'You have no idea what's going on beneath people's clothes'

 

You're now as likely to see a tattoo on a lawyer as on a salty sailor, and - costing €100 an hour to apply - body art rivals pricey jewellery as a status symbol. At a convention in Dublin last weekend, artists and enthusiasts celebrated their tattoos and told Tara Bradythe stories behind them

IT’S HALLOWEEN weekend, and the 8th International Dublin Tattoo Convention kicks off in a flurry of swirling polka dot skirts and glittering body piercings. The double bass on stage and steady sales of fabulous wasp-waisted dresses indicate the increasing crossover between this community and Dublin’s equally exploding subcultures of rockabilly and burlesque.

The assembled artists, from Ireland, the UK, America, Holland, Poland, Finland, Germany, Canada, Italy, Lithuania, Belgium, China and South Africa, provide breathtaking evidence of their craft in a buzz of needles.

This particular shindig, organised by Paddy O’Donohoe and the talented crew at Temple Bar’s Body Shock studio, is one of the biggest of its kind in Ireland but it’s far from unique. Early next year, Killybegs will host its second annual body art festival and the denizens of Cork can look forward to a Christmas tattoo show in Midleton in December. As recession bites, body art continues to thrive.

There are no major studies of the national incidence of tattoos but current estimates indicate between 24 per cent and 40 per cent of western Europeans under the age of 30 have gone under the needle.

And body art studios proliferate around our own cities. This is, perhaps, a revival rather than a revolution; historical sources indicate that our Celtic ancestry – in common with other pre-Christian north Europeans – were heavily tattooed.

The glamorous patrons attending the Dublin convention – variously adorned with symbols and images from Christianity, classic Hollywood, Buddhism, Japanese animation, Celtic lore and personal genealogy – don’t appear to be readying themselves for battle with flint axes any time soon. These are not the average parlour punters but the tattooed elect, a blossoming refinement built on aesthetic values.

Not so very long ago, their colourful markings might have been read as sinister evidence of some psychological trauma or a salty stint in the navy, a notion that prompts no little merriment among the assembled throng.

“The stuff some older people come out with is still amazing,” laughs Dublin artist Darren Brauders. “‘What’s your real job?’ Are you joking? I make a lot of money. Isn’t it possible that I’m a happy, well-adjusted person doing well out of something that he loves?”

The convention stands as proof that nowadays, tattoo parlours are no longer dank backstreet germ factories; they are gleaming art studios dotted around fashionable high streets and shopping centres.

The industry now provides primetime TV fodder as Miami Inkand draws from an increasingly mainstream, middle-class and female clientele; Samantha Cameron, daughter of a Baronet and wife of British prime minister David, sports a dolphin on her ankle; Hollywood starlets Emma Stone, Megan Fox and Angelina Jolie have dozens between them; even little Miley Cyrus has the word Love tattooed across her ear and at least two others the paparazzi would love to get a gander at.

“If anything, this is for people who have money,” says artist Áine Wall. “Tattoos are not cheap – the usual rate is about €100 an hour. So for many people, they’ve come to replace wearing expensive jewellery. Our clients come from all walks of life. We get lawyers, doctors, nurses and a lot of professionals. You have no idea what’s going on under their clothes. I know one lawyer who’s got a full bodysuit tattoo. You’d never think it about him at all. It’s all under the three-piece.”

Tattoos may now be commonplace around campuses and courtrooms but even these seasoned body-modifiers issue sensible warnings against the hasty tattoos of youthful folly.

“Almost everyone here has a few cover-ups,” says Colorado artist Rachel Schilling. “The older you are the better you know yourself and the better position you are in to make that decision. And the better chance you have of thinking it through and finding a good artist. I talk people out of bad ideas all the time. If you’re getting an image of your daughter or your mother done that’s fine. But I’ve done names of boyfriends and lovers on people and then had to cover them up six months later.”

“Pop culture can have a negative effect on tattoos,” adds the Dublin-based tattooist Karen Smith. “A lot of people who are aged 18 to 20 just rush into it. You need to sit down and think ‘will I want this in five or six years time?’ You have to get to know your interests and enthusiasms, instead of just looking towards your peers. You have to be able to say ‘now I am an individual, so I’d like to get a piece that is specifically for me’.”

MY TATTOOS

KAREN, DUBLIN

“My favourite tattoo would be my Visvavajra on my throat that I had done by Jack Mosher. I thought about it for two years before getting it done. It’s a double Visvavajra.

“It often takes the form of a thunderbolt or a diamond, anything that is unbreakable and indestructible. If you look at Buddhist art, you’ll see a lot of deities holding it.”

AINE, CO CLARE

“I love all my tattoos but the ones on the back of my legs are my favourites (inset left).

“I do a bit of Burlesque performing so they’re pin-up girls. One of them is trying to get into her corset. Like most people my weight goes up and down so they symbolise that ongoing struggle.”

FIONA, DUBLIN

“Mine is from a video game called Okami. She’s a kind of Geisha-angel figure. I am really interested in Japanese things. So it combines my interest in Japan with my interest in video games. I absolutely love it.”

RACHEL, COLORADO

“My favourite is Ganesh on my arm – he’s the remover of obstacles. He was done by a dear friend and this is a very good thing to have on your side.

“I’m a Taoist and Ganesh is a great wing man.”

LESTYN, LONDON

“When I was a kid I used to draw all over myself so I always knew I was going to get a tattoo.

“My head took eight hours but not all in one go. I just had my chin finished by a friend in Germany. I work with scarification so it’s not really a tattoo at all.

“I use a scalpel. People come from around the world and it costs a lot of money. I’ve just worked on a client who flew in from Korea to get his done.”

KENE, PORTLAND, OREGON

"This tattoo I'm getting is Shiva, lord of creation and destruction. It'll require about 80 hours to complete. I'm an artist and musician so it ties in with the creative and destructive elements that come with that. And it looks really cool."