I wish I could describe Dublin’s tattoo shops as dusty backstreet parlours populated by burly ex-sailors and gangsters forming queues, with rusty needles picked up off the floor. But Dublin’s tattoo artists are a disarmingly friendly lot. Their shops are meticulously clean and, most shocking of all, family friendly. In high profile, celeb-favoured studios like Dublin Art Tattoo, through to smaller parlours like Golden Cat Tattoo on Fleet Street, where the buzz of the next person’s gun is so loud and close it might be inking your own shoulder, Dublin people are queuing up as eagerly as ever to get inked. Tattooing seems to go on oblivious to the economy; ink fades and needs reapplication with time, and there’s always a US tourist lurking at the door, looking for a holiday shamrock (oddly enough, every shop we visited had one such visitor, the true ‘bread-and-butter’ of a Temple Bar tattoo shop). The all-pervading Yank shamrocks illustrate just how tattoos are used to mark experiences and allegiances we’re proud of, evoking a clan mentality which seems to run in Irish blood. Tattoos still hold currency as an act of bravado, displaying something loved so dearly by the wearer it’s been gouged into their skin. If tattoos date, then really they’re only fulfilling their purpose of marking a specific time in the life of the wearer. The Dublin tattoo map now numbers around fifty shops, but still it retains a sense of close-knit community. Here we interview three tattoo artists at the heart of this circle, taking in the finer points of plagiarism, preconceptions, and the pain of a tattoo gun on the ribs.
GOLDEN CAT GALLERY AND STUDIO, Vicky
First off, how did you first get into tattooing?
When I was 17 I started with an apprenticeship, the usual way. I heard about it in school, one of the girls in my class came in and said she’d got an apprenticeship. I went into the shop, inquired about it and they asked me to draw a sketch, something spur of the moment, to see if I could work under pressure. Apprenticeships are much harder to come by now, there are so many people who want in, and only the best will end up succeeding at it. It takes three years, and a tonne of patience. You find out pretty fast if its not for you in that time, if you can’t keep up or you can’t take the pressure.
What would you say is the defining characteristic of a good tattooist?
Definitely patience. Patience and creativity. The creativity should be there already; you need to be a natural artist to be a tattoo artist, and 90% of the time its just a natural inclination. But most of all it takes patience.
Was it (or is it still) hard working in the tattoo business as a woman?
It can work to my advantage. It makes people more comfortable, say if they’re getting their tattoo somewhere more personal. People seem to think female tattooists pay a lot more attention to detail, and we tend to be more compassionate; we’ve had one or two burst into tears under the needle, and if you want to cry we’ll cry with you! Though for every one of those, there are types who come in thinking its far worse than it really is. They’re like, afterwards, ‘Is that it? That’s nuthin!’
How do you deal with requests for the same tattoos over and over?
Usually you’ll be able to change it a little bit. Though if they pick it out of a book, then its generally what they expect and you cant go deviating from it. People say ‘That’s what I like, just that’; you can’t really do your own spin on things. Often you can tell by the look in their eyes, when a customer likes a design. But then some people will come in with no idea what they want, you have to work to get out of their mind what they really want. They’ll have some vague idea what they’ll look like with a tattoo; you have to eliminate first off what they don’t like, just in case you get the wrong idea and give them the wrong design.
Tattooing seems almost like journalism in that respect, in that you’re as good as your last job.
You have to be consistently good. You might get a forgiving customer after one wrong job, but they’ll never come back to you again. It’s like finding a good dentist or a doctor; you go to a few, try them out, then you find a good one who does things the way you want. I’ve had customers come back to me over twenty years; now they’re bringing their eighteen year olds children in to get work done. I’ve done cover-ups and fixed tattoos for people too, but generally it’s not professional work I’m covering, it’ll have been someone trying to do it for themselves.
Do you see families with a tradition of tattooing?
I find a lot of mothers and daughters come in to get the same tattoo. Also a lot of fathers and sons getting matching tattoo, or kids brought in to watch their parents being tattooed. I’ve had people bringing in their elderly mothers to get their first tattoo. Once you get over that initial fear of what you don’t know, you start to see yourself covered in them. You feel a little bit braver.
Do you ask about the stories behind customers’ tattoos?
People will volunteer information. Its not really like Miami Ink, though. Its generally a whole lot tougher, you’d need to do a lot of video editing! Stories like ‘my brother got shot’ and that..
What would your average customer ask for?
Lately its names. Every year there’s something; one year it was Asian, the next it was stars. We don’t do as many tribal tattoos anymore. The average tattoo follows trends, ‘the Cheryl Cole‘ tattoo, for example (the X-factor judge’s notorious hand tattoo fades worse than almost any other tattoo, and has caused controversy with some artists refusing to do it outright). We’ll do it, but we warn people before that they’ll constantly have to re-do. I suppose people can throw their money in the Liffey if they want; when someone gets it in their head that they want something, it’s very hard to change their mind.
Have you done any Michael Jackson commemorative pieces?
No, though we’re both big fans in here, we’re dying to do them! I cant wait for the first to come in. I remember we did a lot of Bob Marleys, when he died. Tupacs, too.
Ever tattooed a person’s face?
Only once; a beauty spot. It was for a hairdresser who lives down the road from me, she really had to pressurize me to do it. I protested and protested. Its just too extreme. It would drive you bonkers later on and draw too much attention, just walking down the street with all these people pointing at you..
Ever had any really strange requests, or ones you were offended by and refused to do?
I could tell you loads of really strange requests I’ve refused. A classic example was an English guy who came in with a drawing of a pig. It was simple enough, a child’s sketch of a pig, and under it he wanted me to write ‘Dad’, because his dad was in the police. He thought his father would love it, but I said no.
DUBLIN ART TATTOO, Marco
How did you first get into tattooing?
I had an apprenticeship, starting out in Italy. I was interested in art, I saw tattooing and thought it looked beautiful, and I just took it from there. My first tattoo was a guitar on my leg as a teenager. I still play guitar to this day.
What’s your dream customer?
I like doing the classic styles of tattoo; Japanese style koi carp and Polynesian tribal art. They’re full-on jobs, usually covering lots of skin. I’m lucky in that I get to do what I’m interested in on a daily basis, people coming in for sleeves and projects that take several visits over time.
Coming from Italy, how did you go about establishing yourself in Dublin as a tattoo artist?
Its about working on what you’re good at and are interested in, and earning a reputation for that. There’s a kind of psychology to the job; you have to listen to the customer and try and get to know them very quickly to work out what they want. But ultimately its up to the artist to judge what looks right or wrong.
Do you buy into the idea of a Dublin tattoo community?
Not at all. I don’t think there is a tattoo ‘community’ as such, some small select group all hanging around together. There are the serious collectors, but its not about snobbery. Tattoos are for everyone. They’re an art, but they belong to the people wearing them. There are far more tattoos on Dublin streets right now, some bad and some good, but its something that’s always been around.
What do you make of the man who got his tattoo removed at the cost of the Health Service?
That’s ridiculous, I don’t understand why people end up getting artwork lasered off. Tattoos shouldn’t need to be removed; he should have made sure he got good tattoos in the first place.
Settle this: what’s the most painful place to get tattooed?
I would say the ribs, though it varies from person to person.
CONNECTED INK, Martin
So how did you first get into tattooing?
When I was 13, I saw a cousin of mine with a tribute tattoo for a friend who died in the army. It was the first time I had seen real artwork on skin; before that it was all sailor tattoos, hearts and roses and that. I started researching and I got my first tattoo (points to a skull on his shoulder). I started from home, tattooing my own legs. But I used to hang out with tattoo artists, they showed me how to use a tattoo gun and how to set up a station and make sure everything was sterilised and clean. My parents didn’t find out until I was sixteen; at that stage I had been tattooed about seven times. My dad was a bit shocked and my mom wouldn’t speak to me for a year, but they came around to it eventually.
Do you see tattooing as an art form, or as something separate?
I do see it as art. The reason I got into it was to do custom; the smaller bits are bread and butter, but I prefer it when someone just comes in and says ‘I’ve seen your work, I liked it, here’s a blank canvas..’
I’ve built up quite a good reputation around Dublin for my biomechanical and black and grey work. My biggest job has been full sleeves, a complete half chest and a leg sleeve, all solid tribal .It takes a lot of planning and drawing to make the tattoo sit, and make it work with the lines of the body. The whole thing took about 120 hours.
Do you see a change come over people once they are tattooed?
I think it changes people for the better. You’ll rarely find someone with only one tattoo. ‘Addiction’ might be too strong a word for what it is, but people, once they get a good piece done, and are happy with it, they love it and tend to come back.
Have you noticed a fixed point where tattooing in Ireland went overground?
I’ve seen it happen, I think its a lot to do with celebrities. David Beckham, for example… and we get lot of people in asking for Cheryl Cole’s hand tattoo. I wont do it, but I do think celebrities have opened tattooing up to a lot of people. The older generation have opened up much more to it too, just from talking to younger people. Working in Stephen’s Green, I tattooed a grandmother, a mother and a daughter all together. They each got a different flower done, but they wanted it from the same artist. It used to be more men than women, and now it seems to have gone the other way, probably 70% women. The ‘bread and butter’ tattoos are mostly shamrocks on tourists, stars, a lot of lettering and script, but I get a lot of people asking for crazy shit too, people getting the word ‘terror’ on their wrist to say ‘terror-wrist’. Or a hippo on their hip (grimaces).
Have you ever refused to tattoo a customer’s design?
I refuse an awful lot. I wont do boyfriend’s or girlfriend’s names; I’ll certainly do something that symbolises their relationship, but I don’t ever do names. A tattoo is for life, but with a relationship there’s no guarantee. And I wont do political tattoos either; tattooing and politics don’t go hand in hand. I wont do anything relating to bigotry or Nazism; they often get requested and I just say no.
It seems Dublin is full of hack tattoo artists. Do you get many cover-up requests?
I do a lot of cover work. You get people buying tattoo equipment on the internet with no idea how to set up and use it. There are so many people giving tattooing a bad name, these idiots going around ruining people. When I first started getting tattooed there were two shops in Dublin; now there are about fifty, and I’d say a very low proportion of the people tattooing in Dublin are actually trained.
Dublin tattoo shops seem to frequently change hands. Is there much rivalry between Dublin artists?
For the longest time, back when I worked in Wildcat at Stephen’s Green, we used to all hang out with the artists from Zulu and Dublin Art Tattoo. We’d exchange ideas, talk about how we could make the industry better. In Europe, in Germany especially, the shops wont even communicate with each other. I think Ireland is the exception in that respect. There’s definitely a tattoo community in Ireland; if you look at the likes of Ink Nation, a website kind of like Myspace for tattoo artists and fans, you’ll see a lot of Irish artists from around the country communicating with each other.
Tattooing becomes a kind of lifetime process…
To me, tattooing is a way of life. Its more than a job; its what I eat, breathe and sleep. When I leave here this evening, I’ll probably go and spend two hours talking to people about tattooing. I find I’m constantly looking out for inspiration, I normally walk around with a camera in my pocket. Last weekend we went to Prague and I photographed so many ornate buildings and statues and sculptures, wondering how I can incorporate that imagery into tattooing. I wont take on apprentices who aren’t heavily tattooed themselves; they’re not going to be passionate enough about it, if they won’t wear it themselves.
The most painful place to get inked?
From experience, its definitely the ribs. Its a lot more unpleasant than the calves or arms; the skin is stretched much thinner over the bones.
And finally.. do you think tattoos need to have a specific meaning, or can they just be decorative?
Generally its more about adornment. Like, why would you get your ears pierced? Because it looks good! If people think it looks good, it doesn’t have to have a sob story attached.
The Dublin Tattoo Convention 2009 - Will take place on the 6th, 7th & 8th of November 2009 at the Ballsbridge Hotel Dublin (www.d4hotels.ie) and will feature Tattoos, Piercing, Trade, Live music & DJ’s and also a full bar & restaurant.