On the Saturday just gone, one of Britain’s bestselling weekly gossip magazines Fabulous ran a feature on how women with extensive tattoos is becoming increasingly mainstream. You can see that for yourself in any part of the country, but for a major magazine to acknowledge the changing nature of popular aesthetics in such a personal way is quite surprising. Most Western cultural taboos are built on the behaviour of women and how much or how little liberty they may be allowed, and for the simple fact that lots of, and increasing amounts of,women are having larger and more elaborate tattoos to feature in a magazine specifically dedicated to beauty is a fantastically progressive act.
Fabulous‘s article features the opinions of two young women with very extensive tattoo work (with some rather pleasant pictures to prove it), and the article itself is written by a woman with eight tattoos (also with picture proof). The whole four pages are a declaration of love for their ink and how creative and comfortable with themselves getting tattoos has made them. They recount how both of their partners were attracted by their tattoos and how outwardly happy they were with their bodies, and that despite being persecuted at their workplaces for them they were still unafraid to express what their ink represents and that the tattoos are as much a part of their image and appearance as their hair or eyes.
Speaking as a tattoo-lover myself (eight, so far), this is exactly how I feel, and no doubt how everyone with a lot of tattoos and body art feels. They are images of the things that give meanings to our lives, whether cultural such as song lyrics or film pictures, or personal such as memorials to lost friends and family, and they are part of who we are as people. The women in Fabulous revealed all of their tattoos to be custom designs, and this in itself is part of the attraction because tattooing is not and can never be corporate – you won’t find Apple launching iTat stores or Nike creating Ink Sportswear. Tattoos are one of the very few creative acts you can do completely independently: poems can go unpublished, paintings unsold, music unbought, films unwatched, but tattoos are instant and permanent works of art that can be added to, erased, reconfigured and redrawn an infinite number of times (letting for adequate healing time of course). And, at the end of the day, they are works of art, no matter if they’re the most ornate portraits or the crudest of home-made efforts (although, of course, not all art can be appreciated positively….)
It’s interesting to note that British people are the most tattooed people in Europe. This is definitely a recent trend; don’t be fooled into thinking this is somehow connected to the woad of pre-Roman times. Go to anywhere where there’s people in these islands and you will see men and women, mostly younger people but more and more around middle age too, sporting several tattoos on clearly visible body parts, e.g. hands, neck, lower arms etc. Very frequently these are not the only tattoos they have, as they will gladly recount to you, with women mainly having ink around their abdomen, ribs and thighs and men with tats on their upper arms, chest and back. The bigger cities and towns give proof of the quality of their tattoo artists by colouring their clients with beautifully complex designs, while in the smaller, more remote places the quality dramatically dimishes, of both ink used and drawing ability. I personally have both types: a copy of the titles to Once Upon A Time In America on my left upper arm is shoddy, wonky and virtually unreadable, while a large stencil of Joan of Arc on my right lower arm is, I feel, a true work of art. Regardless of their quality, I still have a huge satisfaction with seeing my likes/dislikes, politics, favourite artists and everything else inside my head and heart represented for all to see via my body in a way that is deep and honest that the outward peacock feathers created by capitalism – clothes, hair, make up, cosmetic surgery etc – can never be.
The two other elements of tattoos – the pain and whether one should come to ‘regret them when you’re older’ – practically do not exist for lovers of body art, be it tattooing, piercings or any other kind of modification. The pain that comes with earning the art is more of a personal boast when explaining to inquirers. And do you really think someone with ear tunnels, twenty face piercings and two full sleeves cares about something as shallow and impersonal as ‘regret’? One of the girls in the Fabulous article points out that in old age one’s appearance is the least to worry about, particularly since British pensioners endure one of the lowest qualities of life in the developed world. Admittedly, it will be odd seeing 90-year-old women shuffling along with stretched ears and ‘Shhh….’ on the insides of their fingers, but nevertheless these are reminders of what kind of life you’ve led, giving your older years food for thought and analysis as to why you did the things you did and whether your older self is the realisation of your idealistic younger age. I’d certainly be mortified to look at my body art in forty year’s time and think that between now and then I’d done nothing special or memorable, that my life had ended up being just more fodder for the mill.
To be progressive is to build on and develop further constructive ideas, not to puncture long periods of wallowing in boredom with dire and futile attempts to enjoy oneself. Think of those middle-aged people who waste their money on expensive material items, envious of young people for being creative and active when they were neither at that age, nor now. Tattoos are just one way a person can feel good about the skin they live in: not necessarily pleased that they possess that particular body with its weird shapes, strange biological kinks and uncooperative nature, but at least happy that they are confident to use their body as a mode of expression and a real reflection of the person behind the flesh. Instead of destroying the body, the only one you’ll ever have, use it to your own advantage. Be proud that you exist, and paint this precious canvas you walk around in to add some colour to this direly drab world. Oh yeah, and, if it helps, tattoos are damn sexy.