It seems like if you blink in Dublin today, a tattoo studio, burrito establishment, or coffee shop opens before your eyes. While tattoos are very much in fashion at the moment, tattoo artists have been working in Dublin city for more than a century.
Yet amidst all of the new tattoo-shop signage appearing across the city on both sides of the Liffey, it is a ghost sign on Capel Street that tells the most important part of the story, marking the location of the famous Johnny Eagle’s tattoo studio.
Johnny Eagle was not the first tattoo artist to work in Dublin, but he would become synonymous with the industry, opening a number of tattoo studios here from the late 1940s onwards.
Curious journalists wondered if such an industry could prosper here; when Michael Viney of the Irish Times interviewed him in 1962, Viney reported that “there are some 200 tattooists in Britain, one in Ulster, and Johnny as far as he knows has the Republic to himself”.
Johnny Eagle was born John Larkin in January 1929, a product of Dublin’s north inner-city. Even then some Dubliners were sporting tattoos, with the Evening Herald reporting in the early 1930s that something “formerly patronised only by sailors” had gained popularity in Britain, with returning Irish workers sporting harps, swallows and other popular designs.
Eagle’s first studio opened at the curiously named Frenchman’s Lane, before moving around the city to O’Connell Street, Gardiner Street, Capel Street, and Henry Place. When interviewed about his craft in the early 1960s, Eagle insisted his father had tattooed before him, and that his sons were following him into that tradition.
Larkin kept his work private, though, with a 2015 obituary in the Irish Times noting that “John Larkin, as he was known at home, did not speak of his work, and neighbours thought he drove a van for a living”.
Journalists never really knew what to expect when they met a man widely labelled “Ireland’s first tattoo artist”. A journalist from the Irish Examiner wrote, “I imagined Johnny Eagle to be something of an old salt, scarred, dark-skinned, slightly sinister, but he was quite a surprise. Comparatively young, sprucely dressed, sporting masses of dark brilliantined hair, he had the typical Dublin humour of one born and bred in the heart of the city.”
There had been some “tattooists” advertising their skills in the Dublin press in the very early twentieth century, in many cases English ones passing through the city or located here for brief periods. Eagle, a born-and-bred Dubliner, was something entirely different.
While the occasional journalist wandered into a tattoo studio for a look at Eagle and other artists first-hand, other public voices were quite content to condemn from afar. A Dublin doctor warned in the 1970s that “young people get tattooed as an aggressive gesture against society. The danger is that tattooing will help them remain disaffected and aggressive about society.”
Certainly, the Irish were slower to take to tattoos than most of their European brethren, though in other places tattoos had gained greater social acceptance owing to the class of people sporting them historically.
Britain’s King Edward VI, Denmark’s King Frederick IX and even Nicholas II of the Russian Empire, who was destined to meet his end with the Bolshevik revolution, all sported tattoos in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Among the first Irishmen to sport tattoos were soldiers of both the Union and Confederate armies of the American Civil War. Damien Shields, a historian of Irish participation in that conflict, has discovered via archival materials that of the 319 Irishmen who enlisted in the U.S Navy from New York in July 1863, more than 30 had tattoos – with the designs noted by the authorities. They ranged from anchors to stars, and from regimental standards to crucifixes – all still popular today.
While European monarchs had traditionally tattooed their own family insignias upon their bodies, it seems Dubliners in the 1960s and ‘70s sought the names of loved ones, something Eagle and other artists lamented.
“I always warn them before they get a bird’s name put on, but they don’t listen,” he told one journalist, who also interviewed a young customer who had the name “Grace” tattooed on his left arm: “Soon afterwards, they broke up, and he started going with a girl named Mary. So Mary went on his right arm and roses blotted out Grace. But now he is back with Grace, Mary is covered with roses, and he swears that he will never put another woman’s name on his body.”
Today, Dublin is home to dozens of tattoo studios, but can they be sustained into the future? A recent survey on the neighbouring island estimated that one in five people in the UK are tattooed, with that figure rising to one in three in young adults.
In the United States, the tattoo industry is the sixth fastest-growing retail business across the country, with the number of young adults tattooed exceeding the numbers from the UK. Also growing rapidly is the tattoo-removal industry, which is indicative of the fact that as more and more people get tattooed, there will be increasing numbers of people who regret the decision.
In many ways, tattoos appear to be a global trend that will not slow down any time soon. While Johnny Eagle’s studio may be no more, there are many following in his footsteps in the Dublin of 2017.