Why tattoos are still as popular as ever in Northern Ireland

Riley tattooing a clinet at Belfast Skinworks, Tattoo and Piercing
Riley tattooing a clinet at Belfast Skinworks, Tattoo and Piercing
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Whether you love tattoos or believe they should be kept at arm’s length, Helen McGurk discovers that inkings are as popular as ever here in Northern Ireland

Time was, tattoos were the preserve of hard nuts, don’t-mess-with-me sorts, with a spider’s web (meant to symbolise time in prison) inked on the neck, teardrops below the eye and the words ‘Love’ and ‘Hate’ adorning well-used knuckles.

But these days they are everywhere, percolating through all layers of society, as easily found beneath a well-tailored shirt as a tracksuit.

The recent good weather afforded this (untattooed) reporter a glimpse of Ulster’s tats; men in shorts with their ‘taps aff’ have them; women in floaty dresses have them, even little kids have stick-on, pretend ones.

I witnessed a mind-boggling array of designs from Celtic bands to whole arms covered in tattoos (a sleeve) and ‘tramp stamps’ (those on the small of the lower back), to dogs, cats, swallows, hearts, a woman cheekily reclining in a martini glass; from the sprawling to the subtle, the cryptic to the crude, they are all there.

There are whole websites now dedicated to terrible tattoos - ones that have been spelt incorrectly or daft motivational sayings in Chinese that don’t mean anything.

Of course, tattoos sometimes go wrong, either due to incapable inskmiths or ill-judged designs, whether that be a picture of Keith Chegwin on your back or the impulsive engraving of a beloved’s name, which can only be resolved by laser treatment or expensive cover-up work once the relationship has ended.

Celebs, of course, are all over tattoos. David Beckham has that winged angel, his son’s name and Victoria (in Hindi, spelled wrongly). Robbie Williams has several, including a lion, his grandad’s name and a Maori tribal piece on his shoulder. Angelina Jolie has the co-ordinates of her children’s birthplaces, “Know your rights” in English and Latin, a tiger, tonnes of quotations and a black cross. Wayne Rooney has Just Enough Education to Perform (the title of a Stereophonics album), his wife Coleen’s name and a Celtic motif on his right arm, a flag of St George and “English and Proud” on his left, and a pair of clasped palms and angel wings across his back.

Even David Cameron’s wife, Samantha, has one (a dolphin, just below the ankle).

But even celebs get it wrong. Pop star Ariana Grande’s attempt to ink an ode to her hit single 7 Rings backfired after social media quickly chimed in to tell her the characters actually translated to shichirin: a small charcoal grill.

Tattoo-based reality TV has become a crammed sub-genre with the cameras following drunken teens as they stumble into a tattoo parlour on the Costas for ill-advised inkings on their backsides.

Donal Kelly who runs Belfast City Skinworks, Tattoo and Piercing Studio, has had to rectify plenty of blunders, especially after the summer holidays.

‘‘We’re heading to that season now. It’s always around September and October that we’ll get the guys coming in with the different names tattooed on their backsides. We had one guy who had the Tesco logo tattooed on his backside because he lost a bet on a stag night.’’

Donal has been in the industry for a quarter of a century and believes here, in Northern Ireland, our appetite for tattoos is as strong as ever - and it’s not just young people who want them.

‘‘We have people well into their eighties coming in. A few years ago David Dimbleby got a scorpion tattooed on his back when he was 75 and literally after that all these older clients stared coming in.

‘‘They usually want a design that marks a particular moment in their lives - either they’ve hit a milestone birthday or it’s been on their bucket list or they are doing it as a bonding gesture with their grandkids, we do that quite a bit.’’

Years ago tattoo parlours could be found in back alleys or on the outskirts of town, but over the years they have opened up on high streets and town centres, and business is certainly booming for Donal and his crew of six tattooists, but he does fret at how ‘trendy’ the industry is becoming, blaming the influence of online media, instagram and Facebook and social influencers.

‘‘It’s not just tattooing, everyone needs to have these trainers, everyone needs to have this haircut - if you want to look like the latest person from Love Island or Geordie Shore, then woe betide you if you try and get an original tattoo, just go for the rehashed version of whatever is popular at the minute.’’

So does Donal have any tattooing pet hates?

‘‘Most tattooist would try to advise people away from a lot of script. I suppose it would be one the pet peeves among a lot of tattoo artists; they spend their lives drawing pictures and what we would say is that a picture speaks a thousand words- and there lies the ethos that is a tattoo - if you get the content right, if you get the storyboard of your design 100 per cent, it’ll tell a story far wider than the latest fridge magnet statement that you want tattooed on you.’’

People can spend a huge amount of money and time on tattoos.

‘‘Once you get in to trying to get your body covered, it can be a labour of love - it’s very much a hobby, people are in regularly, at least once a month, maybe every six weeks.

‘‘If you were doing a back piece, for example, there could be a year’s work in that.’’

And if you are wondering if it is painful, then the answer, according to Donal is a resounding ‘yes’.

‘‘It is definitely painful - there are places where it hurts less, but every tattoo is going to hurt a little bit - but it’s not that painful that you are not going to come back for your next sitting. We try and provide an environment where people feel comfortable, where they are able to relax and with proper care and due diligence, making sure that you are not overworking the skin and you’re not heavy-handed.

‘‘The process of being tattooed now, compared to in the eighties or nineties is a very, very different thing. There’s a lot more women tattooing now, which is good because they, inevitably, are a lot lighter-handed - but that’s not to say that the guys who are tattooing now are also doing more gentle, photorealistic work, which takes a much gentler hand.’’

Some tattoos are beautiful, timeless, well-executed, interesting and affective.. Some are poor, shoddy, badly done and ill-conceived, so what should people do to avoid the latter?

“Best advice would be check as many studios as possible. We get so many people coming in here to get a cover-up done or to get laser - because they literally went in to the very first place, sat down and got tattooed. You wouldn’t buy a pair of jeans from the first shop you walk into, you shop around. The same goes for tattoos,’’ said Donal.