Tattoo culture is now part of the mainstream, with more people than ever getting inked. Our writer spends a day in a Dublin parlour to find out how attitudes are changing before jumping into the chair himself...
It was the pain that surprised me the most. Lots of my friends with tattoos all said the same thing — that the pain isn’t that big of a deal. “Just grit your teeth and you’ll be fine. Sure some people even fall asleep on the table,” said one.
Well, I can tell you that I was not one of those people. Not only did I not fall asleep, it was only through sheer willpower that I didn’t leave the chair after 10 minutes. Only the thought of wandering around for the rest of my life with a half-done tattoo stopped me.
My first tattoo took three and a half hours to complete, and I can honestly say that it was one of the toughest experiences of my life. Driving home afterwards, I was shocked at how I felt. Completely drained, in a way I’d never experienced before. Happy, but feeling a little like I’d been in a car crash.
“I’m never doing this again,” I thought, but then something strange happened. Over the course of a few days, the tattoo healed and started to look good, and the pain disappeared. The idea of getting more stopped seeming so strange.
Fast forward a few months and an email from my editor lands in my inbox. “Do you have any interest in tattoos?” And that’s how I find myself lying down on a highly sanitised leather couch at The Ink Factory on Wellington Quay in Dublin, gritting my teeth and getting ready to do it again.
But wait, let’s go back. How does a man in his mid-40s end up in a tattoo parlour for the first time in the first place? Surely, getting inked is something only for the young and hip? Am I having a mid-life crisis? Well, maybe, but also maybe not. Because unless you haven’t noticed, tattoos and tattoo culture are having a bit of a moment.
When I was a kid in the 1980s and 1990s, getting a tattoo was something people only did in prison, or possibly at sea if they worked in the Merchant Navy. But slowly getting pictures, words and design work engraved on your skin has gone mainstream. Look around any Irish street in summer and you’ll see a lot — possibly even most — of those walking by will have some ink on display, peaking out of short-sleeved shirts or blouses or on their exposed legs.
My first clue something was changing in attitudes to tattoos took place when my son was born 12 years ago and his grandmother went out and got his name inked on her wrist. “Why did you do that?” we asked. “I wanted to have him close to me for ever, and now I do,” she said.
And therein lies the rub. Getting a tattoo is a highly personal thing. Every piece of ink is different and each person’s reasons for getting a tattoo is different. The one thing they all have in common is that they have special meaning for that person.
People get them to celebrate the birth of a child, the death of a parent or sibling, to commemorate the life of a pet, or maybe to celebrate their love for a particular band. They do it for religious reasons, or to symbolise a battle they may have with addiction, or for mental health reasons. People in the trade often say there are as many motivations as there are examples.
For 18-year-old Megan Munnelly from Ashbourne, Co Meath, getting inked is about preserving her love of video games and, in particular, The Legend of Zelda. On the day I’m in to get my tattoo done, it’s her birthday, and she’s already in the chair. Her artist, Dean McCann, is halfway through her new artwork. It’s colourful and, at first, I can’t make out what it is.
“I’m getting Terrako on my arm. He’s a little robot that looks a little like an egg with legs, and I’m getting him in a bed of flowers. It might seem odd to some people but he’s a very big ‘comfort character’ for me. Tattoos are a very subjective thing. This character means a lot to me, so I don’t really care what other people think about me getting a video-game character done,” she says.
“The persona of this character means a lot to me, his role in the game and what he signifies. Whenever I’m sad, I listen to the music that plays when he’s present in the game, or I watch cutscenes from the game. I love him and wanted to commemorate that.”
For Munnelly, the fact that her chosen art is a little bit unusual is more than half the appeal, and she spent more than two years planning what to get.
“People may laugh or wonder ‘what is that?’ and ‘why did you get that on your arm?’ but that really just gives me an opportunity to talk about what it is and what it means to me. My dad is a bit squeamish about tattoos so he doesn’t really like talking about it, but my mam just feels that I’m 18 and I can do what I want. As long as I’m happy, she’s happy,” she says. “I won’t be thrown out of the house anyway,” she jokes.
Like many people who have gotten ink done, Munnelly can’t wait to get more. Even while she’s in the chair, she’s already planning her next tattoo. “I’m 100pc coming back for more. This is just the start. For me, this is about expressing who I am as a person. They’re art, and the world should have more art in it.”
When it comes to potential tattoo regret — tattoos can be removed by laser but it’s painful, expensive and takes a lot of time — Munnelly is unconvinced it’ll be an issue.
“I’ve loved Zelda since I was four, and I don’t think that’s going to wear off anytime soon. It’s not like getting a boyfriend’s name tattooed on you. Even if I don’t feel the same way in 20 years’ time about Terrako, at least it will stand as a memento from my youth and how I felt then.”
Also present in the tattoo parlour today is Gerry Doyle, a 55-year-old from Dublin, getting his first tattoo. So what’s a sensible, grown man with adult children of his own doing getting a tattoo?
“I don’t know,” he laughs. “It’s just something that I’ve been feeling like it’s what I want to do. I was on holiday in Portugal recently and the amount of people I saw with great tattoos was amazing. It got me thinking, and I just thought, ‘Why not?’”
“My kids have been slagging me off about it — I have twins aged 24 — and they’re outraged that I might get a tattoo before they do. So yes, I’ve beaten them to it.”
Doyle has opted for a vertical line of script in the ancient Irish Ogham language on his left inside forearm. It’s striking and distinctive and, as first tattoos go, it’s quite prominent. It’ll be clearly visible whenever he wears a T-shirt or a short-sleeved shirt.
“It’s lettering — a series of letters from the names of people important to me. It has ‘I’ for my wife Ingrid, ‘G’ for Josh because there’s no ‘J’ in Ogham, ‘H’ for my daughter Hannah, ‘S’ for Sally and ‘E’ for Ellen. I’m very happy with it.”
For Doyle, the pain wasn’t so bad, but it still wasn’t nothing. “When it started, I was a bit shocked and wondered ‘what am I doing?’ but then it settled into being more uncomfortable than anything else. It feels a little like giving blood, like a constant pinching sensation,” he says. “You get over it pretty quickly.”
Twentysomethings Megan Swan and Aileen Heatherington are both from Swords, Co Dublin, and have “loads of tattoos”, but on this day, they’re getting something unusual done together.
“We’re getting matching tattoos on our shoulder blades because we work together as swimming coaches and so we’re getting ‘just keep swimming’ in lettering with a little wave image. I’ve been swimming since I was three years old, and this is a bonding thing for us as we’re close friends,” says Swan. “It’s not like we’re getting each other’s names. It’s more about commemorating a time and place in our lives.”
So, what has happened to bring tattoo culture back into focus? Undoubtedly the rise of celebrity culture and social media has a lot to do with it. Popular culture is full of images of tattooed sporting and music stars, from David Beckham to Brad Pitt and Lady Gaga. Many Olympians commemorate getting to the Olympic Games with a tattoo of the interlocking rings logo. Singer Ariana Grande is known to have around 55 tattoos, and when it comes to musicians in general, it would be easier to list those who don’t have a tattoo than those who do. So, it comes as no surprise that the general public has taken to tattoo culture just as much as the people they see in music videos and on sports fields.
On the day that I spend at The Ink Factory, the place is hopping. Work is being done two doors up to extend the Wellington Quay premises. The owners also have another branch around the corner on Parliament St, with further expansion plans in the pipeline. It’s fair to say we’re in the middle of a tattoo boom, but according to 37-year-old tattoo artist McCann from Finglas, more people than ever want work done.
“Attitudes to tattoo art in Ireland have completely changed over the last 20 years, and so has the trade. In the past, you’d walk into a tattoo shop and pick a design out of a book and leave with basically the same tattoo as lots of other people, but today, a good tattoo parlour should work with you to do something original. It should be a collaborative experience,” he says.
“It shouldn’t be just design by numbers — it should be about art and expression and the individual, and this is an affordable and accessible form of art. You don’t need to have tonnes of money, and the most amazing tattoos can be small and subtle. They don’t have to be big and showy.”
McCann is a tall man and he’s heavily covered in tattoos themed around super heroes and video-game art. He got his first tattoo when he was 15 and let a friend of his brother attempt to tattoo a nautical star with his new tattoo machine. His parents were not impressed.
“They went mental, but, over the years, they’ve come around to seeing the art and expression within what I do. This is a career for me and I’ll be doing it until I’m old. Right now, demand is huge, and I think a lot of it comes from people wanting to live life a bit more intensely. Perhaps it’s a post-Covid thing?”
For 33-year-old Francisco Fagner Cavalcante from Brazil, being a tattoo artist wasn’t his first career choice. He studied biology at university but says he was always more interested in drawing. Today, he works at The Ink Factory, and has been tattooing for almost eight years.
“I started as a kid, doodling and drawing every day. I love art and it’s always been part of my life. It was natural for me to draw and I got my first tattoo quite young — a turtle on my calf. It was the worst place for a first tattoo because it hurt so much, but I caught the bug, and my girlfriend at the time let me practise tattooing on her and I was hooked,” he says.
“Confidence is the most important thing. If you know how to draw, you are already part of the way there, but drawing on skin is something different. You can’t be nervous.”
Like a lot of tattoo artists, Cavalcante has strong opinions on the topic of copying. He won’t reproduce another artist’s work, something that can be tricky to handle because a lot of people go to tattoo parlours with a picture of someone else’s tattoo, asking for the same thing.
“I’m an artist as well as a tattoo artist, so I’m mostly interested in doing original work. There’s nothing wrong with copying a picture, but it’s not my thing. So, I will work with the person and try to come up with something original and something that will be unique for them,” he says.
On the subject of tattooing faces and hands, Cavalcante says that, unlike some artists, he will do it, but not without sitting down and having a long conversation with the customer about what it can mean and the impact it can have on their life.
He is covered in ink and has artwork extending up his neck and on his hands — the places where they can’t be hidden by a shirt or work uniform — but as someone who works as a tattoo artist, this isn’t a problem.
“It’s part of the artist’s job to explain that getting tattoos on your neck or face is a big deal. Does the client really know what they’re asking for? What is their job, for example? Is it going to cause problems for them?” he says.
It’s one thing, he explains, to have facial tattoos and be a professional musician, artist or maybe a chef, and quite a different thing to work in an office or a customer-facing role in business.
“Some people are intimidated or judgemental about such things, and that’s just a fact. I had one guy who came in looking for a neck tattoo as his first piece and I didn’t do it because I just didn’t think he really understood what he was asking for,” says Cavalcante.
“It’s better to start small with something you really like, located somewhere that you can easily live with it. If you find you really like it, build from there.”
And with that, there’s nothing left to do but climb into the chair myself. The idea this time is simple. Unlike the giant head of a Buddhist god I previously got tattooed on my leg, I want something simple and subtle.
Crucially, I also do not want it to take as long as the last one. So, what do I get? After thinking about it and pondering for a while, I go for a scientific diagram of the formula for serotonin, the so-called mood-regulating chemical created in the body.
Why? I’m not saying. That’s personal.