Lorcan, a 26-year-old tattoo artist from Leitir Mealláin’ talks to Julia Monard about life as a tattooist in Galway City and tattooing as Gaeilge.
Photos and Words: Julia Monard
How did you get into tattooing?
I’ve been buying tattoo magazines since I was ten or 11 – it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I went to college to do Bio Forensics, but just didn’t find it interesting. The biology side of it was, because I got to draw, but I’m quite sociable and I’d go mad if I had to work in a lab. Nobody in my immediate family is tattooed – not a single person. Some of my cousins are now, because I’ve tattooed them. The only person in my family that had tattoos was my grandad’s brother, who had swallows on his hands. In the 50s, a lot of the men who immigrated to England from Connemara had swallows tattooed on their hands. I took part in a BBC documentary (An Focal Scoir) on tattooing through Irish, with the documentary shot completely in Irish. There was a camera in my face for two hours while I was tattooing my friend. Every time they’d ask a question, I’d go a bit heavier on him with the needle.
How would you describe your life as a tattooist?
Tattooing is everything to me; it’s a chance not to live mundanely. We still do five days a week, long days, but every single day is different, every single customer is different. I don’t know what your skin is going to be like until I put the needle to it. Your skin might look good, but it could be terrible to work with from a tattooist’s perspective. I might have to struggle through that tattoo, but it still needs to look great. Every customer is a completely different challenge; it keeps you on your toes, keeps you interested. If you ever get bored of tattooing, it’s not something you should continue to do.
What is the most exciting bit about it for you?
The first line. When the customer comes in and they’ve given you a design that won’t work, but you do your own thing with it and they really like it – that’s cool. I get a little buzz from that. Or when a tattooist that you respect admires your work – that’s great.
How would you describe the people who come to you to get tattooed?
A lot of people don’t really know what they want; you have to nudge them in the right direction. Some might have a vague idea, then you need to bring them down the right path to where it will work from a technical and aesthetic sense. People seem to want more meaning with their tattoos now; they won’t just get a tattoo for the fun of it, which is fine. I have around 80 tattoos and four have meaning. I forget I have them until I look at them. I forget that I have the back of my head tattooed until I catch people looking at them. Tattoos don’t have to have meaning – they can just be for aesthetics. But if they do have a meaning, even better.
How has tattooing changed in recent years?
Even in the short amount of time that I’ve been working with tattoos, more people are now expecting custom tattoos. We do a lot of Pinterest-inspired tattoos, and people are also coming in with a design and asking for our input into it, which is nice. People are also becoming more educated and looking for a specific tattooist in a shop because they’ve done their research. When I first started getting tattooed, there was nobody else as heavily tattooed as I am back home. Every time I go home now, they’re asking me to tattoo them. People my age, even younger and slightly older, they’re really accepting now. The older generation, not so much.
“I get used as a spellchecker for any Irish tattoos that come into the shop now. People come in with google translated Irish tattoos and they’re gibberish!”
What is the career of a tattoo artist?
You have to live a certain way for a few years – working for free in your apprenticeship, working really long hours. You’re hunched over a lot; it’s bad for your back, and you get callouses all over your hands. But it gives you a job where you get to be creative every day. It’s a three-year apprenticeship normally – it can be quicker or slower depending on the person. It’s only when the person who’s teaching you deems that you’re ready, that you can start tattooing. The travel aspect is cool; you can go anywhere, doing guest spots in shops around the world. Next year, I’m planning to go interrailing and hope to visit ten different shops around Europe.
What would you like to see happening with regards to the tattooing community throughout 2020?
There could be pop-up shops, bringing different tattooists from all the different shops in the city and to create a big charity event where you focus on designs based around Galway culture. As tattoo artists, we’re all fairly close-knit in Galway, it’s not like other cities. There are only ten to 12 shops in Galway, and we all know each other. It would bring Galway’s tattooing scene, which is pretty strong anyway, to a wider audience, which would be great.
What would you like to see happening in 2020?
Greater inclusion of tattooists in the arts scene in Galway. Galway is known as the arts city in Ireland, but I don’t think tattooing as an art form is included enough. We’re left on the fringes a lot of the time, but tattooing is an art form, and many tattooists have an artistic background. I paint with tattooing – I tattoo as if I were doing a watercolour; it spreads the same way.
How can a tattoo change a person?
A lot of people get them for memorials. When they do that, I try to steer them away from getting dates of death. The first thing I say to someone when they want to get a memorial tattoo is ‘What’s the first thing you think of when you think of that person?’ When my granny died, I got a pair of Hawaiian shorts with her name above them tattooed on my ankle, because she was really eccentric and always wore shorts. I think that’s a nicer way of doing it. Rather than getting something that reminds you of the day they died, you should get something that makes you happy. That can change people, make them more confident. Compared to how confident I was ten years ago when I first started getting tattooed, I am a completely different person now. It really brings you out of your shell.
What is your Galway story?
I was born in London in ’92. Both of my parents are from Connemara; we lived in a council estate in South London. Mom’s a nurse, dad’s a truck driver. They just decided they wanted to bring us up in Connemara, so we moved over in ’99, and went straight into primary school. I couldn’t speak Irish and none of my classmates could speak English, so it was a bit of a culture shock. There were only white people around, which was weird for me. It took me two years to learn Irish, then I started attending courses to learn Irish and as a teenager, I ended up teaching Irish to kids who’d come from all around the country. I get used as a spellchecker for any Irish tattoos that come into the shop now. People come in with google translated Irish tattoos and they’re gibberish!
What was it like growing up in Connemara?
It’s a nice place to grow up. It’s a bit depressing in the winter; it’s wet and rainy, but it’s a beautiful place. I will probably settle there eventually, but for now, I’ve got way too much traveling to do. I am proud to be able to speak Irish; I speak it with my mom all the time. Tourists love the fact that I’m from Connemara, and they’re getting an Irish word tattooed on them by someone who can speak Irish. It’s nice to be able to speak to people in Irish at work too, it relaxes them when they come in. I don’t look like a Connemara person at all and when I reply to them in Irish, they’re suddenly at ease.
Any common misconceptions around tattoos?
When I first started tattooing, my mom said to me ‘You’re walking into a den of vice and iniquity’. Most of our shop is vegan. We don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t do drugs. All we do is work. After a long day, you literally are zombified, because you’ve been focusing on something so intensely for so long. We’re not hard at partying at all. I think the misconceptions are slowly fading away. I’ve spent 30 to 40 hours on each of my arms, and I’m getting my back completely covered and redone in the summer; that’s going to be 60 hours, so you have to be really invested in the art to put yourself through all that pain.
“I didn’t go below my elbows until last year. I’ve kept everything hidden until I knew for certain I could live with being heavily tattooed.”
What is it like getting that first tattoo?
People have to be realistic with their expectations. We’re not going to put a rose on your hand or your throat if you’re not heavily tattooed; the job market will still judge you. You’ve got plenty of other space to fill. I didn’t go below my elbows until last year. I’ve kept everything hidden until I knew for certain I could live with being heavily tattooed. It does affect your everyday life – it’s sometimes positive, sometimes negative. It’s kind of in the middle for me at the minute. I don’t believe in people who are tattooed complaining about getting mistreated; you chose to have your tattoos, everybody knows the preconceptions. You have to earn your tattoos; it’s like a rite of passage – the more visible areas, you should work your way up to. I don’t use any numbing sprays either; you need to go through that pain. It challenges you, shows you the kind of person you are. It’s only made my life more positive though. There have been no downsides, because I won’t let there be any.
Can you tell us a bit about your own tattoos?
Most of my tattoos are based around the sea. I didn’t go out of my way to do that, it just kind of happened. There’s a heron and an eel, there’s poseidon, sharks, an octopus. I just like the imagery, and I’ve swam with these animals, so it just naturally came out. I wouldn’t change any tattoos I have – I just wish I’d had the balls to start sooner. I could never imagine waking up and not having tattoos and I could never imagine going back to having a normal job again. I put my time in.”
How would you describe Galway to someone who hasn’t been here before?
Galway is a very easy place to live; sometimes too easy. I think it’s good to push yourself in Galway. If you do have artistic tendencies, you have to go out there and use them – otherwise, you’ll just faff around the pubs for ten years. You can be really eccentric in Galway and no one will look at you twice. When I first started getting tattooed, if I walked around Connemara, I’d get those looks. In Galway, you could walk around on your hands and they wouldn’t care. And you know everyone. Everyone is a ‘Galway head’ if you’re involved in the arts scene. It’s a nice place to settle and a nice place to visit. I’d never move back to London; it’s too big and impersonal. I really like the small town feel of Galway.
When were you the happiest?
When I got offered my apprenticeship by Aengus Wall – that was a big thing for me. Aengus is one of the granddaddies of tattooing in Ireland – he’s been doing it for 27 years. Every apprentice he’s had has gone on to be a great tattooist. I did my apprenticeship in a year and a half and got thrown in at the deep end.
What do you feel is missing in Galway in terms of culture?
I think a lot of our culture is based around drinking. I do go out; I love the social aspect of it, but I don’t really drink that much. I think if the Galway social scene was more focused on daytime, or at least, not around the bar, that would be more enjoyable. If you bring people in at a younger age and get them to create, to get involved with other activities, they’re less inclined to go out and get drunk. I think it’s because I’ve worked in bars for so long and I’ve seen the worst side of it.
Can you describe Generation 20 in your circles?
My circle of friends are quite blunt and forward. With my group of lads, I think what’s good is that if there is any kind of alpha male behaviour, it’s quickly stopped. If any of my friends need to talk, we know we can talk to each other, so there’s no bottling things up. I meet my mates nearly every day or two, even if it’s for minutes, to make sure we’re all good. And if I know they’re holding back, I poke them until they tell me. I think having a dark sense of humour is important as well, being able to poke fun at anything, even yourself, is a good thing. It keeps you from being egotistical; ego kills talent. I had to tattoo that on pigskin for six months before I tattooed a human.
Is there a quote that represents you?
‘Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist’. Now that I am three years tattooing, I have my fundamentals down and I can start expressing my style through my tattoos. You get your framework down on the tattoo, so it’s a solid piece but then you can put your own personality stamp on it, which is important. If every tattoo was the same, it would be boring. As long as it’s done to a technical level that ensures it lasts, the rest of it should be self-expression.
Generation 20 is a photo and interview series focusing on the new wave of artists in Galway. With each interview and portrait, we aim to uncover their motivations, aspirations and frustrations. To get the full authentic picture and find their common link, bring them all together and into the light. How does their journey relate to Galway and where would they like to see it in 2020? We want to see the people in the budding stages of their expression, those that are quietly grafting and doing wonderful things.
Open, bold and colourful, this is #generation20.
Photos and interviews by Julia Monard.