Memories re-lived: tattoos, travel and the SS Rotterdam

Rebecca Rimmer Givens
Oct 8 · 7 min read

One of the spots on my Rotterdam must-see list this week was the SS Rotterdam.

Photo: Visit Holland.

After a 51-year life at sea, the SS Rotterdam now resides permanently at home in the Netherlands’ city, as a hotel and visitor attraction.

I came over to Rotterdam to explore the tattoo ‘scene’ here and have been publishing my interviews with tattooists over the past few days. As I have been geeking out about artists and museums, my mum (and fellow traveller) has been obsessing over immersing herself in Rotterdam’s shipping history and culture. Specifically, she was desperate to set foot again on this former ocean liner.

She worked as a shop girl on the SS Rotterdam (on and off) from 1980–1985 and has always reflected back on it as the greatest (and most fun) time of her life. I was only ever going to understand her life-long passion and this ship’s former glory by stepping onto the decks myself.

My mum by the SS Rotterdam, 1980.

SS Rotterdam tours start from €12.50 and you’re given an audio guide to listen to whilst walking around. My ears absorbed information for just one minute before I took my headphones out to discover an amazing resource of information and enthusiasm…

Round each corner are tour volunteers who, like my mum, are cruise fanatics and ex-shipmen and women who also worked on-board the SS Rotterdam when she sailed. Most importantly, they know its history better than anyone else.

Photo: Rebecca Rimmer.

We spoke to three or four wonderfully passionate people as we walked around the ship and I was given an insight into just how many have a deep and abiding love for the SS Rotterdam. I listened with wide eyes to one retired gentleman as he told tale after tale — from seeing the world to eventually meeting his now wife on-board this life-changing ship.

Another man narrated a dramatic story of the time she lost her anchors in the Caribbean. They were quickly re-crafted and flown over… not that the passengers minded — sipping cocktails and floating aimlessly in the middle of the ocean for three days came with no complaints. Those who travelled on the SS Rotterdam believed that life was too short to do anything but relax and enjoy yourself.

Photo: Rebecca Rimmer.

As the tour continued, I smiled at the rich nostalgia and vivid memories that were still alive on-board this ship — in the form of human beings who still feel today such a passion for the SS Rotterdam that they re-live those good times by dedicating hours to standing on a motionless deck directing visitors.

One guide, Bert, told me how everyone originally gave up on the SS Rotterdam — when she was no longer able to sail, many thought her days had come to an end and they prepared to rip out her interior. Thanks goodness she was saved from a watery grave and transformed into a working hotel.

Photo: Rebecca Rimmer.

Seeing the look on my mother’s face as she walked again down these hallways, stepped over dance-floor tiles that she’d spent many a night on, it was obvious why this ship had eventually been saved — too many people cared about her — my mum and Bert included.

Visitors are now attracted to explore her in the present because of her rich past, and I couldn’t help but make the same reflection myself during this trip about tattooing. Some of the artists I have met this week celebrate tattoos in their traditional form and remember the ways in which many believe tattoos have entered Europe in the modern day, via sailors.

My anchor tattoo, created by artist Moira Ramone, Rotterdam.

Following the invention of the tattoo machine in 1891, many believe that sailors were amongst the first to get tattooed, having been inspired by travel to places like the South Pacific, where tattooing has been part of tribal culture for thousands of years.

Ships don’t just give us access to other countries and continents, but the opportunity to discover new worlds and bring back the things that inspire us more. Rotterdam’s Maritime Museum is filled with representations of this age of discovery — journals, paintings and diaries by the likes of illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian and historian Jan Huygen Van Linschoten, who were motivated to write books and create artworks based on that which they saw during their expeditions. Sailors brought us tattooing and so much more.

A Sailor’s Desire by Reimond Kimpe, 1943, Maritime Museum, Rotterdam. Photo: Rebecca Rimmer.

In the UK and America, tattoo parlours were often located at harbours, and as we moved into the 20th century, tattoos became associated with sailors and nautical imagery such as ships and anchors. By the 1960s traditional tattoos had become more than something just for sailors, but much of the sailing imagery is still popular today — the symbols and techniques of traditional tattooing have stood the test of time.

Maritime Museum, Rotterdam. Photo: Rebecca Rimmer.

Many tattooists today look back on this evolution of tattooing with deep respect and nostalgia, in the same way that the ex-shipmates of the SS Rotterdam reflect on its interesting history. Like the chapters of nautical history on display in the museums around Rotterdam today, this period of my own mother’s life introduced her to new places, people, cultures, foods and more. So much so that she returns to Rotterdam to re-live these great episodes of her past. It’s no wonder that sailors walked onto land after years of discovery and desired to ink something onto their skin as a reminder.

My time on the SS Rotterdam, and in the city itself, has reminded me of a world in which so much had not yet been discovered. Rare exotic plants and creatures were being seen and documented for the first time, in an era when history and culture was gathered in an organic, non-digital way. Visiting the SS Rotterdam and the Maritime Museum is about much more than being interested in ships — it’s a rejoicing of art, travel, culture, discovery and craftsmanship.

Illustrations by Maria Sibylla Merian, Maritime Museum, Rotterdam. Photo: Rebecca Rimmer.

When I interviewed tattooer Spaceman just two days earlier, he’d said to me: “I am not an artist, I am a craftsman.” In fact, all of the tattoo artists I have spoken to in Rotterdam, despite having completely different styles and approaches to their work, have in common a desire to craft the very best possible tattoo for their customer, one that will stand the test of time. These were the intentions of the traditional tattoo masters — life-long quality is the core mission of any ‘traditional tattoo’.

As I walk through the SS Rotterdam with my mum, she runs her hands over each wall, chair, table… “they feel exactly the same as they did 37 years ago,” she reflects. Leather seats that she perched upon in 1980 look a year old. Whilst some elements of the ship have been, and are being, restored, others have been created with such craftsmanship that they needn’t be re-worked.

Travelling artists, ship-builders or tattoo-makers, there’s something about Rotterdam that encourages the people within it to craft, to create, to make better.

Art by Georg Eberhard Rumphius, Maritime Museum, Rotterdam. Photo: Rebecca Rimmer.

But I think my favourite story of the day was from a man — whose name I did not pry for — who has spent his entire life on cruise ships, and a huge percentage of it on the SS Rotterdam. Even though he is now retired, he spends as much time as he can as a paying customer on some of the world’s best cruise liners. “Doesn’t that cost a lot of money?” asked my mum. “Yes, but you can’t take it with you, can you,” he laughed.

This ‘live for the moment’ attitude is perhaps the best way I can describe the sense of Rotterdam. The city’s vibe is laid-back but filled of spontaneous opportunity. Wall art and neon signs spread throughout encourage reflection and contemplation — the words BREATHE, WALK, DIE are written above the buildings as you enter the museum district.

This need to philosophise and seize the day is in fact one of the reasons why I was drawn to tattoos. You can’t enjoy your memories once you’re gone so you may as well make the most of them while you can — whether that’s re-visiting them in person, in your mind or on your skin.

Exploring Rotterdam with my mum will stay with me forever.

The above article was written and first published in June 2017 for Visit Holland.

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