Sunday, 25 July 2010

On Tattoos

Aren't tattoos horrible?

I know what you're going to say: it's just my personal opinion, which is no better or worse than anyone else's. Moreover, you may add, since most adults now seem to have them, I am outvoted. Who am I to talk?

Balls. Away with you! No - stay awhile ...

I'm not just talking about those tattoos that come to look more and more like a nasty attack of varicose veins as people get older and fatter. The new filigree style has made them a thing of the past, although God knows what people will look like in a decade or so's time. Cobwebbed, I suspect.

And I admit that some of these newer tattoos are nice designs. (But so what? French gothic cathedrals are even nicer but I wouldn't have a scaled down model of one implanted on my head, even though do suffer from low self esteem. Likewise, as a passionate follower of Charlton Athletic Football Club - until I die, by the way, so this is not up for debate - I don't need to incorporate a representation of the fact because I know it already and if I want you to know - and if I think you will be interested, which is quite another matter - then I'll tell you. At length.)

No, my real objection - or rather an objection that I believe is not merely a matter of personal taste, but one that I would invite others to share because it has a wider significance - has to do with what tattoos may be taken by their hosts to mean, what I think they may be trying to say through them and - since so many people now wear them - what this may say about all of us and how we tend to go about things.

Only a little while back, tattoos were seen as permanent. Firstly, you couldn’t get rid of them without a painful, expensive and sometimes botched or at least unsightly operation. Secondly they were evidence of some idea of permanence: I love my Mum; Derek 4 Julie; Charlton Athletic Till I Die. To that extent there was a certain nobility about them. They were worn as external evidence of an unchanging internal commitment.

What's changed is that they have become just another short-term designer thing – like hair styles, street argot, dangerous dogs and loving human relationships.

What interests me - and what I'd like your views on - is that the concepts around permanence and representation of internal commitments, values or beliefs still hang in there, but they are different. The difference is that we are increasingly changing our commitments, values and beliefs at a whim (and, being fashion, we follow and do not lead, even if we like to think we lead). We too easily confuse our personal and often infantile inner needs with deeper meaning. In this sense, we children of the market are just that: isolated, scared children. Yet if you were to put to someone that their ‘personal’ statement was not actually a revelation of who they really are but evidence of their inner confusion and a cry for more permanent and - dare one even say it these days - shared meaning, you’d probably end up in hospital.

Which reminds me of an anecdote about Margaret Thatcher when she was prime minister. She was visiting an old people's home and walked up to a lady slumped in an armchair. "Do you know who I am?" she said in a loud voice. "No," came the reply. "But ask Matron: she'll tell you."

Must dash: here comes Matron now.


  1. I, too, am appalled by the tattoo trend. Why? Because if I live long enough--and let's be realistic, I won't, but there is still always _something_ to fear, and in my case it's long life--I'm going to live to see all the young people around me--and, I'm sorry, the girls in particular--grow old too, and saggy, and . . . oh, dear heaven, I cannot even finish . . . .

  2. do I take it that we do not consider a tattoo an art form? I do not consider myself a woman in need of a tattoo but am interested in the art they can generate, if we move away from the i love wayne statement on ones body.

  3. Welcome Emma!
    If anything, the Old School "I love Wayne" is at the more respectable end of this cul-de-sac of shame, even if it does keep its sofa in the front garden. It expressed - and was physically, because you couldn't get the damned thing off - a representation both of commitment to Wayne and a wish for that commitment to be permanent, since you clearly didn't anticipate that future partners would have to read it when they made love to you. As for being an art form, you've been reading your Professor John Carey, haven't you! Like I said, I’m sure some are very skilful and well-designed; also some cultures have a long tradition of tattoos which may have certain symbolic and other meanings within those cultures (about which I haven't a clue, incidentally). I'm more interested in what tattoos say right here and now, or are meant to say, and what subtexts there may be. And the subtexts I'm picking up worry me.