Pioneer who brought Dublin’s tattooing scene into a new age

John Larkin: January 15th, 1929 - September 2nd, 2015

Johnny Eagle, tattooing pioneer. Photograph: Ulster Ink

Johnny Eagle, tattooing pioneer. Photograph: Ulster Ink

 

“Imagine heaven and hell are trains, smash them both together and colour it all in ink”. This was how one former employee of tattoo artist Johnny Eagle, who has died aged 86, described the Mint Studio in Henry Place in central Dublin.

The ancient art of the tattoo – drawing indelible designs on the skin – goes back to pre-Christian times.

Of late public tastes have been changing significantly, as numerous young people, many of them women, have joined sailors and bikers in wanting their skin inked.

When John Larkin, widely known in the trade as Johnny Eagle, opened his studio at Frenchman’s Lane near Busáras in Dublin in the 1950s, he brought tattooing into a new and professional age.

Good hygiene and innovative design, using quality materials and modern machinery to realise them, were the lessons he instilled into the young people he trained, many of whom are to the fore in the business today

Picture galleries

Ulster Ink

“Johnny was very old school. We used to make our own needles and our own ink. I used to dread someone saying ‘we’ve run out of red’.”

The world of theatre holds opportunities for tattoo artists. Every night Johnny Eagle drew freehand temporary tattoos for Liam Neeson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest staged in Dublin’s Gate Theatre in 1977. Later he came to know singer Shane McGowan, late of The Pogues.

A quiet and reserved man, he grew up in the north inner city, where he knew Brendan Behan, who was six years older.

Johnny Eagle also had a lifelong interest in writing, contributed articles to the Dublin evening newspapers, and wrote a play which was staged at the Peacock Theatre, according to his son, Johnny junior, who followed him into the tattoo business.

“You’d see him with a notebook, and a stub of pencil in his hand,” he recalled, after his father’s death. He wrote songs too. These works are not now available, probably because of the author’s use of pseudonyms and his predilection for privacy.

In the 1950s, Dublin’s polite society turned up its nose at people wearing tattoos. John Larkin, as he was known at home, did not speak of his work, and neighbours thought he drove a van for a living.

In the parlour

John Larkin is survived by his widow, Ellen ( née Mallon), his son, Johnny junior, and his daughters Ellen, Ann-Marie and Jacinta. Another daughter, Susan, predeceased him.