Tattoos are a fashion. Whilst I’m sure many may feel personally insulted by that statement, it would take a blind man not to see that it is true. But allow me to qualify that statement. The act of tattooing itself is nothing new, and as Ötzi recently proved, is probably an older custom than we once assumed. People have been doing it for millennia, and will continue to do so into the future, but there will always be a significant social layer to its existence. The social dimension of tattoos is an important factor in their prevalence and popularity, as a result they become a part of what we can call ‘fashion’. Which is no bad thing—social customs, styles, modes of intercourse, even our language evolves—and the rise of tattoos to their level of prominence today is merely a reflection of a society in natural motion. There may be clashes between old and young generations, between those who dominate society and those who will inherit it, over the acceptability of tattoos, but every generation must go through that process, and in turn the wheel may eventually turn full circle. Tattoos today can make employment in certain instances more difficult, for example, and can bring condescension from that generation which associates inking with particular classes or groups (e.g. the stereotypical trio of bikers, convicts and sailors). But in time those particular stereotypes will fade, those social values will die out, and today’s crop of fashionable, tattoo-sporting youngsters will inherit their place and complain about the next generation’s taste in bad music and disgraceful fashions.
So what exactly do I dislike in this state of affairs?
Unlike most of the changes that undergo society, tattoos represent something that is essentially permanent and irrefutable. Whilst hairstyles and clothing fashions can be changed and forgotten, tattoos are for the vast majority of people permanent adornments that will be just as visible in a few decades as the day they were made. As society shifts, we move with it, altering the way we dress, the way we speak and interact, and even the way we shape and manage our bodies, but those inklings will remain as testament to the styles of yesteryear. Well, so what? Some things don’t change, why should we regret our past? Quite true, and all power to people who enjoy their body art and are proud of it. But for the rest of us on our journey to the grave, tattoos can and do become the embodiment of regret, a manifestation of our former selves that no longer exists. Countless times I’ve heard people remark that they would never get the name of a loved one tattooed on their bodies, the reason of course being that they realise the greater fidelity of a little ink under the skin than our feelings, and the people in our lives. Which quite belies the fact that our feelings are just as likely to change about a swirly pattern or a favoured quote as the love of our lives.
Very few of us are so singular in purpose that we can lead our lives without change. Although we might fear it, change is a natural part of us, and most of us alter the way we look and the way we live as we tread the stepping stones across life’s babbling brook. Tattoos, however, are not so easily washed off in the splashing waters of life, and can be a life-changing pivot in the future, should they not fit in with the people or the lives we choose to lead.
Tattooing is in many instances an example of conformity. As social animals we conform to the pressures around us, whether they stem from our families, our friends or society in general, and tattoos are no different. It only takes a walk down the street on a hot summer’s day to see that. Of course tattoos are limited in how and where they can be manifested, and people are inspired to get them for all kinds of reasons and purposes, but looking at the vast majority of body art on display it’s very clear to see the limits of that inspiration. I often hear how a tattoo is a ‘self-design’ or has a very personal meaning. Yet the person telling me this invariably could not fill a matchbox with artistic skills, and the tattoo itself looks like so many other ‘self-designed’ pieces that actually came off the wall or were created by merging two other designs together. In other cases, the body art fits into one of several other catch-all categories, such as a little butterfly or a flower, a cross or a pretty star, a word written in a language the person can’t speak, or a name in a script they can’t read. And some people even seem to be going about ticking off each cliché as they add it to their collection.
It is terrible easy to ignore the social pressures upon us that shape and mould our lives, and believe that what we are doing is for our own private, personal reasons. Tattooing is no different from any other avenue of life in this regard, and it is easy to see conformity in people, when you’re told that the swirly pattern on someone’s leg that looks exactly like four other swirly patterns you’ve seen that day on various other body parts around town, was personally designed and has a deep, personal significance.
Perhaps it is unfair to criticise tattoos on the basis of badly implemented ones, but given the prevalence of mistakes in tattoo art, I stand by this heading. Having a tattoo that is, shall we say, less than perfect, is almost a category all of its own in terms of the most common forms of body art. Whilst it’s only to be expected that an uneditable piece of work will contain minor blemishes, it is far from surprising to find a tattoo that is altogether wrong at heart. Whether that is a result of a change in circumstances, or miscommunication between artist and client, this most commonly afflicts those stereotypical written tattoos. Poor translations and bad calligraphy can lead to people being inked with inverted letters, incorrect words or ungrammatical statements, and indeed can occasionally lose all meaning whatsoever. And even tattoo fans as big as David Beckham are not completely immune to making such stereotypical mistakes. Yet other forms of tattoo can be just as liable to mistake, and their permanence leaves many of them plenty of opportunity to evolve from their position as a once cherished act of rebellion or devotion, to a sad reminder of times rather forgotten.
One thing that particular ires me about many people with tattoos is their attitude to those of us who don’t appreciate them. If they wish to adorn or besmirch their bodies, that is up to them and all power to them, but that they then try to take a higher tone over people who find them detestable is unreasonable. “You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover,” I’ve often been told by people who feel I’m being overly judgemental about their body art. Why are you doodling on it then? Because we’re not machines, we’re complex biological beings that react on a whole host of stimuli. Whether you like it or not, we do judge one another on the basis of something as ethereal as appearance, we always have and probably always will, and only a real casuist would argue that people who get tattoos are never motivated by this fact. The drive to look more individual, more rebellious, more attractive or simply fashionable plays a large part in many people’s decision to get inked, and there should be no surprise that people don’t always interpret things the same way.
Of course this isn’t the only example of hypocrisy when it comes to tattoos. The ubiquitous ‘self-design’ represents another aspect of tattooing that often manifests itself in a form of self-delusion, along with the example of the tattoo which has deep personal meaning, and yet sits on one of those many parts of the body that aren’t visible to the owner without the help of a mirror or some serious anatomical reconfiguration! It’s often said that we don’t realise how much we care for something until it’s gone—yet with a ‘personal’ tattoo in a place that can’t be seen, I often find it hard to imagine that its sudden disappearance would cause any reaction, except from those privileged ones who are allowed to see it.
Eye of the beholder
My most cogent reason for disliking tattoos, however, is simply that I find them unsightly. Much as many people adorn their bodies with ink to appear more attractive, so I consider the opposite to be true. Certainly, there are some pieces of body art in the world that might make me think twice, some that provoke a thought or turn my eye, but then the same is true of virtually every medium. But these are to the majority of tattoos, what a Constable is to wallpaper. And that to my mind is the most important reason I can have for detesting what others find so wonderful. I hate the fact that they are so casually adorned, that people choose to get them for reasons of social integration, and yet defend their decision with flimsy arguments about ‘deep personal meaning’ and ‘self-expression’, I cannot understand why so many choose to go the same route of having a stereotypical emblem dawdled on their anatomy, or have words written in languages they don’t understand emblazened on their bodies. I hate their permanence, and the lack of respect that many have for that permanence (or the cost and pain of undoing such an action), and I hate the blame placed on me for disliking others’ tattoos. But above all, I hate tattoos because I find them just plain ugly!