Tattoo LIfe number 9

Written By: Erika Stanley
Photographs By: Erika Stanley, Henning Jorgensen and Thomas Fryd


Interview with the Great Henning Jorgensen
Royal Tattoo, Helsingor, Denmark
By: Erika Stanley

The fairy tale land of Denmark is fairly unknown for its rich tattoo history. From the earliest collectors, the Vikings, to modern day electric tattooing, this is the cradle of tattoo appreciation. This little country boasts a tattooed king, tattooed prince and possibly the oldest continually functioning tattoo studio in the world, Tattoo Ole’s. Stan Corona, Running Bear and I left Amsterdam and embarked on our pilgrimage to Royal Tattoo in Helsingor, to pay homage to one of Europe’s secret weapons in the rapidly progressing world of tattoos, Henning Jorgensen.

Erika: When and how did you start tattooing?

Henning: Back in ’79 with Tattoo Cay on Istedgade (a street lined with tattoo studios in Copenhagen). He changed the studio a couple of times since then., but he’s still there. I hung out for maybe a year, day and night before I started. You know, I was hooked on tattooing. Finally he let me in and I was just drawing every day. I wasn’t cleaning floors, or stuff like that, I mean, if he asked me to, I would’ve. I was just trying to show my dedication, like the Japanese do. I was only like seventeen or eighteen and when the other guys my age wanted to go out, I was like, "no, no, no, I’m staying." I was getting worked on too, and that made me want to stick around.

E: Were you already tattooed when you started?

H: Yeah, I started getting them when I was thirteen. In Tattoo Ole’s shop I got my first two, but from a guy who worked for Ole for many years. I got my third from Ole.

E: What designs were they?

H: I got my name, which was very common at that time. All the big, strong guys had that stuff.

E: The real "tough guys…:"

H: Yeah, I managed to get it. I mean, I was thirteen and no one wanted to tattoo me and finally that guy was pissed-drunk, at Ole’s and he was like, "sit down" and did my name. Then the week after, I was down there with a buddy and I wanted a new one and he’s like, "I’m not tattooing kids!" and I said, "you did this last Saturday" and showed him my name and put him on the spot! So he did a swallow with "love" and all that stuff the big guys had. My third was from Ole. I just told him, "your guy already tattooed me," so he did an eagle on me. I stole my sister’s pocket money and went down and got the eagle. I gave her the money back. So I guess I just borrowed it without asking. By the time I was in seventh grade, I already had five or six tattoos, pretty fast, including the one from Ole.

E: You’ve won lots of awards for tattooing. What are your favorite ones?

H: They’re all favorites, you know, and nice, but I think it was a big step for me to finish the body suit on Karsten, I think that’s the biggest thing. A girl from Skin & Ink (Robin Perine) got photos of him in San Francisco. It’s the three-quarters body suit. That one, and then I won "Best Tattooist" in ’93 and that’s always very prestigious! It’s still very difficult to understand, even though it’s been so many times now, that I come from a small country and still win awards along side of all the big guys, that for years, I’ve been looking up to.

E: Did you draw a lot, before you started tattooing?

H: I started drawing while I was getting my first tattoos. Then sort of kept on going. All my books, inside and outside, were covered with swallows, names, ships, anchors, you know, whatever. I never thought of tattooing until, at twelve or thirteen, we all ran away from home and stayed at someone’s house while their parents were away at a summer house. We got pissed-drunk and slept there. Then one guy took his shirt off and he had a name, and I was just struck by lighting when I saw that. It was all scar tissue, I could feel it! Even though I was drunk that night, I couldn’t sleep. I was just thinking of tattoos. So the next weekend, I got my name done. From then on, I always crashed my bicycle, because I was looking at other people’s tattoos. It’s been like that ever since.

E: How did you find Tattoo Ole? Did you have friends who got tattooed there?

H: There were a few shops in Istedgade. Only John and Kim were there, at that time, and Nyhavn was the only place in Sealand. There was one in Aarhus and one in Aalborg. Ole, Svend, Jack and Bob and that was it.

E: In Nyhavn…

H: Yeah, it was like a rough area at that time so we hung out there a lot when we were fifteen and sixteen…

E: Tough guys…

H: Yeah, tough guys getting dumb.

E: What types of tattoos do you enjoy doing?

H: Japanese stuff. I mean, I also do other stuff, but if I have the choice, I love to do Japanese stuff. It’s always nice to also do bold, black and gray and realistic work. I’m really looking forward to doing more traditional stuff. It’s not popular in Denmark to get traditional tattoos, because it seems like for the Danes, that we were escaping from it. Even when Tato Ole was still around, he started doing new style, which I wish he never did, because he should’ve stuck to his style, like Sailor Jerry. I look forward to traditional tattoos coming back in Denmark, because I was raised with that style and that’s what I did for the first three or four years.

E: Traditional is big, in the States. It’s not popular now in Denmark?

H: You didn’t have anyone coming into Erik’s shop (Kunsten Paa Kroppen in Copenhagen) asking for that type of stuff, right? I mean tribal is still very popular there.

E: And Kanji, Kanji, Kanji. Like three a day. I was spending more time translating than tattooing sometimes.

H: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think a lot of people pick Japanese writing, because it looks beautiful and has meaning but it’s not a picture of something.

E: How would you describe yourself as a tattooer?

H: Hmm, I guess just hard working, always trying to push myself to get better, do things more creatively and just focus on being as clean as possible. I draw a lot. Sometimes, after a day at work, I go home and draw and I’m so tired, I just play around with a design until my wife (Gitta) comes around and tells me to try again in the morning when my eyes and brain are fresh again. I find it works better for me to wake up early and draw when I’m fresh. Sometimes I draw at night and then look at the drawing again in the morning and think, "what’s going on here?"

E: Like, "I must have been tired last night." I know, I do the same thing too. Do you free-hand your tattoos or prefer using stencils?

H: Well, I prefer to plan out the tattoos to every detail. I like to work on drawings, then put them aside, and rework them with better ideas, until I have it where I want it. I use stencils most of the time, because it saves time. I book my days with a tight schedule to where I only have five minutes between clients and I know you’ve never seen someone pee and eat a sandwich as fast as I do.

E: I think we may be some tough competition with you as far as eating sandwiches fast!

H: Oh, yeah, you know what I mean. I think using stencils speeds things up for me. I couldn’t keep my schedule with appointments if I free-handed these full arms and chest panels and big pieces I do. Besides, I don’t like to feel stressed or in a hurry to draw something on someone and tattoo them. I might feel like I left something out or might wish I could add something when I look at it later. I like thinking through the pieces I do.

E: I’m the same way, especially when it comes to tattooing limbs. How has tattooing changed your life?

H: (Looking puzzled) Tattooing is my life.

E: Oh yeah, you started out so young, you don’t know anything else.

H: That’s true! I’ve never done anything else. All I’ve been doing, since I was a kid, was getting tattooed and drawing tattoo designs, then I started tattooing and now I’m here.

E: Have you done any guest spots?

H: I’ve done guest spots in Cologne in ’84 and went back and forth. Then in Seattle with P.A. Stevens and Danny Dansels at Seattle Tattoo Emporium for two and a half months in ’87. I learned a lot. Mike Malone was working there, and Terry Tweed, and that was a blast with Mike telling old stories everyday. He’d been in Denmark as well in ‘80. Mike changed the whole scene. I think he did for all of Europe, by showing flash you could buy and all that stuff. Then I went to Calgary to work with Paul Jeffries five or six times since ’89. Paul was one of my biggest influences.

E: Tell me about Cologne.

H: Dieter Angus, Tattoo Studio in Mulheim, Cologne, Germany. They’re not as outgoing as they used to be. We used to go to all the different conventions together and we worked them. Like the first three or four conventions in Dunstable. We met up in America all the time at conventions and stuff.

E: How long have you had your studio, Royal Tattoo in Helsingor, Denmark?

H: Sixteen and a half years. Since April 1, 1983.

E: April Fool’s day!

H: Yep, then we moved the shop four years later on April 1, 1987, three hundred meters down the street. There was this lady who lived upstairs who complained about people coming and going and music and the buzz of tattoo machines. She had no life, and even took the time to complain to the city and eventually we had to leave that space. Now there’s a video rental place there. They are open later, with more people coming and going, so now she has to deal with worse! And since it’s not a "tattoo studio" the city really can’t do much about it and now she’s stuck!

E: You’re partners with…

H: Soren Kempf. He’s tattooing in Hamburg at "Tattoo Studio Danmark"

E: Danmark, really?

H: Yeah, he liked it better down there. He used to be there in the seventies then came back to Denmark and worked with Tato Ole and that’s where I met him. Then we opened a studio in Helsingor and we went back and forth between Denmark and Germany. He liked it there. He had more clientele in Germany and I had more in Denmark.

E: How did you meet up with Søren?

H: In 1982 Bob Roberts visited Copenhagen. He started my back piece. During my sittings, I got a chance to spend time with Søren & Ole (at that time Søren was working for Ole in Nyhavn). They asked me to come work with them at Ole’s shop. After a while, I teamed-up with Søren and we opened Royal Tattoo in ‘87. Ole was okay with that. Søren and I still worked for Ole, taking turns to cover shifts in Ole´s shop. Then, we got too busy at Royal Tattoo. Ole got a new man, from then on, Soren and I worked in Helsingor. Helsingor is very close to Sweden. The ferry only takes fifteen minutes. A lot of Swedes visit our little old Town. So the first few years, most of our customers were from Sweden. Now, things have changed. Our customers have appointments and we have only a few walk-ins. The last 5 years Søren has been working in Hamburg, we are still partners though.

E: A few walk ins? When I was there, it seemed like I was doing a lot!

H: You were, but that’s during our busy season. Otherwise, it’s mostly by appointment, especially with the custom work.

E: You said you started off doing traditional work and now you prefer Japanese style. What made that progression take place? What inspired you to focus more on Japanese style?

H: I think, because before I came to the States, I saw photos of Ed Hardy’s work and Paul Jeffries and then Dutchman’s after I came over here. That inspired me, and I wanted to do that sort of big work. I think everybody was blown away with that easy, readable, bold work that suits the whole body and all that.

E: It’s easy to piece stuff together. It’s made for tattooing, like you start with an element and tie it all in.

H: Yeah, it never goes "out of fashion." It’s always so classic. Twenty years from now, it’s still going to look sharp, like traditional work.

E: Who’s working with you now?

H: A guy named Frank Rosenkilde, from Copenhagen, that I started out with twenty years ago. He was working next to the studio I started in.

E: You and Frank started out together on Istedgade. Can you give me more information about that time? Who apprenticed you?

H: In 1979 both Frank & I started in Istedgade, apprenticing under a guy named Tattoo Cay. At that time Cay ran the shop for Tattoo John. At first Cay started out with Frank. Then Frank had to join the military. Cay needed another man, that’s how I got my chance. Cay opened up one more shop and military Frank worked out of there.

E: You mean “Dr. Frank?”

H: (Laughing) Yeah, Dr. Frank, Brain Surgeon!

E: Go on…

H: So I was in the old shop and Frank was in the new one, we both worked for Cay for three years. Then I moved on. I went back and worked for the late Tattoo Ole in Nyhavn. His shop is still there. Now it’s the oldest running shop in the world.

E: Like musical chairs, but with tattoo artists. Who haven’t you worked with that you would like to?

H: There’s so many. So many. I feel very fortunate. I mean, I owe Paul Jeffries a lot, he seems like a hard guy, but he’s been correcting me a lot. I know he has. That’s been one of the best things, to work with him. He’s made me ready to work with a lot of other people.

E: Do you have guest artists scheduled to work with you at your studio?

H: Mike Rubendall from Da Vinci Tattoo New York, he was here last year too. In the end of November Jenny & Jim Rosal from the West Coast (Yakima, Washington) will visit. Later, the hard-working, half-Dane, good-looking, Erika Stanley will come back to visit Royal Tattoo.

E: Okay, okay now, that’s a bit much!

H: Okay, then. Next fall, Brett Schwindt from Smiling Buddha in Calgary, Canada will come with his wife, Mona, and their newborn son, Logan!

E: Would you like to extend an invitation to other artists to come and do guest spot at your studio?

H: Yes indeed! I would love to invite other artists to come and do guest spot - it is always interesting to meet and work with fellow artists - that way I get a kick of inspiration and build new relations - and friendships.

E: Do you plan on visiting other tattoo studios to do any guest spots?

H: Apart from conventions (Reno and New York 2001) the only plan for guest spots is to go to New York. In May, I’ll work with Frank Ramano and Mike Rubendall at Da Vinci Tattoo in Long Island.

E: Have you ever apprenticed anyone?

H: No. Never.

E: Would you want to?

H: At the moment, no.

E: It’s a lot of work.

H: It is a lot of work. I don’t feel like I have time. I feel like I’m spending all my time and energy to work on my clients and wouldn’t want the responsibility of a guy. To teach him everything.

E: I can’t wait to have that go to print, because every week, I have people hitting me up for an apprenticeship and they don’t realize the amount of time and energy that goes into teaching someone. It’s like giving them a full education.

H: Even when you have guys who are tattooing and still don’t know much, you have to follow them and hold their hand and do so many things. And nine times out of ten, it doesn’t work out. I would have to find the person that has the right balance with me to work well, for maybe a lifetime, and maybe that doesn’t exist. For me, I think the best thing is having guest artists. If they work out they can stay. If it doesn’t there’s tons of people out there. It’s all about finding the right chemistry and all that.

E: Chemistry means a lot. Especially in being creative. If one person’s negative, it can ruin all the creativity for everyone involved.

H: Yeah, or moody, so that’s why I think it’s important to find the right people to surround yourself with. If I had it my way, I’d love to find someone young and new and dedicated, maybe like I was and then I’d think about it.

E: If you could go back in time, would you change anything you have done?

H: No.

E: Then, you are fortunate and maybe that means you’ve done it the right way and for the right reasons.

H: I hope so.

E: So what was it like, back then, compared to now?

H: When I think back to when I started, I remember it as a completely different time. We were so young. The area where the tattoo shops were, was rough, the red light district. When we didn’t have any customers we would tattoo each other. On slow days, we would close the shop and go out for dinner. All of us from all the shops would get together and go out. I actually think about it as if we were one, big family. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older. It was just very different from now. Thinking about it, I’m happy to have experienced that time.

E: Back in the day… and night!

Henning Jorgensen is one of Europe’s best. If you would like to book an appointment, be patient. He’s booked months in advance and requires a deposit sent to him in advance. He doesn’t have time to waste.
He can be found at his studio:

Royal Tattoo
I L Tvedes Vej 3A
3000 Helsingor
Telephone: 49 20 27 70