before the Second World War. My mother was 18, when she got her first tattoo on her upper arm, which consisted of a swallow. My father went for a smaller tattoo because it hurt him too much. And I said: I want one too. It started for me at the age of twelve. So together with many of my friends I got my first tattoos. These were done with writing-ink. Tattooed by hand. They were all slantly and not very well done. We used very thin sewing needles. A boy told us that we had to use East-Indian ink, from Thalens. So we did so. This ink stayed in the skin unlike the writing-ink we had used previously. 


At the age of 17, I was tattooed by Hermann de Boer. He tattooed my underarms with a range of blue colours. De Boer has been a sailor and a soldier. He learned to tattoo in Japan where he was tattooed himself. He also told me about his adventurous life at sea. And by listening to his stories, I decided to become a sailor too. 



While at sea Cornelissen had become first mate and a captain as well as a tattooist. ‘I tattooed nearly everybody on ship. Not with a machine but by hand. When we set anchor somewhere, people would came aboard from shore. I tattooed them as well. I did that in Buenos Aires and New York. The motifs were skulls and sailor’s graves. All sailors wanted to have women on their skin, just like many soldiers. But I also tattooed geisha girls and snakes. I copied directly from the examples (flash) that I bought for 60 cents. In the USA, Ron Ackers and Philadelphia Eddy were the artists who sold flash to other artists. They sold them in black-and white sheets and I liked to add colours to the designs. My family did that too, they loved the colourful tattoos. The sailors I tattooed also wanted tattoos with colours too as well.’    


BILL JONES and CAPTAIN COLEMAN - As a sailor, Cornelissen visited many cities ncluding Antwerp, Liverpool, Athens, Montreal, New Orleans and New York. He regularly sailed between Liverpool and New York and stayed in the Big Apple in the beginning of the forties. He earned some money doing the dishes in restaurants. ‘I earned two dollars a day, so I could eat. I then met tattoo artist Bill Jones who asked me if I could tattoo. I said: yes. He asked me if I would tattoo him and then he put two tattoos on me. These were of a girl with a lions head on my right thigh and on the left, a sailor’s girl with a big American flag.’


In 1941 Cornelissen met Captain Coleman, a 60-year old American tattooist from Norfolk, Virginia. In the main street of the town were many sailor’s pubs and tattoo shops, and among them was Coleman’s’ shop. ‘It was here I bought my first tattoo machine. On my breast, back and flank I have tattoos done by him. I let him tattoo complete underpants with fishes, fish scales and snakes. Coleman also introduced me to Rogers and Spaulding, who, were well known for their tattoo machines and supplies at the time. I didn’t tattoo in the shop with Coleman, he had more than enough tattooists. No, he asked me to work as a doorman. It was my job to take care that nobody smoked or drunk in his shop. After a while I wasn’t needed as he had boxers among his customers, and my nose became flatter.’        



Cornelissen had often been in New York but he also visited some South American countries including Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador and Chile. One of his favourite sailing routes was between New York and Chile. There he met Virginia. ‘We married in 1945 have spent 60 years together.’


When he lived in Chile, his mother started searching for him. ‘She found me with help of the Red Cross and thereafter we lived with my mother near Rotterdam. I thought: I could go to Katendrecht, take my machines with me and my tattoo flash and see if I could get any work tattooing. In one night I earned 80 guilders. I started to tattoo mainly sailors. I did this in the café Norge. Close by was a shop that I was told that I could buy. I did and started to tattoo in the living room of this house. Everyday it was completely full with people wanting some work. When I started to tattoo in Katendrecht, I was one of the few tattoo artists working in the Netherlands.’  


ANECDOTES - Near his shop was a naval port. The sailors who visited the shop of Cornelissen consisted of French, English, Americans, Norwegians and Danes. When someone started to cause trouble, Cornelissen used his experience as a doorman to keep control. ‘Once there was a Swedish sailor who didn’t want to pay’ Cornelissen tells me. ‘I stood near the door, hit him and turned his wrist around. Virginia was standing near the door with a bat. He said: yes, I’ll pay. I was my own police force.’ Sometimes customers passed by very early before I would be open. ‘Once a group of Germans came to the shop at six o’clock in the morning and I was still in bed. I called down ‘I’m not home.’ They all wanted a tattoo. Sometimes I was still working at 8 o’clock at night. I tattooed small pieces as well as big tattoos. With women I often had to cover up the names of formerlovers.’


UNHYGIENIC - In the fifties as well as later tattooing wasn’t done very hygienically like it is today. ‘Needles were only thrown away when they weren’t sharp anymore. But when they were good, I threw them in soapy water, washed them and used them again. I never carried gloves. I had an apron on that was covered with ink and blood. The water in the bucket was completely black after a while. For ten people I used the same sponge but nobody became ill. The ink I used was from Thalens and for a bottle you would pay a few guilders, today it costs over 50 euros. I still have some of the colours I bought in New York. The make of the needles I originally used were Sharps, these were the finest needles I ever used and came from England. They were packed in a parcel of 25. Often ordered 5000 of them at a time.’



Cornelissen stayed until the beginning of the sixties in Katendrecht. His departure was mentioned in the newspapers in Rotterdam such was his notoriety. Additions to his family was one of the main reasons. With two children the house at the Veerlaan was too small. But also the adventure to travel was calling me again. ‘We had money because I earned much while tattooing. But I could earn more somewhere else. That became clear to me when Canadian soldiers visited my shop. They said to me ‘when you come to us, you could earn much more, we all want to be tattooed.’ So Cornelissen bought a camper that he transformed into a caravan and a mobile tattoo studio. In the beginning of the sixties he travelled in this with his wife and two children to Germany and thereafter to France, Spain and Portugal. Finally he returned to Germany where he tattooed in many different towns. ‘I ended up in Mannheim’ he says. ‘In the middle of a roundabout of the autobahn was a large pit. On the other side was an eating-house. I handed out business cards in the nearby army camp where I tattooed many soldiers. The boss of the pub earned a lot too. He said to me, ‘If you want to earn more money, you’ll have to go to Augsburg. There he had a place on a camping site, near the autobahn. There I tattooed American soldiers all day. Mainly Old School styles like eagles and the American flag. All for 10 dollar a piece.’ 


Cornelissen had to work hard. His tattoos were very popular among the soldiers. Because of that he had to start tattooing at 8 o’clock in the morning. ‘But on a bad day two ladies came to see me and said to us, ‘your children have to leave, they cannot live here, or we will take them away, which they did. They also said, ‘you can’t tattoo here.’ ‘So we went back to Holland.’ In Amsterdam, Cornelissen met Tattoo Peter, and with him, one of the few tattooists in Holland in the fifties and the sixties. They tattooed for a while together.


HAMBURG - How long he had been in Holland, he doesn’t remember. But he finally went back with his wife and children to Germany. They went to Hamburg. Cornelissen had lived a wandering life but after he arrived in Hamburg at the end of the sixties, he decided to stay. ‘First I worked in the station. Herbert Hoffman invited me soon after to tattoo in his shop at the Hamburger Berg, a side street off the Reeperbahn, which still is the prostitute quarter. But I also tattooed a lot from home at this table where we are talking now.’  Many of the machines and equipment with which Cornelissen had worked with are still in his possession. He showed me the flash he bought from Ron Ackers and Philadelphia Eddy. And also the machines, the modern ones as well as the old ones. 


IMPRESSIVE - When Cornelissen was 73, he became the oldest tattoo artist in Hamburg and in Germany. ‘I worked in the shop of Tattoo Günther until I was 80. Then that was enough. After I stopped tattooing, I sold tattoo machines for 200 marks each. That was good business.’ His son, Alby continued to tattoo. He went on to develop very modern machines for himself. 


Although Albert Cornelissen doesn’t tattoo anymore at his age, he still has room for some tattoos and he still wants some more tattoos. Anyhow it is very impressive to see the fully tattooed body of Cornelissen. Also Virginia shows me her tattoos. She unfortunately has Alzheimer and doesn’t know where she is for a lot of the time. But she knows that we are interested in her tattoos and she shows them to me. Albert gestures to us. ‘Look, this star my son has tattooed. He wants to learn to tattoo too. I said to him, ‘you can try it on me if you like.’    



The 70-year old Ramon still lives in Rotterdam. He worked for 20 years in Katendrecht. Bent over old photographs, Ramon tells about those years: ‘In 1970 I had a shop in the Atjhestraat. In the same row as Tattoo Jack and the Tattoo Bar where the tattooists and their customers came together. I wasn’t tattooing in a dark cellar like all the other tattooists. My shop had the atmosphere of a living room. We only had old pieces of furniture. They were only replaced when we could get something better that wasn’t too expensive. When a friend had a bench that was nicer than ours, we bought it. The shop was long and narrow and there was space for about 20 people. During the waiting time they could play games and play on a gambling machine. My wife always served coffee or beer.”


The atmosphere in the shop was cosy, Ramon and Jannie tell me. The music was a main part of the atmosphere, songs in the Dutch language or barrel-organ music, which was very popular in Holland and is still played today on the streets. ‘In the back I was working’ he says. ‘The flash all hung on the wall with a black frame around it. I was drawing everything myself in my free time.’


HIS FATHER TATTOO DICK - Ramon learned tattooing from his father Tattoo Dick. ‘First I helped him in his shop. The first thing I learned was by looking at how he tattooed. And now and then I was allowed to work on somebody. He used to stand behind me and said, ‘that is going well.’ And when he left to go into town, I was tattooing alone. So that’s how it started for me. We tattooed everything: sailing ships, daggers, snakes, sailor’s graves, geishas, and paeonies.’


For a sailing ship we asked 150 guilders. I put them on the skin within 45 minutes.’ When his father left for Spain, Ramon hired the shop from his father. ‘I worked under his name.’ I had to pay 400 guilders for the shop. But unexpectedly he came back and wanted to throw me out. I thought, wait a minute; I know another shop in a nearby street. So I started to work there. My dad had nothing to do anymore. Because I had taken all my customers with me. That was about 1970.’ Ramon took also all the drawings of his father. ‘I didn’t copy them, no I drew them all on transparent paper. At home I was drawing on drawing paper. With ecoline colours. I also bought drawings from Spaulding & Rogers, which I drew on paper too. That was good for the customers so they could see what was possible.’



When it was too busy, Ramon asked Jannie for help. ‘I helped mostly in the weekend’ she tells me. ‘When the American fleet came in to anchor, Ramon would phone me and I would prepare the stencils. Nobody went before his turn because the stencils all were laying in order. When someone was ready, I called for out for the stencil: ‘sailor’s grave or horsehead.’ She laughs. ‘When a customer was ready, I washed him and called: ‘next one.’ It was all day like that. It was always busy.’ ‘From 7 o’clock in the morning the customers were already standing in front of the door.’ Ramon adds. ‘At eleven it was completely full. When they didn’t know the way from the metro, the police brought them. My door was always open. Today you can’t do that anymore. Especially when people know you have good business.’  During those years it was very cosy in Katendrecht. The prostitutes were often sitting outside. They regularly drunk coffee with us, Jannie remembers herself. ‘Some wanted a tattoo. I talked to them about their profession. I liked to hear about it. They were all dressed up. They made themselves attractive for the customers. And lots of people liked to come to Katendrecht, not only for the women but also for tattoos.’


QUICK MACHINES - Gradually Ramon built up a good reputation among the sailors who arrived in Rotterdam. He tattooed them in a fast way before they left. ‘I was the quickest tattooist in Katendrecht’ he says. ‘The sailors wanted a quick tattoo and I had very quick machines. The frames I made of copper. I drilled wholes in them to make them lighter. Then I put chrome on them. The needles I still have. They were fixed on a cork.’ Ramon made many needles himself. ‘I also made machines. I used the same as Tattoo Peter. I still have tattoo machines from those days which are not used anymore.’ The tattooists worked differently than today. ‘Much has changed. The shops are bigger and cleaner. We all had old style shops then.’


Ramon had an ultrasonic bath in his shop in which he cleaned his machines. ‘In that I vibrated them clean, and the ink fell off into the jar. And to disinfect them I put the needles in a Detol jar. I drilled holes in the Perspex plates. They stood upright in the holes so that the Detol jars didn’t fall over. Every jar had his own colour’ Ramon tells about this. ‘When I tattooed another customer, the machine was completely clean. The needles stayed in the tattoo machine. Needles weren’t changed. My customers never had infections. There was streaming water and I didn’t use those dirty cups in which the needles of 30 customers were cleaned. I also didn’t use those buckets with sponges to clean a fresh tattoo. When a piece of a needle was broken, he was immediately repaired. But that didn’t happen with everybody.’


TATTOO MEETING - There was not much contact between the tattoo artists on Katendrecht. Now and then there was a meeting, conventions like nowadays didn’t exist. On those meetings the few Dutch artists came together to talk. In Amsterdam there were the shops of Tattoo Peter, Tattoo Cor and Theo Hartkamp. Hartkamp is still alive but the other two are dead now. The shop of Tattoo Peter still exists, today and is owned by his stepson Eddy Wertwijn. There was a meeting in De Brakke Grond in Amsterdam. First it was organized in the Okura hotel but after one of the German artists took his trousers off to show the tattoos on his leg, the hotel owner asked the tattooists to leave. Tattoo Peter managed arrange De Brakke Grond in the centre of Amsterdam.


‘We came together to talk’ Ramon says. ‘To exchange the newest techniques and to get information about new machines. When someone has been in the USA, we wanted to know how the tattooists worked there. But because of the rivalry, nobody told us very much. So those meetings were not much fun.’  


Ramon stayed for 20 years in Katendrecht. ‘After that, I worked in Monster near The Hague. I also worked for a few days in a greenhouse of a market gardener. I also worked for some years in Scheveningen, the bathing place of The Hague. I stopped tattooing when I was 62 because I have problems with my lungs.’ Anyway, Ramon looks back on a good tattoo life and likes the renewed interest for the tattoo quarter of Holland.



Text: Rik Van Boeckle Photography: Rob Webster


Skin Deep 121 1 May 2005 121