Joker Tattoo Studio

Tattooing made easy, by Belfast tattooist Joe Mullan

‘I wanted people to be comfortable coming in here,’ Joe Mullan explains, sitting back on the sofa in his new Joker Tattoo Studios on Adelaide Street in Belfast. ‘Not like some shops, where even I feel uncomfortable going in.’

Mullan is a soft-spoken man, today wearing a fedora and with a black triangle around one eye. It’s face paint, not tattoo ink. Mullan is getting ready for the launch of the shop in question.

Joker Tattoo Studios is tucked in around the corner from The Limelight and is Mullan's second in Northern Ireland. This new establishment would be easy to miss. ‘I’m getting the signing sorted still,’ Mullan says.

He’s succeeded in making it a welcoming place. It’s well-lit, with white walls and a curtain to give the tatted some privacy as they get inked. Not scary at all.

Of course, Mullan has some experience of being on the other side of the tattooing divide (to tatt, or not to tatt?). He started his career as an artist. It was only when his tattoo artist friends started asking him to design tattoos for them that he got interested in the process.

‘They showed me the basics of tattooing and I went on from there,’ he says. ‘You have to be shown the basics. Hygiene and that sort of thing is really important.’

Unlike some tattoo artists Mullan doesn’t use any flash designs – the pre-designed tattoos that can be picked from a book. Instead, he draws all his own tattoos from fresh.

‘I like to create an individual piece for each person,’ he says. ‘They give me as much information as possible on what they want and I’ll draw it up for them. If they’re happy, we tattoo it on them.’

Later that night he tattoos an Alice in Wonderland backpiece live on stage, colouring inside the black lines he already etched on the customer's skin. It’s only an hour long session, so the piece isn’t finished on the night. Colour takes longer than black ink or grey scale – the needle has to be cleaned and changed for each colour.

‘The Geiger', a full back illustration of Geiger, the Swiss surreallist's work, is soft grey, looking eerily unskinlike. ‘It took me 33 hours, but some back pieces can go up to 90 hours depending on the detail and colour. It’s a long process.’

So if backpieces take the most time to tattoo, what is the oddest? ‘What would you call odd?’ Mullan asks with a grin. ‘If you’ve got it, I’ve tattooed it.’

There are some tattoos that he doesn’t recommend for ink-virgins though. ‘I wouldn’t tattoo someone’s hands or face unless they were already heavily tattooed with real, obvious tattoos,’ he says, suddenly serious. ‘No tattoo artist in the world would tattoo someone’s hands or face the first time.’

Facial tattoos are something that Mullan wouldn’t do at all, in fact. He says that’s a no-go area, a totally different ballgame. The closest he has come is tattooing a man’s head. ‘I tattooed dragons on the sides of his head. It didn’t really make a difference to him as a person since his tattoos were already very visible.’

Back home after 22 years living abroad, Mullan is still amazed by the changes in the city he left. ‘It’s a totally different city, it’s fantastic now,’ he says. ‘I’m so pleased because I always loved Belfast and it was always that side of it that was a sadness. Now it’s gone and it’s beautiful here. I love it. There are so many talented, creative people in Belfast.’

Talented, creative people who want a Joker tattoo. Mullan already has a shop in Ballycastle but, he explains, so many people from Belfast wanted him to ink them that it made sense to open another shop here.

So far, business has been good. 'Since we opened it's been pretty full-on,' Mullan grins. 'It's been crazy. I'm pretty pleased.'

Joker Tattoo's new shop is at 91 Adelaide Street, Belfast. Call 07803 628 967 to make an appointment. To see more of Joker's art go to Check Out My Ink.

Tammy Moore